The Genius (and Limitations) of the USWNT’s Equal-Pay Lawsuit

Written By Charles Boehm on March 15, 2019 - Last Updated on March 30, 2019

The US Soccer Federation (USSF) has been riding a roller coaster of agony and euphoria for several years running, from the stunning failure of the men’s national team to qualify for last year’s World Cup and the contentious presidential election that followed to the joy of the 2015 Women’s World Cup triumph and the awarding of 2026 men’s World Cup hosting rights.

The latest episode of soap-opera drama opened with a flourish one week ago Friday – International Women’s Day – as past and present members of USWNT filed a class-action lawsuit alleging “institutionalized gender discrimination” by the USSF.

USWNT just one of many complaints…

It’s a World Cup year for the USWNT. So in echoes of their 2015 adventures, the defending world champions are ramping up their final countdown to France ’19 with action not only on the field, but also on the docket and in the court of public opinion.

The latest in a string of contentious legal cases facing USSF, it joins complaints by the North American Soccer League, the US Soccer Foundation and Hope Solo, whose individual – and very similar to the USWNT’s – gender-equity case rumbles on and has already intertwined with the new one filed by her former teammates.

Like those, this is a complex topic, and defies easy conclusions once you plunge into it. For those in need of deeper context, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Soccer, as well as this unique perspective from High Press Soccer, have posted informative pieces on the details and legal intricacies of the players’ litigation.

In a detailed, expansive argument running a shade under 25 pages in length, the legal counsel – which includes high-powered celebrity sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler – for a group led by stars Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn laid out what they contend is a deep pattern of inequality and mistreatment compared to their male counterparts.

Will they be successful? There’s a lot going on here, much more than can be squeezed into one article. But here are a few factors to consider, some of them easily overlooked in all the sound and fury swirling around this topic.

*Chickens coming home to roost

The players are taking the next formal legal step in a process that began three years ago when they  filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that finally gave them clearance to file suit last month. That’s only part of the reason for the timing of Friday’s filing, which seems to have caught the federation by surprise.

The players and fed agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement two years ago that runs through 2021 and explicitly addresses some of the complaints in the new lawsuit. But the USWNT are about to step into the national and global spotlight thanks to their World Cup quest, providing them with a bully pulpit that’s only been amplified by the #MeToo movement and a wider societal shift on matters of equity and justice in the four years since they charmed the country on their title run. Not only that, it’s a fine time to paint the federation as the bad guys, given their recent string of slip-ups and setbacks.

That, combined with another savvy public-relations rollout by the players, has put the early wind at their backs. The USWNTers lined up a fairly massive wave of press coverage in the wake of their filing, making the morning talk-show rounds to state their case to largely sympathetic journalists and pundits in front of millions of viewers.

All that positive press is probably likely to continue all year, even if the team falls short of their goal of defending their world title. And with so many others nurturing beefs with the fed lately, there’s a distinct sense of karma biting back:

*The past is never dead

For their part, US Soccer and its leaders are laying low for now, keenly aware that the optics and zeitgeist are not in their favor. Their response will likely come in the courts, where it will take months, probably years, for this case to wind its way to resolution. The fed has navigated through these scenarios before.

There’s a deep, colorful backstory here. Multiple generations of USWNT players have clashed with USSF over the years, often frustrated by what they’ve perceived as double standards, paternalism and institutional sexism – not just at home but all the way up to the FIFA’s highest levels.

That’s at times led to awkward relations with the USMNT, which has a separate union and CBA of its own (in other countries, like Norway, who in 2017 instituted a landmark deal to pay their men’s and women’s national teamers exactly the same, the WNTs and MNTs are often represented by the same union).

On Friday, though, the men’s players union released a statement in support of the lawsuit, stating that “an equal division of revenue attributable to the MNT and WNT programs is our primary pursuit as we engage with the US Soccer Federation in collective bargaining” this year.

So what would that actually look like in practice? It’s tortuously difficult to tell, given that the path to a system based on “an equal division of attributable revenue” is fairly unprecedented and winds through the arduous give-and-take of two separate collective-bargaining processes.

*The dangers of complexity

As is common in the early stages, this lawsuit contains a laundry list of complaints and allegations, and not all of them will stand up as well in court as they do in the headlines and social-media posts.

While the general concept of equal pay for all is an easy one to rally support for, the differences between the MNT and WNT’s contract situations are big enough that even the players themselves have conceded that they are seeking “equitable” and not necessarily “equal” conditions as the men.

As Sauerbrunn told SI:

“We’re trying to figure out where women’s soccer is going, so we may not have the same exact structure as the men…So equal isn’t the right word. It would be equitable, because we are asking for a different structure.”

The core of the USWNT roster are full-time federation employees, a rare arrangement in world soccer, where players tend to work for club teams and are more like contractors when called up to their national team, as is the case with the USMNT. US Soccer makes this investment in the women’s team in order to provide them with stability in a wider environment marked by chronically low club wages and two failed US professional leagues this century.

When male players don’t get called up to the national team, they don’t get paid by their federation. But the USWNT enjoy guaranteed contracts (renewed on an annual basis) that include benefits like maternity leave, childcare on road trips and a guaranteed minimum number of matches per year – and that last bit is important, as each match and training camp is a chance to earn per-game and performance-related bonus pay.

The current CBA, signed in 2017, has arguably addressed some of the worst injustices plaguing the WNT, including inequities in bonus pay, travel arrangements and matches on artificial turf. Of 34 home matches since the start of 2017, only three have been played on turf, one of which was a record crowd in the burgeoning soccer hotbed of Cincinnati. Another example: Though the lawsuit uses older date ranges that strengthen their case, over the past year or so the women have flown on more charter flights than the men.

From the USSF point of view, that’s a highly progressive setup in the chauvinistic environment of world soccer, where most women’s national teams are chronically overlooked and underfunded. FIFA, not US Soccer, sets budgets and payouts that are much smaller for Women’s World Cups than their men’s equivalents, setting the tone for a global patriarchy that forces female players in other countries to struggle just to compete, much less carve out sustainable and lucrative careers.

From the players’ perspective, the fed has made some movement towards true equity between the genders, but remains well short of what’s needed. The big question is how they prove that in court. This World Cup year provides them with a platform to make their case, but that’s only the first step.

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Charles Boehm

Charles Boehm is a freelance writer/editor based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared on High Press Soccer, MLSsoccer.com, USSoccerPlayers.com, ProSoccerUSA.com, FourFourTwo, SoccerWire.com and other outlets.

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