The USWNT vs. U.S. Soccer: An Equal Pay Timeline

A settlement announced on Tuesday abruptly ended a six-year legal fight between dozens of members of the United States women’s national team and U.S. Soccer, an often bitter and contentious dispute that had placed some of the world’s most popular and high-profile athletes at the forefront of the fight for equal pay for women.

What was the fight about? That was complicated from the start. A simple slogan — equal pay — faded into shades of gray upon deeper review of different contracts, different schedules and different values placed on women’s soccer by the sport’s global leadership and its U.S. federation.

The timeline of the fight, which started with a wage discrimination complaint filed by five top players in March 2016, is much more easily explained. That single filing set off years of twists and turns, court arguments and public statements, hard feelings, hard-won victories and at least one humbling defeat for the athletes.

Here’s a review of how we got from the initial complaint to this settlement, told through reporting by The New York Times.

The equal pay fight began with five star players and a claim of wage discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, one of the players who signed the complaint. Solo said the men’s players “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

Solo was joined in the complaint by the co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe. As The Times noted that day:

In their complaint, the five players cited recent U.S. Soccer financial reports as proof that they have become the federation’s main economic engine even as, they said, they often earned only half as much — or less — than their male counterparts.

At the same time, the players said, they exceeded revenue projections by as much as $16 million in 2015, when their World Cup triumph set television viewership records and a nine-game victory tour in packed stadiums produced record gate receipts and attendance figures.

Wounded by the accusation they were treating the women’s players unfairly, U.S. Soccer — which had for years been a global leader in advancing women’s soccer — pushed back forcefully by citing figures that it said showed the men’s national team produced revenue and attendance about double that of the women’s team, and television ratings that were “a multiple” of what the women attracted. The federation accused the players and their lawyers of cherry-picking figures from an extraordinarily successful year for the women — they had won the World Cup in 2015 — and a U.S. Soccer spokesman called their math “inaccurate, misleading or both.”

Offended by the suggestion that their games, and their successes, were worth less to the federation than those of the men’s team, the women and their teammates dug in for a fight.

Few knew then how long it would last.

Within a year, the players had taken control of their collective fate, firing their union chief and reorganizing their players’ association in ways that gave them a more active role in the issues affecting them.

“It was always the plan,” Sauerbrunn, the team captain, said at the time, “to have a players’ association that listens to all the voices of its members and then can take that, and elevate that, and try to make that a reality.”

Receiving a high-speed education in topics like labor law and public relations, the players voted one another onto negotiating teams and subcommittees and — between camps and full-time jobs as professional athletes — threw themselves into the task of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.

Uniting disparate teammates through text messages, overnight emails and anonymous player surveys, they determined priorities for a new contract and then made their cases personally in negotiating sessions with the federation and its lawyers.

Within a few months, they had a deal.

The agreement includes a sizable increase in base pay for the players — more than 30 percent, initially — and improved match bonuses that could double some of their incomes, to $200,000 to $300,000 in any given year, and even more in a year that includes a World Cup or Olympic campaign.

The agreement largely sidestepped the broader equal pay fight that the women had made the cornerstone of their cause. The players were able to not only take pride in gains on salaries and bonuses, but also in having won control over some licensing and marketing rights that the union saw as an opening to test the team’s value on the open market.

Labor peace did little to move the sides closer to an equal pay agreement, so in March 2019 the players withdrew their E.E.O.C. complaint and significantly raised the stakes by suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination.

In their filing and a statement released by the team, the 28 players described “institutionalized gender discrimination” that they say has existed for years.

The discrimination, the athletes said, affects not only their paychecks but also where they play and how often, how they train, the medical treatment and coaching they receive, and even how they travel to matches.

The suit brought the fight to a new forum but also presented new hurdles. The players now not only had to prove that their team and the men’s national team did the same work, they also had to overcome questions about the differences in their pay structures and their negotiated collective bargaining agreements. And the C.B.A. they fought so hard to win suddenly left them without one bit of leverage: The players were forbidden by its terms to strike at least until it expired at the end of 2021.

In the summer of 2019, a fight that had played out in public statements, social media hashtags and white T-shirts for more than three years moved to its biggest stage to date: the Women’s World Cup in France.

By then, the U.S. national team’s stars were fighting not only their federation and others opposed to their equal pay claims, but also a sitting U.S. president, critics of their victory margins and those who didn’t appreciate their goal celebrations. When it lifted the trophy, though, all the team had was friends.

The chant was faint at first, bubbling up from the northern stands inside the Stade de Lyon. Gradually it grew louder. Soon it was deafening.

“Equal pay!” it went, over and over, until thousands were joining in, filling the stadium with noise. “Equal pay! Equal pay!”

A few days later, fans repeated the chant as the U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro feted the team after its victory parade in New York.

Among the voluminous filings before the women’s case was heard in federal court last year were two notable ones seeking to end it outright.

In separate requests for summary judgment — the process in which each side claims its case is so strong that the judge should rule in its favor — U.S. Soccer and the players showed just how far apart the players and the federation remained not only in what they considered a fair outcome, but also in their basic concepts of what constituted equal pay, despite years of litigation, depositions and public relations campaigns.

U.S. Soccer asked for a simple declaration that the players’ claims were without merit; simultaneously, the players finally put a price tag on what they considered a fair outcome:

The federation sought to avoid a looming gender discrimination trial by asking the judge to dismiss the players’ claim. The women’s players also asked for a pretrial decision, but on far different terms: They are seeking almost $67 million — and potentially millions more — in back pay and damages.

While Rapinoe had offered an olive branch at the victory parade, hinting at the idea of a settlement on points on which the two sides agreed, that hope was gone months later.

The spark was a court filing in which U.S. Soccer, through its lawyers, argued that “indisputable science” proved that the players on its World Cup-winning women’s national team were inferior to men.

Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

“I know that we’re in a contentious fight,” Rapinoe said, “but that crossed a line completely.”

U.S. Soccer fired its lawyers, but the damage was done. After unsuccessfully trying to manage the fallout, Cordeiro resigned. Talks of a settlement that might have headed off the march to federal court fell apart.

The ruling in the lawsuit, when it came, was devastating for the players. The judge, R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, granted the federation’s motion for summary judgment. But he went further: He declared that the women’s core argument — that they had been paid less than players on the men’s national team — was factually wrong.

In his ruling, the judge dismissed the players’ arguments that they were systematically underpaid by U.S. Soccer in comparison with the men’s national team. In fact, Klausner wrote, U.S. Soccer had substantiated its argument that the women’s team had actually earned more “on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis” than the men’s team during the years at issue in the lawsuit.

The brutal irony, of course, was that in going to court against U.S. Soccer while they were at the peak of their powers, the women’s team had also picked the absolute worst time to line up a few years of their salaries against a few years of the men’s pay.

Since February 2015, the agreed-upon start of the class-action period in the case, the women’s team had won two World Cup titles (and millions in bonus payments for those triumphs) and other major salary gains by negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. During the same period, the men’s team had plumbed new lows, with its failures serving to cripple the women’s case.

By failing to qualify for the only men’s World Cup played during the class window, the men became ineligible for millions of dollars in performance bonuses of their own. Those payments would have swelled their paydays from U.S. Soccer far beyond what the women could ever have earned.

It was, a day later, hard to overstate the weight of the court decision. Judge Klausner had not only ruled against the players’ arguments; in effect, he had said they could never win. Yet even though U.S. Soccer’s victory in court was complete, and the players immediately announced their intention to appeal, the federation signaled just as quickly that it was still happy to discuss a way out.

“We look forward to working with the women’s national team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game both here at home and around the world,” it said in the briefest of statements after the ruling.

Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The federation’s words seemed carefully chosen. The seemingly endless battles with its most popular players have unquestionably damaged — and continue to damage — U.S. Soccer’s reputation. The dispute has even brought it into conflict with its own sponsors.

But much has changed since the equal pay war began: U.S. Soccer has a new president, the former women’s player Cindy Cone, and a new chief executive, and neither of them could reasonably be tied to past missteps and injustices.

For them, and for U.S. Soccer, rebuilding a functional relationship with the women’s team — the federation’s most valuable asset and a critical moneymaker in troubled economic times — should be a top priority. If that means eating some crow and cutting a check to signal an eagerness to move forward, it might even work.

In November of last year, U.S. Soccer and the players reached an agreement that resolved claims about unequal working conditions. The deal, a rare moment of détente in the yearslong fight, formalized an effort the federation had already begun to remove differences in areas like staffing, travel, hotel accommodations and venue choices related to men’s and women’s national team matches. But it was a necessary step for the players before they could appeal their larger defeat in federal court.

For the players and their lawyers, the agreement brings opportunity: In settling their issues related to working conditions, the women’s stars cleared the way to appealing a judge’s decision in May that had rejected most of their equal pay claims. For the federation, removing one of the last unresolved items in the team’s wage-discrimination lawsuit allowed its new leadership team to rid itself of one more point of contention in a dispute they would prefer to see end, and to signal that U.S. Soccer is open to more accommodations.

U.S. Soccer’s president, Cindy Parlow Cone, hailed the agreement, saying it signaled the federation’s efforts “to find a new way forward” with the women’s team and, hopefully, a way out of the rest of the litigation.

“This settlement is good news for everyone,” Cone said, “and I believe will serve as a springboard for continued progress.”

Tuesday’s settlement between the women’s players and U.S. Soccer includes $24 million in compensation for the athletes — largely back pay for dozens of players who were included once the plaintiffs were granted class-action status, and several million dollars in seed money for a fund that will be available to players for post-career plans and initiatives to grow the women’s game.

It also includes a pledge from U.S. Soccer to equalize pay, appearance fees and match bonuses for the women’s and men’s national teams for all games, including the World Cup, in the teams’ next collective bargaining agreements.

That last bit is the stage for the next fight: Both the men’s and women’s teams are playing under expired — and separate — agreements. Negotiations on new ones are ongoing. It’s not clear when a deal will be struck.






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