For six years, members of the World Cup-winning United States women’s soccer team and their bosses fought over the fair treatment of female players. They argued over whether they deserved the same charter flights as their male counterparts and over the definition of what constituted equal pay.
But the long fight that pitted key members of the women’s team against their bosses at US Soccer ended on Tuesday as abruptly as it began, with a settlement that included a multimillion-dollar payout to the players. and a promise from their federation to equalise. compensation between the men’s and women’s national teams.
Under the terms of the agreement, the women – a group of several dozen current and former players that includes some of the most popular and decorated athletes in the world – will split $24 million in payments from US Soccer. The bulk of that figure is made up of back pay, a tacit admission that pay for the men’s and women’s teams had been unequal for years.
Perhaps most notable is US Soccer’s commitment to equalize salaries between the men’s and women’s national teams in all competitions, including the World Cup, in upcoming team collective agreements. This gap was once seen as an impassable chasm preventing any sort of equal pay settlement. If shut down by the federation in negotiations with both teams, the change could funnel millions of dollars into a new generation of women’s national team players.
“It was not an easy process to get here,” US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said in a phone interview. “The most important thing here is that we move forward, and we move forward together.”
The players’ long battle with US Soccer, which is not only their employer but also the sport’s national governing body, has propelled them to the forefront of a broader fight for equality in women’s sport. and garnered support from other athletes, celebrities, politicians and presidential candidates. In recent years, players, teams and even athletes from other sports – Olympic ice hockey gold medalists, Canadian football professionals and WNBA players – have reached out to football players for help. Americans and their union as they sought better pay and working conditions.
Many of these players and teams have scored significant wins – Norway, Australia and the Netherlands are among the countries whose football associations have pledged to close the gender pay gap – even as the case of American players dragged on.
“I think it was hugely motivating to see organizations and employers admitting their wrongdoings, and us forcing their hand to do it right,” said striker and former Women’s National Team co-captain Alex Morgan. . “The domino effect that we helped start – I think we’re really proud of that.”
For US Soccer, the settlement is a costly end to a dispute that had tarnished its reputation, damaged its ties with sponsors and soured its relationship with some of its most popular stars, including Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, who took his retirement last year. US Soccer had no obligation to settle with the women’s team; a federal judge in 2020 had dismissed the players’ equal pay arguments, stripping them of almost all their legal leverage, and the players’ appeal was not certain to succeed.
Yet for this reason, the settlement represents an unexpected victory for the players: nearly two years after losing in court, they were able to obtain not only an eight-figure settlement, but also a commitment from the federation to enact the reforms. same as the judge had rejected.
“What we planned to do,” Morgan said in a phone interview, “was to have an acknowledgment of discrimination from US Soccer, and we received it through back pay. in the regulations. We have strived for fair and equal treatment in terms of working conditions, and we have obtained it through the regulations on working conditions. And we have decided to have equal pay for us and the men’s team through US Soccer, and we did it.
Once finalized, the settlement will resolve all remaining claims in the gender discrimination lawsuit the players filed in 2019. But it comes with one crucial condition: It depends on the ratification of a new contract between US Soccer and the players’ union for women’s football. team. And this process could take weeks or even months.
The men’s and women’s teams have already held joint negotiation sessions with US Soccer, but for the deal to work – the federation is seeking a single collective bargaining agreement covering both teams – the male players will have to agree to share or give up million. dollars in potential World Cup payouts from FIFA, world football’s governing body. These payments, set by FIFA and exponentially larger for the men’s World Cup than for the corresponding women’s tournament, are at the heart of equal pay.
Cone, a former member of the women’s team, said in September that the federation would not sign new collective agreements with either team that did not match the World Cup prizes, a position which she and the federation cemented in Tuesday’s agreement. The men’s union, whose lawyers attended some of the women’s bargaining sessions, made no public statement on Tuesday.
Women’s Team Players’ Association congratulated its members and their lawyers “on their historic success in overcoming decades of discrimination perpetuated by the United States Soccer Federation”, but made it clear that she plans to keep US Soccer – and by extension the men’s team – the old fashioned way. public promises to support equal pay.
“Moving forward and linking this settlement to the ABC is important for both groups,” Cone said. “Because we all believe in equal pay, and the only way to achieve that – until FIFA equalizes the World Cup prize money – is for the men’s team, the women’s team and US Soccer come together and come to an agreement to equalize it ourselves.”
The fight for equal pay began nearly six years ago, when five star players filed a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing American football of pay discrimination. The players – Morgan, Rapinoe, Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo – said they were shortchanged on bonuses, appearance fees and even meal money while in training camps, and claimed they earned as little as 40% of what players on the men’s national team were paid.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Solo said, although US Soccer immediately disputed them. Male players, Solo said, “get paid more to show up than we get paid to win major championships.”
Timeline: United States Women’s National Soccer Team and Equal Pay
Almost immediately, football fans took sides in the fight, dividing American football. The federation briefly argued that the men made more money and got higher ratings, and therefore deserved higher pay, but quickly abandoned the position amid public backlash, the fury of players and a deeper reading of the Equal Pay Act. The women leveraged their popularity and social media followings to beat the federation in the court of public opinion.
Depositions as the case progressed produced uncomfortable exchanges that the PR-savvy actors weaponized. slogans they sold on T-shirts.
In April 2020, Women’s Sex Discrimination Trial Judge R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California appeared to resolve the case in one devastating decision. Rejecting the argument that they were systematically underpaid, Klausner ruled that US Soccer backed up its claim that the women’s team had in fact earned more “on a cumulative and average per game basis” than the men’s team at the time. during the years covered by the lawsuit. .
The players vowed to appeal their loss, but all seemed lost. An agreement on working conditions in December signaled that a compromise was still possible and paved the way for the players’ call to move forward. But behind the scenes, the parties were already moving toward a settlement.
With Cone working with leaders of the women’s team like Sauerbrunn, the captain and the president of the players’ association – “We had a lot of really constructive conversations,” said Cone – the leaders of the federation and the players have reached an agreement that everyone could support.
In television appearances and interviews and a joint conference call with reporters on Tuesday evening, the parties hailed it as a “monumental victory” and a “huge step forward”.
But not all the players were there to celebrate, however. World Cup veteran Crystal Dunn, vice president of the players’ association, must have hesitated; a negotiation session on the new collective agreement was scheduled at the same time as the conference call, and someone had to be present at the talks to represent the team in the next stage of its fight.