U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination
Twenty-eight members of the world champion United States women’s soccer team significantly escalated their long-running fight with the country’s soccer federation over pay equity and working conditions, filing a gender discrimination lawsuit on Friday.
The suit, in United States District Court in Los Angeles, comes only three months before the team will begin defense of its Women’s World Cup title at this summer’s tournament in France. 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 players involved — stars like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd and their teammates — include some of the most accomplished and best-known female athletes in the world, members of a team that has been a leading force in women’s sports for more than a generation.
The players’ continuing battle with U.S. Soccer, which is not only their employer, but also the federation that governs the sport in America, has thrust them to the forefront of a broader fight for equality in women’s sports. In recent years, players, teams and even athletes in other sports — American hockey gold medalists, Canadian soccer pros, W.N.B.A. players — have reached out to the United States players and their union for guidance in their efforts to win similar gains in pay and working conditions.
“I think to be on this team is to understand these issues,” Rapinoe said in a telephone interview. “And I think we’ve always — dating back to forever — been a team that stood up for itself and fought hard for what it felt it deserved and tried to leave the game in a better place.”
Friday’s legal action is the latest flash point in a yearslong fight for pay equity and equal treatment by the national team, which has long chafed — first privately, but increasingly publicly — about the compensation, support and working conditions it receives while representing U.S. Soccer. The women’s players argue that they are required to play more games than the men’s team, that they win more of them, and yet still receive less pay from the federation.
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For decades, U.S. Soccer has been a world leader in its support for women’s soccer; its investment of time and resources has made the United States, which is a three-time world champion and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, the dominant power in the women’s game. But throughout that period, generations of women’s national team players have complained that the federation’s financial support and logistical infrastructure have lagged behind that of the more high-profile men’s team.
Those grievances have never been far from the surface; an earlier generation of top women’s players angry about their pay boycotted a tournament in Australia in January 2000, only months after a World Cup victory had made them the toast of American sports. The dispute between the team and the federation burst into the open more recently as an increasingly emboldened and activist women’s team took on U.S. Soccer and FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, over everything from artificial turf fields to World Cup bonus payments to refereeing standards.
The players’ prominence and willingness to leverage their profiles and enormous social media followings in support of their cause have paid dividends: FIFA doubled the prize money pool for this summer’s Women’s World Cup only after the United States team’s complaints drew attention to how far it lagged behind the pool for the much richer men’s event, and the team has not played a match on artificial turf, a surface many players disdain, since 2017. The United States women flew on a chartered flight — once an unthinkable luxury for the squad — between matches as recently as last week, and U.S. Soccer has eliminated other inequities on topics as disparate as meal money and hotel accommodations.
The respect they have won has spread, too: Spain’s national team rose up to demand the ouster of its coach after the last World Cup, and several prominent members of Brazil’s squad quit their team to protest the ouster of a popular female coach in favor of a man. Players from Argentina and Colombia have gone public about mistreatment and meager pay, and Norway’s players demanded — and won — equal pay with their men’s counterparts. That, too, several United States players said, was part of their motivation to press ahead with their suit only months before they turn their focus to retaining their world championship.
“We very much believe it is our responsibility,” Rapinoe said, “not only for our team and for future U.S. players, but for players around the world — and frankly women all around the world — to feel like they have an ally in standing up for themselves, and fighting for what they believe in, and fighting for what they deserve and for what they feel like they have earned.”
U.S. Soccer did not respond to a request for comment.
Direct comparisons between the compensation of the men’s and women’s teams can be complicated. Each team has its own collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, and among the major differences is pay structure: The men receive higher game bonuses when they play for the United States, but are paid only when they make the team, while the women receive guaranteed salaries supplemented by smaller match bonuses.
One of the biggest differences in compensation is the multimillion-dollar bonuses the teams receive for participating in the World Cup, but those bonuses — a pool of $400 million for 32 men’s teams versus $30 million for 24 women’s teams — are determined by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, not U.S. Soccer.
The bulk of the suit mirrors many of the issues raised in a wage discrimination complaint filed by five United States players with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. Frustrated by a lack of progress on that complaint after nearly three years of inaction, the players received permission from the federal agency in February to sue instead. (One of the players on the original complaint, the former goalkeeper Hope Solo, filed her own gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer in August.)
The suit offers a new forum but also new hurdles. The players, represented by Jeffrey Kessler, who has been involved in labor fights in nearly every major American sport, will have to prove not only that their team and the men’s squad do the same work, but also overcome questions about the differences in their pay structures and their negotiated collective bargaining agreements. And the C.B.A. has already left them without one bit of leverage: The players cannot strike to press their case at least until it expires at the end of 2021.
But to experts in gender discrimination and Title IX cases, the argument they are making is familiar.
“These are the same kinds of arguments and claims that we still see at every level of education for women and girls, from K through 12 to college,” said Neena Chaudhry, the general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. “It’s unfortunately a sad continuation of the way that women and girls in sports are treated in the U.S.”