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The USWNT’s equal pay lawsuit is a fight for all of women’s sports

It shouldn’t take unequaled greatness for women to get equal pay.

In 2016, five prominent members of the United States Women’s National Team filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission against their employer, the United States Soccer Federation. They alleged they were being paid considerably less than their male counterparts, the US Men’s National Team, and that the root cause of the gap was good old-fashioned sexism.

The USWNT players would sign a new collective bargaining agreement the following year that would make them more money but, critically, still did not pay them on par with the men. The players were still unhappy and, believing US Soccer was committed to playing hardball, decided to escalate the fight. In March 2019 — on International Women’s Day, no less — the players filed a federal lawsuit against US Soccer, alleging “institutional gender discrimination.”

As the World Cup approached, there was speculation that US Soccer might settle out of court to avoid bad press in the run-up to the tournament. Instead, the Federation filed affirmative defenses to the lawsuit in May, indicating a willingness to fight. US Soccer are arguing, among other things, that the players’ suit relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They say that the women’s and men’s national teams “... receive fundamentally different pay structures for performing different work under their separate collective bargaining agreements that require different obligations and responsibilities.”

In other words: the women aren’t entitled to equal pay, because it’s not equal work.

The players’ response, in a press release sent hours after US Soccer filed their affirmative defenses, was straight-forward: “We look forward to a trial next year after the World Cup.”

With three World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals, and a long competitive history of dominance (even when they’re not necessarily at their best), the USWNT are, by a considerable margin, the most successful team in the history of women’s soccer.

But they’re even more than that. They’ve become a symbol for women’s liberation, for feminism writ large. Marketing for the team is steeped in inspirational Girl Power messaging. Current and former players, from Mia Hamm all the way to Alex Morgan, are hailed as feminist icons. When the Men’s National Team compete in international tournaments, they are representing their country; when the Women’s National Team step out onto the pitch, they are also representing their gender. Wins for the USWNT are seen as symbolic wins for all American women, who still struggle for respect, self-determination, and even basic legal rights.

In that sense, the fight between the USWNT and the Federation exposes how little has actually changed in the broader fight for equal rights and against gender discrimination. US Soccer, and their corporate partners, market the team as a group of badass warrior women who dominate on the pitch, and then insist in closed boardrooms that paying those women on equal terms with their male counterparts is simply not feasible. Even as the Federation brings in substantial revenues for fairly modest investment, paying these women what they’re worth is characterized as an unjustifiable economic burden.

The pay gap between the USWNT and their male colleagues is a singular manifestation of the persistent and frustrating reality that women’s sports are undervalued, financially and culturally. And while “business concerns” are cited as the limiting factor when it comes to investing in the women’s game, the truth may be much simpler, and much more difficult to address: That despite being held up as standard-bearers for women, the USWNT still can’t escape sexism.

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015
Sunil Gulati, the former president of US Soccer, hugs both Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone after the USWNT won the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The USWNT gender pay gap, explained

You can’t talk about the USWNT without first talking about Title IX.

Prior to 1972, public school athletic programs for girls and young women — from elementary school all the way up to college — were few and far between. At varsity level and higher, they were virtually non-existent. All because of a pervasive idea among educators and policymakers that girls just weren’t interested in sports.

The enactment of Title IX — the landmark civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, along with a string of regulations and court decisions that followed — started to change all that. Before Title IX, 295,000 girls participated in primary and secondary school sports, compared to 3.67 million boys. As of 2011, per a report from the National Women’s Law Center, that number stood at roughly 3.2 million, compared to 4.5 million boys. A similar rate of growth happened in intercollegiate sports — nearly 200,000 young women participate in college-level athletic programs as of 2011, up from under 32,000 prior to Title IX. This explosive growth came despite chronic underinvestment by schools and universities in their athletic programs for women and girls. The NWLC reports that for every dollar spent by NCAA Division I schools on women’s athletics, roughly $2.50 is spent on men.

The passage of Title IX was enacted at a time when soccer was entering the American public consciousness. Fueled in part by the sudden popularity of the old NASL — and its practice of bringing in international superstars like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer — more and more young people started playing soccer. And thanks to Title IX, a lot of those kids signing up for youth soccer programs were girls.

The USWNT played their first competitive tournament in the 1985 edition of the Mundialito, a four-team invitational that was a precursor to the contemporary Algarve Cup. They finished in last place. The following year they would finish runners-up behind Italy in the same tournament. What’s notable is that many players from those 1985 and 1986 squads were still in college — including Michelle Akers, the first female American soccer star of the modern era. By the time the USWNT won their first major tournament — the 1991 World Championship, retroactively dubbed the Women’s World Cup — the squad was composed of young women whose collegiate and professional careers were made possible because of the expanded opportunities of Title IX.

The US would go on to win two more World Cup titles — in 1999, which featured Brandi Chastain’s iconic penalty kick goal and celebration, and in 2015, when Carli Lloyd scored from the midfield line in the final against Japan. They would also take home Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012, as well as silver in 2000.

Title IX has been a success, but it hasn’t created a truly level playing field. School and collegiate athletic programs for girls are still chronically underfunded. These systemic inequalities have reverberated into the professional game, where the average salaries in MLS dwarf those of the NWSL. And when it comes to paying elite professional players what they’re worth, US Soccer has demonstrated an inability — or unwillingness — to offer compensation for women’s national team players on par with the men.

In April 2016, the New York Times released a comprehensive breakdown of the USWNT’s pay structure and revenue compared to the USMNT. Following their win at the 2015 World Cup, as well as subsequent 10-city victory tour, the USWNT generated $23 million in revenue in 2015, with $6.6 million in profits. These numbers eclipsed revenue and profits generated by the USMNT in that same period. (Because broadcast rights and major sponsorship deals include both the women’s and men’s national teams as a package deal, these revenues aren’t included in the breakdown.)

Game revenues contribute less to women’s players salaries for structural reasons. FIFA offers more prize money for men’s competitions than women’s, as does CONCACAF. These are factors largely outside US Soccer’s control. Indeed, the Federation cites this as a key reason for the disparities between compensation for men’s and women’s national team players. Still, the difference isn’t insurmountable. It’s also worth noting that US Soccer is sitting on a budget surplus of at least $150 million, so theoretically, money is there if the Federation wants to pay the women on equal terms with the men.

But that’s not what’s happening. The highest paid men’s national team player makes nearly $200,000 more than the highest paid women’s national team player. That disparity holds across both rosters.

The gap in bonus pay for men’s and women’s national team players stands out even more. The men made $5,000 per appearance in 2015, and an additional $8,166 per win, while the women made $3,600 per appearance, and an additional $1,500 per win. That means the men could lose every one of their games in a given year and make nearly as much as the women would if they won every match.

US Soccer has used several arguments to defend their pay structures. One is the previously mentioned revenue gap from FIFA and CONCACAF. Another is their own calculations, which characterize the pay gap as being much lower than what USWNT players claim. In 2016, then-president Sunil Gulati claimed the pay gap was only 2.2 percent, contradicting the players’ claims that it was actually closer to 25 percent. US Soccer backed that statement with numbers saying that among the 25 top-earning US National Team players from 2012-2016, 14 were women, who earned an average salary of $695,269, compared to the top 11 men who earned an average of $710,775.

But another key reason is downside guarantees.

The USMNT squad members are on a pay-for-play setup. They may be paid more, US Soccer argues, but they only get paid if they’re called into camp and get minutes. If they don’t get a call-up, they don’t get paid. Simple as that.

By contrast, US Soccer argues that the USWNT have a better built-in safety net. National team players who also play in NWSL have their club salaries picked up by the Federation. This benefits both allocated national team players, who can be paid more than their clubs might be able to afford, and their clubs, who can sign top women’s national team players who would otherwise cost too much. (It’s also good for US Soccer, who have a vested interest in their national team players staying in the United States and building up domestic club soccer instead of signing with big clubs in Europe.) Players are also able to receive some health insurance, severance pay if they’re cut from the team, and, critically, half-pay maternity leave.

US Soccer contends that, while women’s national team base pay and bonuses are lower than the men’s, the downside guarantees pick up the slack. That line of thinking ignores that men’s players are typically much better supported in their non-national team roles. Major League Soccer’s minimum salary in 2019 is $60,000 per year, and there is no cap on how much a player can be paid. Meanwhile, the minimum salary in NWSL, the most competitive women’s league in the world, is $16,538, and $46,200 at maximum. When the USWNT “safety net” falls away, players don’t have nearly as much to fall back on as the men.

No matter whose accounting you trust, women’s national team players are making less money in exchange for security they can’t get at their other jobs. As a result, their earning potential is capped on the national team, despite being more successful on the pitch and proving that they can generate revenue on par with the men. The players know this, which is why they offered to give up some of those guarantees in the 2017 CBA in exchange for flat-out more money.

Tellingly, US Soccer refused.

It doesn’t have to be this way

In their response to the lawsuit, US Soccer said the decisions they made with regards to national team pay structures were for “legitimate business reasons and not for any discriminatory or other unlawful purpose.” They contend they did not break the law or engage in gender-based discrimination in paying the men more than the women. Nothing personal, it’s just business.

While it’s dressed up in clean and boring legalese, this argument perpetuates systemic under-investment throughout women’s sports. It’s the central conspiracy behind lower pay, weaker television ratings, less coverage from media outlets, smaller fanbases, and a host of other inadequacies. Women’s sports, the argument goes, are simply not as popular as men’s because they are an “inferior product.”

The problem is that people who make this argument want to have it both ways. “Business realities” are cited as the reason behind a lack of investment in women’s soccer and women’s sports broadly. This ignores how businesses actually work. New business owners are advised to plan for losses for the first several years of operation. Expanding a pre-existing business venture requires capital investment. MLS, after all, didn’t start turning a profit until the mid-2000s, a decade after it was launched. Making money requires spending money.

The WNBA understands this. Following flagging revenues and TV ratings in 2016, the league made a decision to invest in its future. The 2019 season tipped off last month with a refreshed brand and marketing strategy, new sponsors, a new TV deal, and new front office leadership. This level of investment and commitment comes as the league is losing around $10 million a year. Yet the investment may already be starting to pay off. Last month’s opening weekend posted some of the highest television ratings in league history.

In soccer, like in many under-invested women’s sports leagues, the fight for better pay is about much more than fairness. That $16,538 NWSL minimum salary is just slightly above the federal poverty line for a single adult. The living wage in Chatham County, North Carolina — home to the defending NWSL champions, the North Carolina Courage — is $12.28 per hour, which, assuming 40 hours of work per week, comes out to $25,542 per year. As it is, if a Courage player earning the league minimum works the equivalent to 40 hours per week and no more — which is unlikely, given the level of personal commitment required of professional athletes — she would earn roughly $7.95 per hour. That’s only slightly more than the federal minimum wage.

Women’s soccer players aren’t fighting for the right to enjoy the conspicuous largesse of, say, Premier League footballers. They’re fighting for basic financial stability. And for American women who play soccer at the professional level, their only real hope for that stability is to get into the national team pool.

And even then, it’s not enough. National team players on the fringes of the selection pool still struggle to achieve financial security. For American women in the game, some of whom retire from the sport in their prime because they can’t afford to keep going, there’s a constant question hanging over their heads: “At what point is this no longer worth it?”

US Soccer has the money — $150 million in surplus, at last check — to grow the business and invest in the game. The USWNT offered US Soccer an out from the downside guarantees that the Federation claims are a tremendous financial burden, and they refused. And while NWSL is owned by individual teams, US Soccer is responsible for its central operations; which means, conceivably, they’re well-placed to secure investment in the country’s top flight women’s domestic league. The revenues are there. The budget surplus is still there. US Soccer could settle the lawsuit today if they wanted.

That US Soccer has chosen not to do so is a decision unmoored from financial or business realities.

The USWNT’s Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux at a Nike unveil for the 2015 World Cup.
Getty Images

Breaking the cycle

The USWNT begin their quest to defend their title next Tuesday against Thailand. Between now and then, the USWNT hype train — driven by US Soccer and Nike — will portray the Americans not only as presumptive repeat champions, but as the aspirational endpoint for young girls and women who play sports across the country. “Dream With Us,” Nike implores, showing images of girls with determined faces and muddy uniforms pacing stridently out of locker rooms from sea to shining sea. And at the end of that commercial, the defending world champions of women’s soccer run out onto the pitch, ready take on all comers.

And as USWNT players serve as the face of a $224-billion company for the next month, US Soccer’s lawyers insist the work USWNT players do simply isn’t lucrative enough to justify paying them what they’re worth.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating is we’ve been here before. This is a cycle in American women’s soccer: the USWNT enjoys wider public exposure in the run-up to the World Cup, the players are held up as inspirational figures for women and girls, there are scattered thinkpieces on systemic inequalities and sexism, and then the tournament ends. Barring some controversy — like a lawsuit, or a superstar embroiled in personal drama — everyone moves on. Women’s soccer players, both in the national team pool and out, are left to fight for their careers and livelihoods in relative silence. After a few years, there’s another World Cup, and we get to do this all over again.

In that sense, the lawsuit filed by the USWNT players, and the broader fight for equal pay, isn’t about bonus structures. It’s about breaking the cycle. It’s about insisting that women’s soccer matters: that it’s a viable business and not a charity, that it’s a compelling entertainment product, and that fans will turn out if you give them the opportunity. It’s about making that case and refusing to take No for an answer.

Barring some surprise announcement, the USWNT’s fight for equal pay is going to drag on for at least a year, and very likely longer. The broader fight — against wider social and cultural forces that say women, and thus women’s sports, don’t matter — will definitely not be won by paying Christen Press an extra million dollars a year. But that is the shadow that lingers over the USWNT gender pay gap, and so that fight is also the team’s fight.

US Soccer spent the past 30 years holding up the USWNT as champions for women everywhere. Now the team is living up to its reputation on and off the pitch by taking on the biggest impediment to the program: US Soccer itself. The USWNT held up their end of the bargain by winning, and inspiring the next generation of young girls who will come up through the program. The least US Soccer could do is pay up.

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