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U.S. Soccer’s blatant sexism will damage its business

U.S. Soccer might save money in the short term by winning the equal pay lawsuit, but not in the long term as it continues to lose in the court of public opinion.

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Black and white photo of Julie Foudy at a panel, gesturing to the person next to her.

In its response to the United States Women’s National Team’s request for summary judgment, U.S. Soccer doubled down Monday on sexist arguments it made Feb. 20. The federation claims that playing for the United States Men’s National Team requires a higher level of skill than playing for the women’s team, and also carries more responsibility.

Per the response, emphasis theirs: “The overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes, such as speed and strength, required for the job.”

U.S. Soccer knows it is losing the battle with the USWNT over equal pay in the court of public opinion, and has decided it does not care. To the federation, bad press is the cost of doing business. It has weighed the pros and cons and determined that hundreds of posts like this one are worth the money saved by winning the lawsuit.

Slipping from U.S. Soccer’s consideration is the long-term damage the federation might be doing to the growing business of women’s soccer, as well as its own standing in the women’s sports market.

Hope Solo is among the players suing U.S. Soccer for financial compensation, so she’s admittedly not an unbiased observer. But she made a good point about the USSF’s stated mission, saying she’s “been looking over U.S. Soccer’s mission again and again and I just can’t find the ‘unless you’re a woman since women are less skilled than men’ clause.”

Nancy Armour at USA Today said in her column that “it’s the U.S. women’s names who are on the lawsuit, but it might as well include every woman in America.” Reactions like hers are becoming more common as this lawsuit progresses. Some prominent figures who would ostensibly like to remain neutral are beginning to speak out.

NWSLPA executive director Yael Averbuch, USWNT legend and ESPN analyst Julie Foudy, and North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley all offered their strongest comments to date against U.S. Soccer following the latest document dump. Averbuch called it “the DEFINITION of discrimination”:

These are important people in the game who would be happy to become cheerleaders for the federation if it treated players fairly. Slowly but surely, U.S. Soccer is alienating some of its most important allies.

Sponsors are starting to take notice as well. Coca-Cola issued a statement to the Wall Street Journal calling the language used by U.S. Soccer’s legal team “offensive.”

Turning yourself into a brand synonymous with sexism seems like an especially bad idea given the current marketplace. Women now make up approximately 45 percent of the fanbase of the NFL, the most watched sports league in America, and the top priority of the league’s marketing office is growing its young female fanbase.

U.S. Soccer is uniquely positioned to capitalize on a booming industry, in which fans are so engaged and loyal that 75 percent of them can name a brand that sponsors women’s sports. It should be a leader, not just in creating opportunities for athletes, but in growing the business. With its most recent legal arguments, U.S. Soccer is in danger of turning itself into a villain. As a result of this lawsuit, sponsors looking to become involved in women’s sports could instead take their business to NWSL, the WNBA, or international sports leagues instead.

I am not a lawyer, and I do not know whether the plaintiffs or defense have a better legal strategy. But the only outcome that could result in a positive for U.S. Soccer is an out-of-court settlement. Going to court and winning this lawsuit might cost the federation as much in the long run as losing would. Stunting the growth of women’s soccer and damaging its own position within women’s sports is a worse outcome than just paying the players, even if it means losing tens of millions of dollars right now.