U.S. Women’s Players and U.S. Soccer Settle Equal Pay Lawsuit

For six years, the members of the World Cup-winning United States women’s soccer team and their bosses argued about equitable treatment of female players. They argued about whether they deserved the same charter flights as their male counterparts and about the definition of what constituted equal pay.

But the long fight that set key members of the women’s team against their bosses at U.S. Soccer ended on Tuesday just as abruptly as it had begun, with a settlement that included a multimillion-dollar payment to the players and a promise by their federation to equalize pay 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 world’s most popular and decorated athletes — will share $24 million in payments from U.S. Soccer. The bulk of that figure is back pay, a tacit admission that compensation for the men’s and women’s teams had been unequal for years.

Perhaps more notable is U.S. Soccer’s pledge to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s national teams in all competitions, including the World Cup, in the teams’ next collective bargaining agreements. That gap was once seen as an unbridgeable divide preventing any sort of equal pay settlement. If it is closed by the federation in negotiations with both teams, the change could funnel millions of dollars to a new generation of women’s national team players.

“It wasn’t an easy process to get to this point for sure,” Cindy Parlow Cone, U.S. Soccer’s president, said in a telephone interview. “The most important thing here is that we are moving forward, and we are moving forward together.”

The players’ long battle with U.S. Soccer, which is not only their employer but also the sport’s national governing body, had thrust them to the forefront of a broader fight for equality in women’s sports and drawn the support of fellow athletes, celebrities, politicians and presidential candidates. In recent years, players, teams and even athletes in other sports — ice hockey Olympic gold medalists, Canadian soccer pros and W.N.B.A. players — had reached out to the American soccer players and their union for help as they sought better pay and working conditions.

Many of those players and teams won major gains — Norway, Australia and the Netherlands are among the countries whose soccer federations have committed to closing the pay gap between men and women — even as the American players’ case dragged on.

“I think it was just extremely motivating to see organizations and employers admit their wrongdoing, and us forcing their hand in making it right,” said Alex Morgan, a striker and former co-captain of the women’s national team. “The domino effect that we helped kick-start — I think we’re really proud of it.”

For U.S. Soccer, the settlement is an expensive end to a conflict that had battered 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 retired last year. U.S. Soccer was under no obligation to settle with the women’s team; a federal judge in 2020 had dismissed the players’ equal pay arguments, stripping them of nearly all of their legal leverage, and the players’ appeal was not certain to succeed.

Yet for that reason, the settlement represents an unexpected victory for the players: Nearly two years after losing in court, they were able to extract not only an eight-figure settlement but also a commitment from the federation to enact the very reforms the judge had rejected.

“What we set out to do,” Morgan said in a telephone interview, “was to have acknowledgment of discrimination from U.S. Soccer, and we received that through back pay in the settlement. We set out to have fair and equal treatment in working conditions, and we got that through the working conditions settlement. And we set out to have equal pay moving forward for us and the men’s team through U.S. Soccer, and we achieved that.”

When finalized, the settlement will resolve all remaining claims in the gender discrimination lawsuit the players filed in 2019. But it came with one crucial condition: It is contingent on the ratification of a new contract between U.S. Soccer and the players’ union for the women’s team. And that process could take weeks, or even months.

The men’s and women’s teams have already held joint negotiating sessions with U.S. Soccer, but to make the deal work — the federation is seeking a single collective bargaining agreement that covers both teams — the men’s players will have to agree to share, or surrender, millions of dollars in potential World Cup payments from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Those payments, set by FIFA and exponentially larger for the men’s World Cup than the corresponding women’s tournament, are at the heart of the equal pay divide.

Cone, a former member of the women’s team, said in September that the federation would not sign new collective bargaining agreements with either team that did not equalize World Cup prize money, a position she and the federation cemented in Tuesday’s agreement. The men’s union, whose lawyers have been sitting in on some of the women’s negotiating sessions, made no public statements on Tuesday.

The players association for the women’s team congratulated its members and their lawyers “on their historic success in fighting decades of discrimination perpetuated by the U.S. Soccer Federation,” but made clear that it planned to hold U.S. Soccer — and by extension the men’s team — to previous public promises to support equal pay.

“Moving forward and tying this settlement with the C.B.A. is important for both groups,” Cone said. “Because we all believe in equal pay, and the only way we can get there — until FIFA equalizes the World Cup prize money — is for the men’s team, the women’s team and U.S. Soccer to get together and reach an agreement on equalizing it ourselves.”

The equal pay fight began almost six years ago, when five star players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. The players — Morgan, Rapinoe, Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo — said they were being shortchanged on bonuses, appearance fees and even meal money while they were in training camps, and contended they earned as little as 40 percent of what players on the men’s national team were paid.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Solo said, though U.S. Soccer immediately disputed them. Men’s players, Solo said, “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

Almost immediately, soccer fans took sides in the fight, cleaving American soccer. The federation briefly argued that the men brought in more money and drew higher television ratings, and thus deserved higher pay, but soon abandoned the stance amid public backlash, player fury and a closer reading of equal pay law. The women leveraged their popularity and their social media followings to batter the federation in the court of public opinion.

Depositions as the legal case moved forward produced uncomfortable exchanges that the public relations-savvy players weaponized as slogans they sold on T-shirts.

In April 2020, the judge in the women’s gender discrimination lawsuit, R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, appeared to resolve the case in a single devastating ruling. Dismissing the argument that they were systematically underpaid, Klausner ruled that U.S. Soccer had substantiated its claim 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 covered by the lawsuit.

The players vowed to appeal their defeat, but all seemed lost. A deal over working conditions in December signaled compromise was still possible, and cleared the way for the players’ appeal to move forward. But behind the scenes the sides were already making progress toward a settlement.

With Cone working with leaders of the women’s team like Sauerbrunn, the captain and players association president — “We’ve had a lot of really constructive conversations back and forth,” Cone said — the federation’s leaders and the players hammered out a deal everyone could support.

In television appearances and interviews and a joint conference call with reporters on Tuesday night, the sides hailed it as a “monumental win” and a “major step forward.”

But not all the players were there to celebrate, though. The World Cup veteran Crystal Dunn, a players association vice president, had to demur; A negotiating session on the new collective bargaining agreement had been scheduled for the same time as the conference call, and someone had to be at the talks to represent the team in the next stage of its fight.

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