February 1, 2023



USWNT may have lost the battle over equal pay but they will win the war | Football

5 min read

This isn’t how the fight for equal pay is supposed to end for the US women’s national team.

On Friday a US district court judge rejected the USWNT’s allegations of gender discrimination and ruled in favor of the US Soccer Federation, declaring that the team have not been underpaid.

The decision stunned just about everyone who had been following the lawsuit, which the USWNT filed last year. The judge was widely expected to prompt a settlement, but instead he ruled in US Soccer’s favor and gave the USWNT little to work with. Only the team’s complaints that they are subject to inferior travel and accommodation compared to their male counterparts will go to trial, which is now scheduled for June.

The battle isn’t over yet though. The USWNT have vowed to appeal the decision on equal pay, and that could force the matter to drag on for another year or more, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic delays everyday life. That’s plenty of time for some sort of settlement to be hashed out.

Yet, regardless of what happens with this particular lawsuit, the USWNT players are poised to emerge as the ultimate victors in the war against their own bosses at US Soccer.

After all, the USWNT’s legal argument was always going to have a harder time in a court of law than the court of public opinion. The players collectively bargained for their contract – it included the compensation structure they wanted – and, as it turns out, they had the bad luck of actually being paid more by US Soccer because the men’s team have been so bad in recent years, which the judge cited as a reason to toss out the lawsuit. The dispute seemed destined for an out of court settlement anyway, and that’s still likely.

But outside of the court proceedings, the USWNT have been winning nonstop – and will likely win again.

Just ask the former US Soccer president, Carlos Cordeiro. He was forced to resign in March when US Soccer’s legal team got overzealous (or, in plainer terms, sexist) in their defence against the USWNT’s lawsuit, and sponsors became alarmed. While the USWNT were selling protest t-shirts with a blank US Soccer crest, the governing body’s board members were busy issuing apologies.

That ordeal was the perfect encapsulation of the dynamic this lawsuit has created. It has buoyed the USWNT and made them more captivating than ever while, for US Soccer, it has been a public relations nightmare. The federation has been desperate to make the controversy go away – no court rulings needed.

The USWNT needled US Soccer on issues such as playing surfaces and charter flights – two other factors that were folded into the equal pay lawsuit – and US Soccer voluntarily addressed them. The USWNT have finally joined the USMNT in playing all their games on natural grass, and in the last couple of years the women have been traveling on more charter flights than their male counterparts. The women didn’t need to win their lawsuit to gain these concessions – they just needed to make their objections known.

While the USWNT’s lawyers might say otherwise, the ongoing war between the team and the federation never hinged on winning a lawsuit. The USWNT’s legacy in this fight won’t be defined by one judge’s ruling. The players have sparked a conversation, and are now role models in an age where it’s OK for women and girls to expect more and demand more for themselves, the way their male counterparts have for so long.

When the USWNT won the World Cup in France last summer, the stadium broke out in a chant: “Equal pay! Equal pay!” Those words have carried over to other women’s sporting events, and it has become a routine occurrence at NWSL games. It’s probably not going away anytime soon.

It all harkens back to the early days of the USWNT’s success in the 1990s, when players such as Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy decided they weren’t going to simply shut up and do whatever US Soccer told them.

The team’s first big showdown with their boss came after the 1999 World Cup, when the federation wanted the players to fade away into relative obscurity. Instead, the players organized their own exhibition tour across the United States. The federation threatened to sue the team, and Hamm and Foudy vowed to never put on a US Soccer kit again.

The players, who smartly stayed unified and didn’t scare easily, won that fight. The post-World Cup victory tour the players created on their own in 1999 still exists to this day – and it helps them earn money for their success. But more importantly, the incident set a culture for the USWNT: the team refused to settle, and that has carried on for the past two decades.

Many of the team’s disputes with US Soccer have happened out of public view, like when they threatened boycotts in 2013 and in 2015, or when they reported allegations of sexist behavior to the US Olympic Committee in 2005. But in all those cases, the team pushed US Soccer to invest more and care more.

Things have become more public lately, and critics of the USWNT’s lawsuit have pointed out that no federation financially supports its women’s national team the way US Soccer does – and that investment, in turn, has helped the USWNT win World Cups. That is true, but it’s also the result of relentless off-the-field work by the players.

As for this latest fight, even with less leverage than before, the USWNT will probably force a settlement so both sides can walk away from this saga declaring victory. The players sought $67m in back pay, and sources tell the Guardian that US Soccer had previously offered $9m in settlement talks. But the money is secondary.

US Soccer, which has a track record of not doing the right thing until called out publicly, is on notice. The players have made it clear the team expect more communication, collaboration and respect in the future. The players, as they usually do, will more than likely get their own way.

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