The US women’s soccer team is suing over gender discrimination

Enjoy the trophy, you don’t get much else.
Enjoy the trophy, you don’t get much else.
Image: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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When nearly 27 million Americans tuned into the women’s soccer World Cup final in July 2015, they had no idea how many records were about to be broken. Over the next 90 minutes, the US women’s team would go on to play the most watched soccer game in US history, become the first team in the world to win three separate women’s soccer World Cup titles, and participate in a game with the most goals of any men’s or women’s World Cup final.

But despite being the victors—and the most successful women’s team in history—the US team received a bonus of just $1.725 million from their employer, the US Soccer Federation. A year earlier, that same federation had awarded the US men’s team bonuses totaling $5.375 million after they lost in the Round of 16 and failed to qualify for the 2018 men’s World Cup. The women’s team are the favorites to win the 2019 women’s World Cup, which begins in France in June.

In a suit filed today (March 8), on International Women’s Day, all 28 members of the current player pool sued the national federation for gender discrimination. Players have same job responsibilities as their male counterparts, the suit argued—they play “on the same size field; use the same size ball; have the same duration of matches and play by the same rules”—but have evidently superior results, and systematically smaller salaries and bonuses. Female players actually appear to be propping up the men’s salaries: In the year following April 2015, for instance, the federation budgeted a net loss of around $430,000. Thanks to the success of the Women’s National Team, according to the suit, the federation instead revised its projections to include a $17.7 million profit—but continued to pay male players more.

Women and pay raises
Not afraid to ask.
Image: AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Players have been calling for equal treatment, and an end to what they described as “institutionalized gender discrimination,” for years. Not only are they paid less, they say, but they’re also subject to worse working conditions in travel, benefits, training, coaching, and even medical treatment. In 2016, five female players filed a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But after no action was taken, the players successfully sought a right-to-sue letter, resulting in this federal suit. They have requested class action status and hope to obtain back pay, damages and other relief for the 28 named players as well as any present or former players who may have represented the team in the past four years.

While it is true that female players are on average paid less, the ins-and-outs of soccer salaries are complicated. According to the New York Times, the men’s team has historically brought in more revenue than the women’s team—though that hasn’t been consistently the case since 2015. The top players of either gender earn salaries of over $1 million a year from US Soccer, though lower ranked female players are paid between 60% and 10% the salary of their male counterparts. While the women’s compensation is directly related to winning championships, men are paid regardless of how well they play.

Women have also historically received smaller per diems and sponsor appearance fees, according to a biting Times op-ed by co-captain Carli Lloyd: “I was on the road for about 260 days last year. When I am traveling internationally, I get $60 a day for expenses. [Former men’s captain] Michael Bradley gets $75. Maybe they figure that women are smaller and thus eat less.”

In a press release today, Lloyd vowed to continue working to “realize our legal rights and make equality a reality for our sport.” There is no plan at present for the women’s team to boycott the forthcoming world cup. “Each of us is extremely proud to wear the United States jersey,” her co-captain Alex Morgan stressed in the statement, “and we also take seriously the responsibility that comes with that. We believe that fighting for gender equality in sports is a part of that responsibility.”

The USSF has yet to release a statement, though it did send out an apparently unrelated mass email to supporters celebrating International Women’s Day and asking for fans to support the team by buying merchandise. After the 2016 suit, a representative acknowledged that that the federation did discriminate by gender in terms of pay and would continue to do so, commenting: “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.” But the market reality, according to the suit, was that the women’s team had “earned more profit [and revenue], played more games, won more games, earned more championships, and/or garnered higher television audiences” than the men’s team during the period relevant to the case—and been paid less all the same.