A six-year fight over equal pay that had pitted key members of the World Cup-winning United States women’s soccer team against their sport’s national governing body ended on Tuesday morning with a settlement that included a multimillion-dollar payment to the players and a promise by their federation to equalise pay between the men’s and women’s national teams.
Under the terms of the agreement, the athletes - a group comprising several dozen current and former women’s national team players - will share $24 million in payments from the federation, US 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 than the payment, though - at least for the players - is US Soccer’s pledge to equalise 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 settlement; if it is closed by the federation in ongoing negotiations with both teams, the change could funnel millions of dollars to a new generation of women’s players.
The settlement is contingent on the ratification of a new contract between US Soccer and the players’ union for the women’s team. When finalized, it will resolve all remaining claims in the gender discrimination lawsuit the players filed in 2019.
“It wasn’t an easy process to get to this point for sure,” US Soccer’s president, Cindy Parlow Cone, said in a telephone interview. “The most important thing here is that we are moving forward, and we are moving forward together.”
For US Soccer, the settlement is an expensive end to a ong legal fight that had battered its reputation, damaged its ties with sponsors and soured its relationship with some of its most popular stars, including Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd. US 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.
For that reason, the settlement represents an unexpected victory for the players: Nearly two years after losing in court in one devastating ruling, 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.
Morgan, in a telephone interview, called the settlement “a monumental win for us, and for women.”
“What we set out to do,” she said, “was to have acknowledgment of discrimination from US 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.”
Give and Take
In exchange for the payout and US Soccer’s pledge to address equal pay in future contracts with its two marquee teams, the women’s players agreed to release the federation from all remaining claims in the team’s gender discrimination lawsuit.
That could take months. The men’s and women’s team already have held joint negotiating sessions with US Soccer, but to make the deal work - the federation is seeking a single collective bargaining agreement that covers both national teams - the men’s players association 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 equalise World Cup prize money.
“We’re not on opposite sides,” Cone said at the time. “It may seem that way at times, but we’re on the same team, we all have the same goal. It’s just how do we get there.”
The players’ long battle with US Soccer, which is not only their employer but also the federation that governs the sport in America, 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 - hockey gold medalists, Canadian soccer pros, WNBA players - had reached out to the United States players and their union for guidance in efforts to win similar gains in pay and working conditions.
“We very much believe it is our responsibility,” Rapinoe said in 2019, “not only for our team and for future US players, but for players around the world - and frankly women all around the world - to feel like they have an ally in standing up for themselves, and fighting for what they believe in, and fighting for what they deserve and for what they feel like they have earned.”
Many of those players and teams succeeded in winning 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 US 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,” Morgan said. “The domino effect that we helped kick-start - I think we’re really proud of it.”
A settlement has seemed the most likely way out for the sides since April 2020, when the judge in the women’s lawsuit, R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, dismissed the argument that they were systematically underpaid and said that US 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 women’s team had, in one of the case’s great ironies, become victims of its own success. In choosing to fight US Soccer while they were at the peak of their powers as World Cup champions, the women had also picked the absolute worst time to line up a few years of their salaries against a few years of the men’s pay, which was foundering competitively.
By failing to qualify for the only men’s World Cup played during the lawsuit’s window, the men became ineligible for millions of dollars in performance bonuses, even as the women collected bonuses - twice - for winning their World Cup and won higher pay after successfully negotiating new contracts.
The women vowed to appeal the judge’s ruling, and a deal over working conditions signaled compromise was still possible. At the time, Cone, a former women’s national team player, had restated her persistent optimism that a larger deal could put the fight behind US Soccer and the team, and her hopes for building “a different relationship” with the women’s team and of a chance to “rebuild the trust” between the sides.
- This article first appeared in The New York Times