Jamie Smed, Megan Rapinoe, Flickr, (May 26, 2019, 2:06 PM), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Megan_Rapinoe_48213221576.jpg.

By: Elizabeth Farley

Since 1985, the United States’ Women’s National Team has (“USWNT”) won the FIFA World Cup four times and earned four Olympic gold medals.[1] Players like Alex Morgan, Carly Lloyd, and Megan Rapinoe are some of the most recognizable and accomplished athletes in the United States and internationally.[2] Players on the women’s team are arguably more famous than any American male soccer player.[3] Yet, these women are paid less than the men soccer players, whose team has yet to win a FIFA World Cup or Olympic medal and struggle to qualify for the tournaments.[4]

 The issue of women soccer players being paid and treated unequally is not a new phenomenon.[5]  During the 1991 FIFA World Cup, the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) did not give the USWNT players a salary and eligible players were only paid a $500 bonus for their first place finish.[6] Despite the USWNT’s success, the men team’s players were still receiving better treatment by USSF.[7]

By the 1995 FIFA World Cup, USWNT player Julie Foudy rallied her teammates to fight against USSF’s discrimination.[8]  In 1996 women’s soccer became an Olympic sport, however USSF refused to pay the USWNT players unless the team earned a gold medal.[9] But, USSF did not hold the United States’ Men’s National Team (“USMNT”) to the same standard.[10] In an attempt to pressure USSF to pay the USWNT for winning any medal in the Olympics, USWNT players intentionally sat out of training camps. The player’s actions forced USSF to agree to pay the players for a silver medal, as well as a gold.[11]

Unfortunately, it appears that USSF’s treatment of the USWNT players has not improved despite the team’s success over the past 30 years and the women are taking legal action. In March 2019, 28 players on the USWNT filed a complaint against USSF, alleging that USSF does not treat or pay them equally to USMNT players.[12] The complaint states that USSF has violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[13] USSF selects and hires players, on both the men’s and women’s teams,  controls the team’s wages, hires coaches, trainers, nutritionists, doctors, administrators and other staff for the USWNT and the USMNT.[14] The USWNT claims that USSF discriminates against them “in nearly every aspect of their employment.”[15] In response to the claims included in the suit, USSF stated “it was surprised by the complaint.”[16]

USSF’s strongest argument is that it is difficult to make direct comparisons between the men’s and women’s teams and therefore it is difficult to demonstrate discrimination.[17] For example, when analyzing the USWNT’s and the USMNT’s respective agreements with USSF, the payment structures differ.[18] “The men receive higher bonuses when they play for the United States, but are paid only when they make the team, while the women receive guaranteed salaries supplemented by smaller match bonuses.”[19]  However, the USWNT players argue in the complaint that due to their success, USSF requires them to practice more, play more games, train longer, travel more, and spend more time promoting the team in the media than similarly situated USMNT players.[20] One of the most glaring allegations in the women’s complaint is that,

[t]he pay for advancements through the rounds of the World Cup was so skewed that, in 2014, the USSF provided the [US]MNT with performance bonuses totaling $5,375,000 for losing in the Round of 16, while, in 2015, the USSF provided the [US]WNT with only $1,725,000 for winning the entire tournament. The [US]WNT earned more than three times less than [US]MNT while performing demonstrably better.[21]

In August of 2019, a judge in the United States District Court for the Central District of California set a trial date for May 5, 2020.[22] The trial is set to begin just 11 weeks before the USWNT will play in the Olympics.[23] The outcome of the case could be monumental for female athletes and athletes in general. If the USWNT succeeds in court, they could receive wages, backpay, and the USSF could be required to provide better training and travel conditions.[24] Female athletes from various sports have voiced their support of the USWNT’s lawsuit.[25] Female athletes are able to see that if the USWNT succeeds, the success could start a ripple effect that allows women who play every sport to demand equal treatment.[26] Furthermore, politicians have also hopped on the bandwagon. Congress and the Senate have also supported and introduced bills that suggest withholding federal funding for the 2026 Men’s World Cup, unless the women have received fair and equitable pay.[27] After 30 years of success despite unequal treatment and discrimination, the USWNT may finally have the support that they need to be treated equally.

[1] Michael Lewis, A Look Back at All The History The USWNT Made In The World Cup, Team USA (Jul. 10, 2019), https://www.teamusa.org/News/2019/July/10/A-Look-Back-At-All-The-History-The-USWNT-Made-In-The-World-Cup.

[2] Id.

[3] Emmanuel Ocbazghi, The US women’s national team dominates soccer, but here’s why the US men’s team sucks, Business Insider (Jul. 3, 2019), https://www.businessinsider.com/why-american-men-suck-soccer-world-cup-2018-6.

[4] See generally id.; see also Laurel Wamsley, U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination, NPR (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/03/08/701522635/u-s-womens-soccer-team-sues-u-s-soccer-for-gender-discrimination; Cass Anderson, Experts Explain Why American Men Suck At Soccer (At The World Cup Level), BroBible (2018), https://brobible.com/sports/article/experts-explain-why-usa-sucks-soccer/.

[5] Throwback: The Women’s World Cup, Grab It, Sports Illustrated (Jun. 6, 2019) (downloaded using iTunes) [hereinafter Throwback] (discussing the hurdles that USWNT players have had to go through throughout the program’s history. For example, USWNT player Michelle Akers attended conferences, by herself, in an attempt to get companies to endorse women’s soccer. Akers gave speeches pleading with the companies and ultimately obtained endorsement deals for herself. However, after the 1991 FIFA World Cup, there was still a lack of endorsement deals offered to her teammates).

[6] Id. (stating that at the time the team won the 1999 World Cup tournament only players who were not in college teams were able to receive the $500 bonus, due to NCAA rules restricting payment to collegiate sports players).

[7] See id. (discussing how in the beginning, the women on the USWNT shrugged off the unequal treatment, however after some time players realized that it was not acceptable treatment. The USWNT was influenced and inspired by tennis player Billie Jean King’s actions).

[8] See id. (noting that during the 1995 FIFA World Cup, the USWNT was fighting USSF about its lack of support for women’s soccer and soccer in general. Furthermore, the USWNT knew that there was interest in women’s soccer after companies like Rebok and Nike signed endorsement deals with players such as Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm); see also Mahita Gajana, The USWNT’s Mediation with U.S. Soccer Broke Down this Week. Here’s What to Know About the Equal Pay Lawsuit, TIME (Aug. 16, 2019), https://time.com/5653250/uswnt-equal-pay-lawsuit/ (discussing the complaints filed by five USWNT players in 2016 over unequal pay and bonuses and a 2017 agreement that gave certain USWNT players more core control over licensing and marketing rights).

[9] Throwback, supra note 5.

[10] See id. (USSF officials stated that its’ reasoning for not rewarding silver or bronze medals was “because they do not reward mediocrity”).

[11] Id.

[12] Complaint at 2, Morgan v. United States Soccer Federation, Inc., No. 2:19-CV-01717, 2019 WL 1199270 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2019)

[hereinafter USWNT Complaint]

(discussing the grounds for the player’s lawsuit).

[13] Id.  

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 6.

[16] See Alaa Abdeldaiem, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro ‘Surprised’ by USWNT’s Lawsuit, Sports Illustrated (Mar. 15, 2019), https://www.si.com/soccer/2019/03/15/us-soccer-president-letter-surprised–uswnt-lawsuit; see also Theodoric Meyer, U.S. Soccer hires lobbyists to argue women’s national team isn’t underpaid, Politico (Aug. 7, 2019), https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/07/us-soccer-lobbyists-womens-national-team-not-underpaid-1452331 (noting that following the filing of the 2019 complaint, USSF hired lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. to deny the USWNT player’s claims to Congress).

[17] See Wamsley, supra note 4 (“But direct comparisons of compensation between the men and women can be tricky, … Each team has its own collective bargaining agreement with [USSF], and among the major differences are pay structure.”).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.; see Cf. Laughter Permitted with Julie Foudy: Tobin Heath, ESPN (June 9, 2019) (downloaded using iTunes) (noting that it is difficult to compare women and men who play the same sport and why they may be paid differently. However, Tobin Heath noted that although comparing men and women who play the same sport is not black and white, it is blatant that the USSF has provided the women’s team opportunity than the men’s team. Additionally, Heath states that what she wants is over investment in the women’s program to fully see the potential that women’s soccer could have in the United States). 

[20] See USWNT Complaint, supra note 12, at 9 (stating that despite the USWNT player’s success and dedication to the sport of soccer, USSF continues to pay the women less than the men players).

[21] Id. at 11.

[22] Andrew Das, Judge Sets May 2020 Trial Date in U.S. Women’s Soccer Lawsuit, The NY Times (Aug. 19, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/19/sports/soccer/us-womens-soccer-lawsuit.html.

[23] Id.

[24] Julie Kliegman, What’s Net for the USWNT and Their Equal Pay Lawsuit?, The Ringer (Aug. 13, 2019), https://www.theringer.com/2019/8/13/20802004/uswnt-equal-pay-lawsuit-nwsl-us-soccer-megan-rapinoe (discussing how the momentum surrounding the women’s team spikes every four years, after a big tournament such as the FIFA World Cup or Olympics, but this time the hype surrounding the lawsuit feels different).

[25] Id. (discussing Skylar Diggins-Smith’s, a WNBA player, support of the USWNT lawsuit).

[26] See generally id.

[27] See id. (noting Senator Joe Manchin, Congresswoman Doris Matsui, and Congressman Rose DeLauro are the politicians supporting these bills).

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