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Opinion The U.S. women’s soccer team’s settlement is a huge victory on pay equality

The U.S. women’s national soccer team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Since 1991, the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) has won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. The men’s team has not won any, and did not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup or the past three Olympics. Yet, for years, the women’s team has had to fight for equal rates of pay.

That will now change, thanks to a $24 million settlement reached between the players and the U.S. Soccer Federation, marking the end of a gender discrimination case that has reverberations across the sport — and beyond. U.S. Soccer agreed to pay $22 million to the 28 players who filed the suit and a further $2 million to a charitable fund for girls’ and women’s soccer. Most significantly, it promised to pay men and women at an equal rate going forward, including in lucrative World Cup bonuses.

The settlement is a major victory for players, who had to balance pursuing a high-profile and often acrimonious case with maintaining their heroics on the pitch. The lawsuit, filed on International Women’s Day in 2019, argued that female players had to be far more successful than their male counterparts to earn similar wages, though their games outperformed the men’s team in revenue. For example, thanks to differences in bonus structures, making a World Cup team would earn a men’s player $67,000 — and a women’s player just $37,500.

The 2019 suit also contended that U.S. Soccer treated women’s players unfairly, making them play more often on artificial turf and giving them fewer charter flights than the men’s team. These issues were resolved in a December 2020 settlement, but the equal-pay claims continued.

The four-time World-Cup-winning USWNT reached a settlement with U.S. Soccer on Feb. 22, ending a six-year fight over gender discrimination in the sport. (Video: Reuters)

The case has been rife with setbacks and controversy. In March 2020, a legal filing by U.S. Soccer suggested that women’s players “do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort.” Then-USWNT captain Megan Rapinoe lambasted the language as full of “blatant misogyny and sexism,” and the ensuing backlash led to the resignation of U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro.

A federal judge effectively dismissed the equal-pay case that May. But the women appealed last July, gaining support from the men’s team and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Though this week’s settlement is contingent on a new collective bargaining agreement, it is still a remarkable achievement. A 2017 BBC report found that the gender pay gap in sports was slowly narrowing, at least in terms of prize money. Yet there were just two women — Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams — in Forbes’s 2021 list of highest-paid athletes. The resolution of this case won’t change that, but it does shine a light on the glaring inequalities many female athletes continue to face.

“This is the first step, not the last step,” Rapinoe told The Post in response to the settlement. The players who have led this fight have done a great service for the cause of gender equality in sports. Now, U.S. Soccer — which is also facing criticism over its handling of alleged abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League — must work to rebuild trust with the women’s team and foster a more equitable future, on and off the field.

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