“On behalf of U.S. Soccer, I sincerely apologize for the offense and pain caused by language in this week’s court filing, which did not reflect the values of our Federation or our tremendous admiration of the Women’s National Team,” USSF President Carlos Cordeiro said in a statement. “Our WNT players are incredibly talented and work tirelessly, as they have demonstrated time and again from their Olympic gold medals to their World Cup titles.”
Cordeiro added that he and his legal team were “making immediate changes,” including bringing in an outside firm to “join and guide our legal strategy going forward.”
“I have made it clear to our legal team that even as we debate facts and figures in the course of this case, we must do so with the utmost respect not only for our Women’s National Team players but for all female athletes around the world,” Cordeiro said in his apology. “As we do, we will continue to work to resolve this suit in the best interest of everyone involved.”
Thirty-eight members of the women’s national team sued the federation last March, claiming that USSF “utterly failed to promote gender equality.” The case is scheduled to go to trial on May 5 in California, but both sides have asked a federal judge for a swifter resolution: The women want a “summary judgment” ruling awarding them at least $67 million, while U.S. Soccer is asking the judge to toss the lawsuit. The federation filed its latest motion on Monday, ahead of a March 30 hearing where the judge will rule on whether the case goes on.
U.S. Soccer has argued in previous filings that the different skills required of the men’s game invalidate the women’s lawsuit. But Monday’s motion offered a look at how the federation planned to fight the biggest stars in American soccer over pay equity, should the case ever see a courtroom.
“The point is that the job of [a men’s national team] player (competing against senior men’s national teams) requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength than does the job of [a women’s national team] player (competing against senior women’s national teams),” the motion read.
The filing caused a furor among observers who felt it belittled the highly successful USWNT, and that in turn prompted high-profile sponsors to issue statements scolding the USSF.
“We are extremely disappointed with the unacceptable and offensive comments made by US Soccer,” the Coca-Cola Company said. “We have asked to meet with them immediately to express our concerns.”
The company added that it was “firm in its commitment to gender equality, fairness and women’s empowerment in the United States and around the world and we expect the same from our partners."
Other statements of condemnation, all emerging Wednesday before Cordeiro’s apology, were issued by major sponsors such as Budweiser, Nike and Deloitte.
“While our support for the team is unwavering,” a Deloitte spokesman told BuzzFeed News, “we are deeply offended by the views expressed by the USSF.”
Also occurring Wednesday before Cordeiro issued his apology was a demonstration by USWNT members at the start of the SheBelieves Cup final against Japan. As they took the field and posed for a team photo, the American players had their warm-up jerseys turned inside out, obscuring the USSF logo but maintaining the visibility of the four stars that denoted their four World Cup triumphs.
The USWNT then defeated Japan, 3-1, winning the tournament for a third time and notching its 31st straight victory in all competitions.
On Tuesday, players spokeswoman Molly Levinson called the USSF’s legal argument “plain simple sexism.”
“This ridiculous ‘argument’ belongs in the Paleolithic Era,” she told The Washington Post in a statement. “It sounds as if it has been made by a cave man."
The players are suing under the federal Equal Pay Act, which requires plaintiffs to prove they hold jobs comparable to those held by colleagues of the opposite gender, and that they were discriminated against on the basis of sex. The federation argued that the players do not hold comparable jobs because male soccer players are stronger and faster.
The men’s team also plays in more tournaments per World Cup cycle, the federation argued, and is eligible to win more prize money than the women’s team if it won the World Cup.
“[Women’s national team] players compete in only one soccer tournament every four years that has the potential to generate any prize money at all, and most recently that amounted to one-tenth of the amount the [men’s national team] players could generate,” the motion read.
It also argued that the men’s team attracts more television viewers than the women, excluding the women’s World Cup, adding that the men’s television audience during the last World Cup dwarfed that of the women’s team. It ignored that the men’s team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and has not qualified for the Olympics since 2008.
Work conditions also play a role, the federation argued. The men “routinely play matches (important World Cup qualifiers, in particular) throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The [women’s national team] does not.
“Opposing fan hostility encountered in these [men’s national team] road environments, especially in Mexico and Central America, is unmatched by anything the [women’s national team] must face while trying to qualify for an important tournament. Even the hostility of fans at home crowds for the [men’s national team] in some friendlies can be unlike anything the [women’s national team] faces.”
The USSF concedes that the men’s national team could have earned more compensation for winning the 2018 World Cup than the women’s team could have earned for winning the 2019 World Cup. But that discrepancy is justified, the USSF argued.
“The men’s tournament is substantially more popular,” the motion stated, “the prize money available to U.S. Soccer for winning it is $34 million higher, the process for qualifying is longer and more arduous, the number of teams who participate is larger, and Plaintiffs do not contend that they could win it.”
The Equal Pay Act requires that employees alleging discrimination work at the same establishment as employees who don’t face discrimination. Though the men’s and women’s teams’ budgets, marketing departments and media rights are controlled by the same entity — the federation itself — almost everything else about the clubs is dictated by each team’s head coach, the federation argues.
“Each team’s Head Coach decides which players make the team, players never interchange between the two teams, and the day-to-day activities of each team are overseen by the Head Coach and assistant coaching staff of that team,” the motion read.
The federation and the women’s national team signed a collective bargaining agreement in 2017 that codified players’ salaries, and that deal meant less in wages for members of the women’s team than what the men’s team players could receive.
A pay schedule included in the players’ complaint showed that a male player could earn an average of $263,320 for 20 exhibition matches in a year — a figure established in the men’s team’s 2011 labor agreement — and a female player could earn a maximum of $99,000.
If the court ruled in favor of the women’s team, the USSF says, it would undo a contract that these very same players agreed to only three years ago.
“The Court should decline Plaintiffs’ invitation to intervene in the collective bargaining relationship between their union and U.S. Soccer by selectively rewriting the parties’ CBA,” the motion read.
Of the language in the court filing, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe — who scored one of her side’s three goals Wednesday — said after the game, “We have sort of felt that those are some of the undercurrent feelings that they’ve had for a long time, but to see that as the argument, and the sort of blatant misogyny and sexism as the argument against us, it’s really disappointing.”