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In equal-pay case, U.S. women’s soccer players argue judge ‘penalized’ them for their success

Megan Rapinoe of the United States with teammates during the warm-up before its match this week before Sweden. (Edgar Su/Reuters)
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Players for the U.S. women’s national soccer team argued in a federal appeals court Friday that a judge improperly dismissed their equal-pay claims last year, saying his ruling “penalized the USWNT players for their success.”

The high-profile case, which pits the world champion players against their own employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, has taken on even more significance with the American women in the midst of an attempt to win an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. An HBO documentary chronicling the early days of the case from the team’s point of view was released last month.

Twenty-eight current and former national team players sued U.S. Soccer in 2019, just months before the start of the women’s World Cup, arguing that the federation had systematically underpaid them compared with the men’s team players, who are far less successful.

The judge, R. Gary Klausner, surprised many legal observers when he threw out the women’s claims of unequal pay in May of last year, ruling that the women could not claim discrimination because they had agreed to a differently structured contract that prioritized stable salaries over per-game bonuses. Klausner said he was convinced the women had actually earned more money, overall and per game, than their male counterparts.

The women appealed the ruling in April to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. In their initial brief Friday, the players argued that the judge had ignored evidence of “direct discrimination” — including U.S. Soccer officials who themselves admitted that the women were paid unequally — and had improperly treated the women’s collective bargaining agreement “as somehow waiving their equal pay rights.”

And they said the judge had used the wrong standard to determine equal pay, overlooking the role of the women’s staggering on-field success. U.S. Soccer pays its players not to just to appear in games but to win them, the players argued, and to out-earn the men in recent years, the women had to win virtually every major game they played.

The U.S. women’s soccer team was absolutely clobbered. Don’t panic just yet.

“The Equal Pay Act forbids making a woman work more, or perform better, to achieve the same pay as a man doing the same job,” they wrote in the brief. “Yet that is just what the district court did here.”

The players claimed that had they lost just one more game over the period of the suit — the 2019 World Cup Final, against the Netherlands — they would have made $6,000 less than the men, who did not even qualify for their World Cup in 2018.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Soccer said: “In ruling in favor of US Soccer on the players’ pay discrimination claims, the District Court rightly noted that the women’s national team negotiated for a different pay structure than the men’s national team, and correctly held that the women’s national team was paid more both cumulatively and on an average per-game basis than the men’s national team.”

The federation said it was “committed to equal pay."

The realities of the equal-pay case are complex. In their collective bargaining process, the women agreed to a contract that prioritized stable salaries and health care over higher payments for victories. And FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, pays much higher bonuses to men’s teams than women’s teams, which U.S. Soccer has blamed for the disparities in bonuses it offers the teams.

But the women have argued that U.S. Soccer never offered them the chance to earn as much as the men, no matter the structure of the contract. And they maintain that FIFA’s discrimination against female players was not an excuse for U.S. Soccer to pay lower bonuses to women.

U.S. Soccer has said it cannot afford to make up the difference between the women’s bonuses and the men’s — though the federation could achieve equity by lowering the amount it promised the men in the event of World Cup success.

Regardless of the outcome in the courtroom, U.S. Soccer is facing a steep task in the court of public opinion. Its legal victory last year was overshadowed by the decision, months earlier, to argue in court that women athletes were “less skilled” and worked “less demanding jobs” than their male counterparts — earning them sharp condemnation from their own sponsors.

And many Democratic lawmakers, including President Biden, have sided publicly with the players. Biden has said he supports withholding funding for the 2026 Men’s World Cup, which will be played primarily on U.S. soil, until the federation agrees to equal pay.