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U.S. Soccer, women’s team members settle equal pay lawsuit for $24 million

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)

Members of the U.S. women’s national team reached a settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation on Tuesday that will guarantee equal pay with the men’s team and offer players millions in back pay, ending a six-year fight in a gender discrimination case that resonated through American sports and beyond.

The $24 million settlement, $22 million of which will go to the players behind the suit, was effectively an admission that U.S. Soccer had not paid its women’s team equally. It won praise from prominent figures — including President Biden, who called the case a “long overdue victory in the fight for equal pay” in a tweet Tuesday.

“This is going to be one of those incredible moments that we look back on and say the game changed forever, U.S. Soccer changed forever, and the landscape of soccer in this country and in the world changed forever because of this,” said Megan Rapinoe, one of the players who led the suit.

Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Christen Press and 25 other players argued that had they been paid under the contract offered to the men’s team, they would have earned substantially more money. After they sued their employer in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, the players went on to secure their fourth world title as the stadium in France reverberated with chants of “Equal pay!”

In the world of professional sports, where some of the deepest divides remain in pay and working conditions between men and women, the U.S. women’s national team commanded a powerful platform from which to challenge inequality.

The Washington Spirit now has a woman in charge. For its players, that means a lot.

It had for years been far more successful than the men’s team, which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and its high-profile players had substantially larger platforms than many men. In some time periods, the women brought in more revenue than their male counterparts.

But the odyssey — which began in 2016, when the players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — had not always looked likely to end in a major victory for them.

A district judge dealt them a crushing blow when he ruled against them in 2020, declaring that the players had agreed to a different pay structure than the men’s team and had, in fact, earned more money overall than the men. And the players’ appeal before the Ninth Circuit was uncertain to succeed.

U.S. Soccer, however, faced significant pressure in the case despite its legal victory. The federation alienated many of its sponsors when it argued in legal filings that its women’s players were less skilled and worked less demanding jobs than the men. Its then-president, Carlos Cordeiro, resigned and apologized after an outcry, and the federation quickly abandoned that legal strategy.

Biden sided publicly with the women after the judge’s ruling in 2020, threatening to cut funding for the 2026 World Cup, and the EEOC this month said it agreed with the players in their appeal.

Cindy Parlow Cone, U.S. Soccer’s president and a former women’s national team member, said the federation hoped to “rebuild” its relationship with the women’s team.

“I’ll be the first to admit that the federation made mistakes in the past, and as a former player I understand the frustration of being treated that way ... but I’m really proud of this moment,” she said.

The details of the pay disparity that the players alleged are complex. The men’s team was compensated on a pay-for-play basis, with players earning more if they won, while many of the women were offered a base salary and smaller bonuses for winning. That difference was at the root of U.S. Soccer’s argument that it had not discriminated against the women’s team players.

But the women argued that the men’s team’s contract was more lucrative, laying out how they would have earned more if they were playing under the terms of the men’s deal. While U.S. Soccer said it had offered the women the same contract structure as the men, the women argued they had never been offered the same dollar amounts.

The settlement comes as U.S. Soccer is also dealing with a firestorm over allegations of coaching abuse that rocked the National Women’s Soccer League last year. The federation enlisted former acting attorney general Sally Yates to investigate after five of the league’s male coaches resigned or were fired amid misconduct allegations.

A group of prominent national team players involved in the suit condemned U.S. Soccer this month for its inaction after The Washington Post revealed allegations of sexual misconduct against Rory Dames, a longtime NWSL coach, in the youth soccer system that dated back decades. U.S. Soccer investigated Dames after a national team player filed a complaint against him in 2018 but allowed him to continue coaching.

Rapinoe said the reckoning over the mistreatment of female players was tied closely to the gender discrimination that the national team alleged in their lawsuit.

“There is no justice unless this never happens again,” she said. “It’s all part of the same system. It’s part of a system of disrespect and of misogyny and sexism and inequality and discrimination. This is the first step, not the last step.”

U.S. Soccer’s agreement to pay male and female players equally moving forward includes an agreement to equalize payments to players who participate in the World Cup, where bonuses remain profoundly unequal — a concession that Rapinoe stressed she hoped would push FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, to end the “unacceptable” gaps in investment between the men’s and women’s games.

To FIFA, Rapinoe offered a message: “You know what? You’re next.”

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