The U.S. women’s soccer team poses prior to their March 9 match against Germany in the SheBelieves Cup. (Joel Auerbach/AP)

For decades now, the U.S. women’s national soccer team has made less money for better work. The players don’t just deserve equal pay. They deserve back pay — about 25 years’ worth. That’s how long they’ve been fighting the U.S. Soccer Federation over their inferior treatment. Finally, they filed a federal discrimination complaint. You know what drove them to it? The USSF called them “irrational” for asking for a raise.

Since 1991, players from Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy to Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo have combined for three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. Last year the women’s team commanded a record-breaking TV audience of 25.4 million in the World Cup final, and it brought in significantly more domestic revenue than its male counterpart, which has been to just one quarterfinal in the past 50 years and has a hard time beating Jamaica. Yet the women earned just a fraction on the dollar. When they objected to this, it must have been a hormonal response.

On Thursday, their hired-gun labor lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, filed a wage discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Now we’ll see just how much they let their emotions run away with them.

“The USSF literally said, when the women asked for pay increases, that they were irrational,” Kessler said in a phone interview. “They have given this issue the back of their hand. These women have felt disrespected.”

U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe speaks to the media wearing a jersey made by Nike during an unveiling event in New York. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The EEOC complaint feels like a turning point. A topic can sit in plain sight for years and no one works up much outrage about it, but then the right story comes along, and it hits a throbbing national nerve. Pay discrimination against such a decorated team, which has given the American public so much joy and so many iconic figures from Kristine Lilly to Alex Morgan , may do that. What this team’s chronic struggle for decent pay shows is that gender bias is so baked into our culture that the discrepancy can’t be corrected by slow evolution, or friendly negotiation. They’ve tried that. A shock to the system — the legal system — was required.

Women in this country make 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, and it’s worse for women of color: African American women earn 64 cents and Latina women 56 cents. The pay gap persists across all races, education levels, geography, and occupations: The median income for a female journalist is 83 percent of her male colleague’s. The wage gap is one of the most stubborn facts in American life. The Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, and since then the gap has closed by less than a half-cent per year. Half a cent. That stubbornness was a chief motivation for U.S. team in filing its complaint. The players are sick of this conversation. They are sick of this history.

“They are very aware, given their public pulpit, that they really have the ability to change the dialogue, not only in their sport but in other sports, and the workplace in general,” Kessler says. “They would like to see if they can do something about it, and exercise the responsibility that comes with their notoriety.”

There is a long tradition of activism on this issue on the women’s soccer team. They first began fighting it in 1996. That year, the U.S. federation promised the American men a bonus for every game they won in the Olympics. It told the women, starring Hamm, they wouldn’t get a bonus unless they won the gold medal.

“We were getting paid essentially about $10 a day,” remembered Foudy, a former team captain. “We were traveling, so you couldn’t have a second job. The equation didn’t work; you couldn’t pay your rent.”

When they pushed for more bonuses to support the cost of living, a federation official told them not to be “greedy.”

“Their argument was, ‘Come on, sweetie, you should be happy you get to wear a USA jersey,’ ” Foudy said.

Recently retired Abby Wambach, left, was a stalwart on the U.S. squad for years.

In 1999, the women were the adored World Cup champions, victors over China at the Rose Bowl in that now-legendary game, yet they made waitress pay, about $15,000. Entering the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they had to go on strike to negotiate a raise. When they proposed a two-month contract for $18,000, the federation’s counter-offer was $3,150 a month. Less than $800 a week.

“We said, ‘Hey, you signed a $120 million contract with Nike, and we think we had a little to do with it,’ ” Foudy recalled.

They not only wanted better salaries for themselves, but better living conditions and funding and staffing for the women’s youth program. They were tired of motels. There were times the federation didn’t even give them transportation: They had to take a Holiday Inn Express shuttle bus to one match.

Finally, they threatened to sit out the Olympics. Hamm gave them their leverage. She turned to Foudy and said, “You know, I’m okay with my career. If it ends here, I’m happy. How about you?” The federation realized they were serious.

By 2006, they had negotiated a contract that paid their players-in-residence decent annual salaries of $70,000. It seemed like a fortune.

The attitude of USSF is that it has done its part to foster women’s soccer over the past 30 years and has increased pay steadily, and that’s true enough. The women on the national team are now well compensated, by their old standards: Their base pay is $72,000 for a slate of 20 exhibition games, and they can make $75,000 or more in World Cup and other victory bonuses. There are also provisions for maternity leave and day care.

Yet what would have happened if they hadn’t demanded it?

Pay is not a stand-alone issue. The issue is what they are paid in comparison with men for identical work. And all you need to know about that can be summed up with one small fact: The women still fly coach; the men fly business class.

The 2015 women’s World Cup final was the most-watched soccer game ever, men’s or women’s, on a U.S. network. More Americans watched that game than the NBA Finals. The USSF enjoyed a $20 million increase in revenue in 2015, thanks to the women’s victory and a triumphant tour. Their own budget figures show they expect the women will bring in more revenue than the men this year, too, and again in 2017.

Yet Abby Wambach gets paid a fraction for winning gold what Clint Dempsey gets paid for losing in a first round.

It’s the direct comparison that stings. Money is a measure of respect.

“There are no legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for this gross disparity of wages, nor can it be explained away by any bona fide seniority, merit or incentive system or any other factor than sex,” their EEOC complaint says.

The USSF’s official response to the complaint was that it was “disappointed” in the team. Disappointed.

“It’s like a statement a parent would make to a child,” Kessler said.

Well, guess what? The women are disappointed in the federation.

“I think they are saying, ‘I’m tired of this argument,’ ” Foudy said.

We all are.

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