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Women’s soccer players sue U.S. federation for gender discrimination

U.S. forwards Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Mallory Pugh celebrate a goal during a match against Brazil this week. (Douglas Defelice/USA Today Sports)

Just months before they are set to defend their world title on the global stage, the members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer on Friday, accusing the national federation of paying lower salaries to women and subjecting them to more dangerous playing conditions than their male counterparts.

The lawsuit continues a years-long battle between the women’s team, which has vaulted in status while winning the World Cup three times, and U.S. Soccer over the players’ compensation and treatment compared with that of the men’s team, which has accomplished far less, never winning a world title and failing to qualify for the most recent World Cup.

It is also the latest entry in a series of high-profile disputes over gender equity in international team sports, including those in basketball, hockey and tennis.

In the lawsuit, filed on International Women’s Day in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the women’s team members allege that U.S. Soccer has “utterly failed to promote gender equality” and assert that federation officials have “gone so far as to claim that ‘market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.’ ”

According to the suit, a comparison of pay schedules for the teams shows that if each played 20 exhibition games in a year, members of the men’s team could earn an average of $263,320 each, while women’s team players could earn a maximum of $99,000.

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In 2016, five members of the U.S. women’s team similarly alleged wage discrimination in a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a precursor to Friday’s lawsuit. U.S. Soccer declined to comment Friday.

The suit is on behalf of 28 current women’s players — including stars Alex Morgan, ­Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd — and seeks class-action status, which would allow former players from teams dating from 2015 to join.

“We feel a responsibility not only to stand up for what we know we deserve as athletes, but also for what we know is right — on behalf of our teammates, future teammates, fellow women athletes, and women all around the world,” Rapinoe said in a news release Friday.

“Each of us is extremely proud to wear the United States jersey, and we also take seriously the responsibility that comes with that,” Morgan said, also in a news release. “We believe that fighting for gender equality in sports is a part of that responsibility. As players, we deserved to be paid equally for our work, regardless of our gender.”

The United States is the most successful team in women’s soccer history, winning World Cup titles in 1991, 1999 and 2015 to go with four Olympic gold medals. With marketable stars and memorable on-field moments — most notably Brandi Chastain’s penalty-kick goal to win the 1999 World Cup on U.S. soil — the team and its best players have acquired a level of celebrity perhaps unmatched by women in other American professional team sports.

Their dispute with U.S. Soccer mirrors the issues that prompted a near-strike by the U.S. women’s hockey team over alleged gender disparities that was averted weeks before the 2017 world championships. And it also comes as WNBA players are mulling collective action over allegations they receive a lower percentage of their league’s revenue than their counterparts in the NBA and as women’s tennis players continue to push for more tournaments beyond the Grand Slam events to agree to equal prize payouts for men and women.

Headquartered in Chicago, U.S. Soccer is the national federation for the sport, overseeing the men’s and women’s national teams for international competition as well as working to develop soccer’s domestic talent pipeline.

In the lawsuit, the women’s team members accuse U.S. Soccer officials of rigidly adhering to a pay structure that more richly rewards men’s team members than women’s team members despite an obvious disparity in competitive success that, in recent years, has been joined by rising commercial success for the women.

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Comparing revenue and pay between the men’s and women’s teams has been difficult because of differences in employment and income structures, as well as a lack of publicly available information. The members of the men’s team are employed by professional clubs around the world and receive additional compensation when they play for the national team. Conversely, the top female players are under contract with U.S. Soccer, not individual teams. Neither the federation nor the union for the women’s players has made publicly available financial information that would allow for apples-to-apples comparisons in ­revenue and pay.

In the lawsuit, the women claim that, in 2016, U.S. Soccer made more than $17 million in unexpected profit thanks largely to the women’s team while paying the women’s team players substantially less than their male counterparts.

The lawsuit also highlights the differences in World Cup bonuses. After the 2014 World Cup, U.S. Soccer paid $5.375 million in bonuses to the men’s team, which lost in the round of 16. In 2015, the lawsuit states, U.S. Soccer paid $1.725 million in bonuses to the women, who won the World Cup.

However, the World Cup team bonus pool is set by global governing organization FIFA, not U.S. Soccer, and there is a massive difference between the bonus pools — $400 million for 32 men’s teams compared with $30 million for 24 women’s teams — that reflects a sizable difference between the revenue for the events.

The U.S. women’s team members play under a collective bargaining agreement negotiated in 2016. During those negotiations, according to the lawsuit, the union for the women suggested a revenue-sharing model in which women’s team pay would rise and fall in connection with the team’s earnings.

“This showed the players’ willingness to share in the risk and reward of the economic success of the [national team],” the lawsuit states. U.S. Soccer “categorically rejected” the proposal, ­according to the suit.

In response to criticism, U.S. Soccer has made strides on gender equality in recent years. The federation’s most recent financial statement, in 2017, listed four women’s players among U.S. Soccer’s highest-paid employees, each making more than $240,000. Men appear on that list only after collecting World Cup bonuses.

But there are noticeable differences that persist in other areas, according to the lawsuit. From 2014 to 2017, the lawsuit states, the women played 13 times on artificial turf, which players believe is more likely to cause injuries, and the men played on turf just once. During the women’s 2015 World Cup victory tour, a game in Honolulu was canceled because the artificial turf was in poor shape.

Steven Goff contributed to this report.