In the complex and litigious fight between the U.S. women’s national soccer team and its governing body over equal pay, one thing is free, supposedly: words. In reality, they are priceless, so immeasurably valuable despite their abundance. Given the sensitivity of the issue and its potential far-reaching impact on the future of women’s sports, the language is precious as the two sides work through a messy disagreement that mirrors American society’s polarizing views on the proper way to value female athletes.

Words matter more in this case than in the inane sports debates that occupy most of our time. The conversation about the worth of the U.S. women’s team should be a nuanced one, with plenty of compelling arguments and miles of ground to cover because the team is such a dominant and essential outlier in the man-cave world of athletics. The way we talk about these women and their pursuit of fair compensation can elevate the minds of many, or it can send us sliding back down into the exasperating, sexist mud.

And so it is infuriating, though not surprising, to know that the U.S. Soccer Federation chose to eschew sophisticated discourse in its lazy attempt at a legal defense against the players’ wage discrimination lawsuit. It is insulting that, in a court motion filed this week, the lawyers for the organization continue to resort to the same loaded claims about the female players’ “skill, effort and responsibility” in relation to their male counterparts.

“The overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes,” the organization argued in a motion aiming to convince Judge R. Gary Klausner to rule in its favor before the scheduled jury trial begins May 5 in California. “Such as speed and strength, required for the job.”

U.S. Soccer considered the biological differences “indisputable science” and said women can’t be paid the same because the men’s game “requires a higher level of skill.” It also tried to make the case that the men deserve more money because they play in hostile environments that make their jobs more demanding.

“All these facts demonstrate that the job of a [men’s] player carries more responsibility within U.S. Soccer than the job of a [women’s] player,” the motion read.

No, all of these “facts” demonstrate that U.S. Soccer, at best, is condescending, trite and unconcerned about offering rhetoric detrimental to the perception of its four-time World Cup championship program and all great female athletes. At worst, the federation is simple-minded and chauvinistic as it oink, oink, oinks its way over to the slop.

With so much on the line, it is astonishing that U.S. Soccer, instead of refining the language it has used throughout this suit, seemed to double down on it. The arrogance is insulting.

Late Wednesday night, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro issued a statement of apology, but it didn’t erase the damage already done.

“This ridiculous ‘argument’ belongs in the Paleolithic Era,” said Molly Levison, a spokeswoman for the women, as she absolutely nailed an easy target. “It sounds as if it has been made by a cave man. Literally everyone in the world understands that an argument that male players ‘have more responsibility’ is just plain simple sexism and illustrates the very gender discrimination that caused us to file this lawsuit to begin with. So looking forward to trial on May 5.”

I disagree with Levison on one point, however: Sadly, I’m not sure everyone in the world understands the sexism of U.S. Soccer’s argument. That’s why the tone of that motion is as dangerous as it is disappointing. It legitimizes stereotypes and ignorance and, if not shot down forcefully, creates the risk of setting back the inspiring work that the U.S. women’s team and many others have done to illuminate the strength, power and possibilities of women’s athletics.

This is a complicated legal battle that stirs public emotion. It needed to be a highbrow debate that made us smarter. U.S. Soccer should have kept its argument focused solely on salary as a function of revenue and gone about trying to prove how much money the women’s team actually generates, which is contentious and a little hard to decipher when considering sponsorship dollars.

There are layers to that discussion, and beyond what can or can’t be proved about revenue, there is the underestimated value of what the U.S. women’s success and prestige have done to grow the sport in this country while the men’s team lags behind competitively.

The fact that their brands are combined under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer should not be discredited. The women have, in essence, extended a hand to lift their fallen brothers, who didn’t even qualify for the 32-team men’s World Cup in 2018.

It may not matter legally. It will be quite a challenge for the women to receive the nearly $67 million they are seeking in damages. But in the court of public opinion, U.S. Soccer should lose an amount of respect that cannot possibly be recouped by “winning” this lawsuit.

It is asinine to suggest that the male and female players have different jobs. They’re all soccer players. One team is really, really special in a women’s game that is growing and becoming more competitive around the world. One team is really, really irrelevant in the long-established men’s game. Male athletes may be stronger and faster than female athletes, but there’s much more to skill in soccer than strength and speed. And besides, trying to make comparisons across gender is the most fruitless of acts in sports. It’s more worthwhile to judge and appreciate competence within the parameters we set long ago.

Acknowledging the biological differences between men and women isn’t some aha revelation to present to dodge a more meaningful debate. That has pretty much been accepted since the beginning of sport.

What it all means now — and what it should mean for the future — is fascinating to consider. This lawsuit has the potential to be a petri dish for redefining gender equity or simply fairness — in sports. But with every headline, the fight gets messier. Blame U.S. Soccer for that.

In a weak defense, it has been foolish with its words. It has shown its true, dismissive colors and disparaged the players who represent its virtue. There’s little chance for learning and original thought to emerge from the ugliness now.

It was a novel approach by U.S. Soccer, though, to try to triumph in a discrimination case by employing a discriminatory tone. Clever, fellas. Real clever. Win or lose, those words will prove costly.

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