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Soccer newsletter: A settlement is best in U.S. women’s soccer pay dispute

Cindy Parlow Cone on stage during the FIFA Women's World Cup Draw in Dec. 2018.
Cindy Parlow Cone on stage during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Draw in Dec. 2018.
(Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we’ll start today with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which won a partial victory over the women’s national team in a court of law last week but it is still getting routed in the court of public opinion.

Last Friday U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner dismissed a large part of the women’s gender-equality lawsuit, dealing a mortal blow to the team’s claim it was owned more than $66 million in damages and back pay. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for many, the reigning Women’s World Cup champions are at least underappreciated, if not underpaid, when compared to a men’s national team that didn’t even qualify for its last World Cup and has gone beyond the round of 16 just once since 1930.

So the wisest move for the federation now is to avoid spiking the football – what does it really have to celebrate anyway? – and instead approach the women with a peace offer that redresses their grievances and allows both sides to move forward together.

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Fortunately in Cindy Parlow Cone, who is less than two months into her job as federation president, it has the perfect person to make that happen. And that makes an out-of-court settlement the best solution for both sides, providing it’s one that gives the women’s team a much bigger role in the federation’s business going forward, rewards them for their accomplishments and recognizes the outsized role the women’s game will have in growing soccer globally in the coming years.

Cone has been here before. She played on the 1999 World Cup-champion U.S. squad, a team that challenged U.S. Soccer with its own fight for respect and equality. Five months after winning the world title on Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick before a sold-out crowd at the Rose Bowl, the 99ers went on strike, refusing to play until the federation agreed to a collective-bargaining agreement to replace the one which expired before the World Cup victory.

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Cone and her teammates were asking for an $1,850 raise, to $5,000 a month; the women today are asking to be paid on par with the men’s national team, whose players can make as much as $17,625 a game depending on the opponent and the outcome. That’s nearly double the bonus a woman player would get for a comparable result.

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But while the numbers have changed since 1999, the argument is the same: the women aren’t getting the reward or the recognition they have earned.

Klausner didn’t opine on that, sticking instead to the legal arguments when agreeing with the federation that the collective-bargaining agreement the women negotiated in 2017 paid them more in guaranteed salary and benefits than the men get. The lawyers representing the women have promised to appeal and although the judge did allow claims of disparities in travel and medical staff to go to trial June 16 in Los Angeles, with the main argument seemingly off the table, the best way forward for both sides would be to strike a deal.

“The WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT, and the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players,” Klausner wrote in a 32-page opinion.

And he’s right; the women’s lawsuit was based on faulty math all along. Although it is true a male player can earn more in bonuses for one game, the women’s CBA guarantees a base salary of as much as $100,000 a year plus another $72,500 for playing in the National Women’s Soccer League, the domestic league that U.S. Soccer subsidizes. That means the federation pays the top 18 players in the national team pool $172,500, plus benefits such as medical insurance and family leave, in addition to game-day bonuses.

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The men get no guaranteed salary and no benefits and must make a game-day squad to get any pay at all. But as was the case two decades ago with Cone and the 99ers, the dispute between the team and the federation is only partly about money. That the new president gets that was obvious in the carefully-worded two-sentence statement the federation released after Klausner’s decision.

“We look forward to working with the Women’s National Team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game both here at home and around the world,” it said. “U.S. Soccer has long been the world leader for the women’s game on and off the field, and we are committed to continuing that work to ensure our Women’s National Team remains the best in the world and sets the standard for women’s soccer.”

Contrast that with the language used in the federation’s legal filings two months ago when it argued that male players need “materially more strength and speed” than women players and the job of male players “carried more than responsibility” than playing for the most decorated women’s national team in history.

That’s not the way to address the most decorated national team in women’s soccer history and one of the most accomplished in all of international sports.

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It was a disaster that led federation president Carlos Cordeiro to resign, paving the way for Cone to become the first women to lead U.S. Soccer in the federation’s 107 years and her accension couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only has she been a victim of the federation’s unequal practices, she was also part of a team that fought against them, which gives her a visceral understanding the issues at play and the credibility to solve them.

Despite her federation’s win in court Cone knows the arc of justice bends toward the women, who clearly have the public on their side. Jersey sales, TV ratings and attendance for the women eclipse the men across the board. Of more importance for U.S. Soccer’s bottom line is the fact major sponsors, including Coca-Cola Co., Anheuser Busch, Procter & Gamble and Volkswagen have also rallied to the women’s side.

Last year U.S. Soccer offered the women $9 million to settle their lawsuit; the players want more than $66 million. That’s a big gap to bridge but the women themselves have hinted at a way forward, publicly conceding that equal pay is a complex concept. That’s an argument with which Cone undoubtedly agrees and it gives the sides a starting point to begin a new way forward.

The players have said repeatedly they are fighting for future generations so what if the women’s national team was offered increased representation on the U.S. Soccer board of governors? What if they were given enough seats at the decision-making table to ensure real progress is made not only on the national level but in youth development and in spending at all levels?

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What if U.S. Soccer adopted a platform that included pressuring FIFA to address global inequalities in soccer? Fifty-one FIFA members don’t even field a women’s team and the vast, vast majority of those that do spend very little on their women’s program. What if U.S. pledged to pressure FIFA to change that, requiring all members to support women’s soccer and fund it at a baseline level?

When France won the men’s World Cup in 2018 it took home $38 million from a total prize-money purse of $400 million. When the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup last summer it got $4 million from a total purse of $30 million. FIFA must change that too and if the argument is the men’s tournament brings in more money – which it does – then move some of that revenue over to fund the women’s competition.

That kind of revenue sharing has made Title IX work and the growth that has meant to women’s programs has greatly benefited all college sports, regardless of gender.

It would work for FIFA as well. If FIFA can be persuaded to engage half the planet’s population instead of marginalizing it, it might be surprised how much the global game can still grow.

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Last week’s court ruling shouldn’t be seen as a loss for the women’s team nor as a win for the federation. Instead it represents an opportunity for both sides to get beyond the animosity that has built up since Cone’s playing days, paving the way for Cone the president to usher in the kind of advances she and her teammates must have envisioned when they went on strike two decades ago.

Is opening of training facilities the start of an MLS return?


MLS will allow players to access team training facilities Wednesday for the first time since March 13, although there are more caveats and restrictions to that reopening than there is in the fine print of a mobile-phone contract.

Players must train alone, outdoors, in a predesignated quadrant of the training field, for example. They cannot use locker rooms, team gyms, restrooms and other facilities. The workouts are considered voluntary and they cannot conflict with local public health or government restrictions.

Additionally, teams must submit a specific plan to the league explaining how they will sanitize and disinfect all equipment after each session, how they will screen players for COVID-19 as well as how they will stagger player and staff arrivals and departures to allow social-distancing measures to be enforced. Players must also dress at home and wear personal protective gear on their walks to and from the training field.

Yet despite all that, this probably represents an unsteady first step back toward some semblance of normalcy.

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A day after suspending its season in early March, MLS placed a moratorium on the use of team facilities, exempting only players who required specific treatment for an injury. That moratorium has been extended five times through May 15. And while practice sessions of two or more players remain prohibited, the league made a commonsense call to open practice fields in controlled conditions amid growing concerns that players were endangering themselves training in parks and other public venues where there were limited safeguards against the spread of COVID-19.

So I’m going to be optimistic here and say the unlocking of training facilities – even under draconian restrictions – is a sign of progress.

The league, after all, is still hopeful of completing a full 34-game schedule, even if that means playing the 2020 MLS Cup final early next year. One option discussed would have teams return to play in empty stadiums, but that would be costly since the league says ticket revenue, along with corporate sponsorships, is its largest source of revenue.

Exactly what the next step is isn’t clear, even to the players.

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“I just don’t think it’s that easy, really,” Galaxy defender Daniel Steres said during an appearance on the Corner of the Galaxy podcast last week. “Even trying to do a closed-door thing, you have to go to a single location and wherever that may be, there can’t be more spread of the virus there.

“Then you have to put us in a hotel that’s got to be essentially locked down. You can’t have any touch with the outside world. That’s nearly impossible.”

Steres said he’s trying to remain optimistic about the possibility of restarting the season soon, but he’s pessimistic about exactly how that would happen. California, he noted, remains under lockdown while other states with MLS teams, such as Florida, Georgia and Texas, have reopened. And once games resume, what would happen if players test positive? Would teams have to play with smaller rosters, perhaps without designated players, or would the schedule be paused again?

“I want to get back to playing. I want to get back to training. It’s just tough for me to see an easy or good way to do it,” he said. “That you can just, as a fan or anyone, be like ‘yeah, let’s just do that’; I think they’re kind of racking their brains for anything they can possibility come up with at this point.”

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Whatever the solution, Steres said it’s unlikely to satisfy everybody. So even if MLS is able to crown a champion for its 25th anniversary season, it will always carry an asterisk.

“Any team [that] gets to the end of the road, the other teams might be looking at them like ‘ah, it was 2020. It was that year’,” he said.

Assuming MLS resumes play at some point, the pause in the schedule might actually work to Steres’ benefit. After leading the Galaxy in minutes played in two of the last four seasons, the defender sat out the first two games this year with a groin injury. The break has helped that heal.

“That’s been my main focus during this quarantine time,” he said. “I can’t sit here and say just resting has completely gotten rid of everything, which is a little unfortunate. But we’re getting there, we’re getting close.”

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So, perhaps, is MLS.

European leagues also stuck for COVID-19 response


MLS isn’t the only first-division league struggling to find a way forward during the coronavirus pandemic. In the last week Belgium, France and Argentina joined the Netherlands in deciding to shut down their seasons while major decisions still loom in Germany, England, Spain and Italy.

After the U.S., Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Belgium and Germany rank second through seventh in terms of reported COVID-19 fatalities, combing for nearly half the deaths worldwide. So authorities there have more than soccer to consider when it comes to reopening stadiums.

The French ruled against the resumption of fun and games last week, blocking plans for the country’s top two men’s leagues and its top women’s league to restart play. Paris Saint-Germain, which led second-place Marseille by 12 points with 11 games to play, was declared the Ligue 1 champion and with the rest of the standings also frozen in place, Frank McCourt’s Marseille, in second place, qualifies for the Champions League for the first time since 2013-14 while Rennes and Lille get the league’s other two European tournament spots.

At the bottom of the table last-place Toulouse and 19th-place Amiens were relegated while second-division leader Lorient and second-place Lens were promoted.

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In Argentina, Boca Juniors were declared champions over Buenos Aires rival River Plate after the season’s final 11 games were canceled.

The Bundesliga, meanwhile, was hopeful of restarting its season May 9 but that date was pushed back when the German government delayed action on approving the league’s request to resume play until later this week. Chancellor Angela Merkel began easing lockdown measures across the country in late April only to be met by concerns over a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, leading some health experts to question the return to soccer.

Complicating matters further was the announcement that two players and a trainer at Cologne have tested positive for coronavirus.

In England the government and Premier League officials are discussing ways to restart the EPL season in June and the play the final 92 games on the schedule, most likely at neutral sites behind locked doors. But after a 3 ½-hour video conference between team representatives Friday, the Guardian reported at least one participant came away feeling the obstacles the league was facing were too great to overcome. Discussions will continue this week; the league is facing as much as $1.25 billion in lost revenue if the season does not resume, according to chief executive Richard Masters.

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In Spain, the government has approved a protocol for sporting activity to resume and teams began testing players for COVID-19 on Tuesday in the hopes of resuming training sessions next week. The league wants to restart the La Liga season in mid-June.

In Italy, Serie A clubs were expected to resume training this week after voting in a conference call to resume the season, perhaps as early as next month, They, too, will need government approval before games can be held.

In Portugal clubs returned to the training fields Monday with the government’s blessing for the first time in nearly two months. The Primeira Liga is scheduled to restart on May 30.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

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Quotebook

“It’s a league that’s on the up and still rising and I think a lot more players want to come over to America now to play. I’d definitely be interested in it.”

Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, speaking on The Hat-Trick podcast, on potentially play in the MLS one day.

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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