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U.S. women’s soccer players sue for equal treatment just months before World Cup

U.S. women’s soccer players sue for equal treatment just months before World Cup
The starting 11 for the U.S. women's national soccer team poses before a SheBelieves Cup match against England on March 2 in Nashville. (Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

For the second time in three years, the rock stars of United States soccer, members of the world champion women’s team, have sued their federation, alleging systemic gender-based discrimination in wages and other terms.

All 28 members of the national team player pool are asking for compensation and working conditions equitable to what the U.S. Soccer Federation provides to the men’s national team, who have similar job responsibilities but have not performed well at the international level. The women’s players are also seeking damages, including back pay.

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The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Friday — International Women’s Day — comes less than three months before the reigning world champions are scheduled to open defense of their title in the Women’s World Cup in France. It says that U.S. Soccer “utterly failed to promote gender equality” and that federation officials have claimed “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.”

The federation has not responded publicly to the lawsuit.

The U.S. women are three-time world champions who have drawn record television audiences. The men, who this year have played before smaller crowds than the women, failed to qualify for the last World Cup and have not advanced past the quarterfinal round of the tournament since the inaugural event in 1930.

“The bottom line is simple: It is wrong for us to be paid and valued less for our work because of our gender,” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn, a former co-captain. “Every member of this team works incredibly hard to achieve the success that we have had for the USSF. We are standing up now so that our efforts, and those of future USWNT players, will be fairly recognized.”

In 2016, five women’s national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging the federation with wage discrimination. The women took that fight into negotiations for a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with the federation in 2017, winning raises for as much as 30% in base pay in addition to increased bonuses, improved travel benefits and control over some licensing and marketing deals.

However, according to the lawsuit, if the men’s and women’s national teams each played 20 exhibitions in a year, winning all of them, the women would earn a maximum of $99,000, or $4,950 a game, while similar men’s players would make $263,330, or $13,166 a game.

The men’s team also traveled on charter flights 17 times in 2017; the women flew commercial. And from 2014 to 2017, the women played 13 of 62 domestic games on artificial surfaces, which are considered more taxing and dangerous, while the men played 48 of 49 on natural grass when they played in the U.S.

“The fact is that the pay disparity and unequal working conditions persist,” forward Christen Press said. “We believe that we have a responsibility to act as role models. [To] fight for what we legally deserve is part of that.”

Friday’s court filing, under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, effectively ends the EEOC complaint but comes at a delicate time for both the team and the federation, with the quadrennial World Cup kicking off in Paris on June 7. The U.S. players, who are seeking back pay and other damages, have not threatened a boycott or job action connected to the tournament, but they could wind up playing while in the uncomfortable position of being in litigation against their own federation.

The Women’s World Cup is the most lucrative and important competition in the sport. Four years ago, the U.S. federation made $2 million when the women’s team defeated Japan in the World Cup final, a game watched by 27 million TV viewers in the U.S., the largest domestic audience for a soccer match.

“In light of our team’s unparalleled success on the field, it’s a shame that we still are fighting for treatment that reflects our achievements and contributions to the sport,” said Carli Lloyd, who scored three goals in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 final. “We have made progress in narrowing the gender pay gap; however, progress does not mean that we will stop working to realize our legal rights and make equality a reality for our sport.”

FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, has doubled the overall World Cup prize-money purse to $30 million this summer, which will be divided among the 24 competing teams. The winner’s prize will also double, to $4 million. But that still lags far behind the $400 million FIFA distributed to the 32 teams in last summer’s men’s tournament in Russia, where France received $38 million for winning the event.

The U.S. men received performance bonuses totaling $5.375 million after losing in the round of 16 in the 2014 tournament in Brazil, their last appearance. The federation gave the women $1.725 million in bonuses for winning their tournament a year later.

In the past, job actions by the U.S. women inspired protests for equitable treatment from women’s teams in Scotland, Australia, Denmark, Ireland, Brazil, Norway and elsewhere.

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Players in Ireland won modest increases in pay and bonuses after boycotting a training camp, and the Scottish team implemented a media blackout ahead of the 2017 European Women’s Championship. A pay dispute prompted the Danish team to sit out a World Cup qualifying match, resulting in a four-year ban and a fine against its federation. Norway’s women’s team, despite winning pay equality with its men’s team last year, will probably enter this summer’s tournament without Ada Hegerberg, voted the best player in the world last year, who refuses to play for her country because of what she called a lack of respect for female players in Norway.

“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,” said U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, who joined Sauerbrunn, Lloyd, Alex Morgan and former national player Hope Solo in bringing the 2016 EEOC complaint.

Soccer isn’t the only sport in which gender disparities have been an issue. The U.S. women’s ice hockey team announced it would boycott the 2017 world championships over pay and other conditions before winning concessions from USA Hockey. In tennis, women have pushed for years to be paid more in line with what the men make. And WNBA players are said to be considering collective action to protest their receiving a lower percentage of the league’s revenue than the men do in the NBA.

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