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Will USWNT Labor Dispute Create Equality in U.S. Soccer?

— April 11, 2016

The subculture of sports is by and large dominated by games played by men, at least in America if not most of the world. There are a few exceptions, however, like figure skating, tennis, and especially soccer in which American women have outperformed the men in both in-game success and in overall popularity. Although Major League Soccer (MLS) is growing into the fifth major sports league, the most popular soccer team in the U.S. is by far the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT). In fact, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), the sport’s national governing body’s own reports, the USWNT earned more than $20 million dollars more in revenue than their male counterparts last year and the women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan in 2015 drew the largest American viewing audience for a soccer match ever, male or female, at any level, an audience of 25.4 million. Of course, the USWNT has been much more successful then the men on the international level, winning three World Cups since 1991 and losing a heartbreaking final to Japan in 2011.

The combination of on-field success and as well as a large fan base of women, especially younger women, along with both hardcore and casual male fans have served as a rebuttal to the common stereotype that women’s sports in the U.S. do not generate enough interest (and fan money) to be considered among the top-tier of the American sporting hierarchy. Given the persistent stereotype, it shouldn’t be too surprising the men’s team is compensated at a much higher rate than the women despite the aforementioned facts. The disparity between the USSF’s treatment between the sexes, however, paints an even more alarming picture than most would imagine. According to its own reports, USSF spends over $30 million to fund the men’s soccer team, whereas it allots a mere $11 million for the women’s program. Yet that is merely the base point of the inequity.


Thousands gather in Lower Manhattan to celebrate the U.S. Women’s return in July, 2015 following the team’s 5-2 World Cup victory over Japan. Photo courtesy of MuzikAnimal/Wikimedia Commons
Thousands gather in Lower Manhattan to celebrate the U.S. Women’s return in July, 2015 following the team’s 5-2 World Cup victory over Japan. Photo courtesy of MuzikAnimal/Wikimedia Commons


Among several numbers that show the disparity in compensation are the differences in incentive structure. If the men’s team loses an international friendly, each player still earns $5,000, while the women’s team earns a mere $1,350 per player for WINNING, the women earn zero bonus for losing. Meanwhile, if the men beat a team ranked in FIFA’s top 10 international ranking, each player earns an additional $17,625, whereas the women merely earn the $1,350. Although not as alarming as the bonus structure, the fact each woman player also receives $10 less per day in meal allowance shows how deep and how petty the difference in compensation runs. The women, however, do earn a base salary of $72,000 per year for a minimum of 20 international matches, whereas the men do not earn a base salary beyond the 5,000 per match. Still, according to Inc. Magazine’s contributing editor Jeff Haden, the total compensation of the women’s team in 2015 was roughly 25 percent of the men, despite the women winning the World Cup that year.

After decades of collective bargaining conflict between the USWNT and the USSF, the battle has turned into full-scale warfare this year, highlighted by the filing of a wage-discrimination complaint against the governing body by five of the team’s most prolific stars on March 31st. The players include U.S. co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, the always quotable goaltender Hope Solo, as well as stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. The complaint was filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which automatically triggers an investigation into workplace discrimination by the agency. The players are arguing that the USSF is in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by paying them less because of their sex. The investigation will likely include subpoenas of financial records by both the USSF and the USWNT’s Player’s Association, and may last for over a year. According editor Michael McCann, the average EEOC investigation lasts approximately 10 months.

Depending on the findings and the degree of cooperation between the parties, the EEOC may recommend mediation, in which the two parties mutually and voluntarily agree to an agreement. If mediation is ruled out, conciliation, in which the EEOC will try to steer the parties into a binding settlement, would be the next likely option. If either or both of these options are unavailable, the EEOC may choose to file a lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs. It is also possible that the EEOC could find no probable cause and dismiss the complaint, which would allow the players 90 days from the EEOC ruling to file a discrimination lawsuit on their own. In its defense, USSF officials have argued that it is merely abiding by the language in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) agreed to between the Player’s Association and the USSF beginning in 2013, and running through the end of this year.

The attorney filing the discrimination complaint, Winston & Strawn’s co-chairman Jeff Kessler, has been one of the most successful and most loathed sports attorneys in history. Among the feathers in Kessler’s cap include representing the successful appeal of superstar quarterback Tom Brady’s NFL suspension over the “Deflategate” controversy in New York federal court, and representing former basketball player Latrell Sprewell and the NBA Players Association in an arbitration hearing that led to Sprewell’s suspension to be overturned, following a disturbing incident in Sprewell reportedly choked former coach P.J. Carlesimo. Kessler also represented NFL’er Ray Rice during his fight for reinstatement following a gruesome video showing Rice punching his future wife in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Kessler also represented players in both the NBA and NFL during their highly contentious lockout incidents earlier in the decade. Kessler is also no stranger to fighting with U.S. Soccer, which sanctions MLS as the only top-tier Division I soccer league in the country. The attorney is currently involved in an antitrust lawsuit representing the North American Soccer League against USSF for creating unreasonable hurdles for any league that attempts to threaten MLS’s designation as the top pro soccer league in the U.S.

The EEOC complaint is the latest and most aggressive salvo for what has been a decades-long fight for equality for U.S. women on the international circuit. Most notably is the ongoing labor fight between the Player’s Association and the USSF in Chicago federal court regarding the most recent CBA. The crux of that lawsuit, filed February 3rd, hinges on whether or not the USWNT players are permitted to strike in order to force a rewrite the language in the agreement, or accelerate negotiations for a new agreement. The players allege that a memorandum of understanding exists that allows them to renegotiate the CBA, a notion that the USSF is refuting. The EEOC complaint is seen by many to be a move to either hedge or an attempt to accelerate the ruling by U.S District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman whether or not the players are permitted to strike, or if the sides can agree to a settlement. If a settlement is reached, not only could a potentially damaging work stoppage be avoided in the wake of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio, but it could also be predicated on the withdrawal of the EEOC complaint by the players. On the other hand, the EEOC investigation, depending on the nature of the agency’s findings, could force USSF’s hand, and force it to reach a more player-friendly agreement. In addition to the actions playing out through the legal system, both the players and USSF executives have established a heavy media presence in recent weeks, advocating for their respective positions.

Both the labor dispute and the EEOC complaint are the latest steps in a long process towards equality among the national teams. While the labor dispute in the wake of the 2016 games has become nearly as big of news as the NBA and NFL lockouts from recent memory, it took more than a generation to get to this point. Even though they won their first World Cup in 1991, and the 1996 Olympic Gold, players on that 1996 women’s Olympic team earned a mere $1,000 per month, with a $10 per day meal allowance, and were only eligible for a bonus if they won gold. Things began to change three years later, when the team became the object of adoration after winning the 1999 World Cup, the modern establishment of the USWNT’s international dominance. It was during the run up to the 1999 Cup that the team enlisted the help of a past champion of equality, tennis star Billie Jean King, who won another famous “battle of the sexes” a generation prior. According to one of the USWNT’s early stars, Julie Foudy, King “taught us that this wasn’t an issue for the federation to handle. The team could handle it ourselves.” One of the first steps the team did to bring attention to equality was stage a “Wildcat strike,” boycotting practices, which ultimately led to some major USSF concessions prior to the 1999 Cup

Although pay and treatment of the USWNT has steadily improved during this century, the numbers show that improvement does not mean equality. With such a wide gap between the men’s and women’s team, it is hard to imagine the next collective bargaining session between the Players Union and U.S Soccer that would be representative to the actual revenue and popularity of the teams. At the same time, the USSF will have a difficult time arguing that the current CBA is equitable given its own financial documents. The EEOC complaint appears to have merit, but its impact will likely depend on Judge Coleman’s interpretation of the alleged memorandum of understanding. Moreover, it could be a major blow to both USSF, and American soccer fans in general, if the dispute results in the absence of the USWNT from Olympic competition. Regardless of what kind of resolution is reached however, this saga has created some form of equality for women’s sports, as this is the first labor dispute involving professional women’s athletics that has reached the level of importance normally reserved for the major men’s leagues. They are pioneers for the business and legal aspects of sports. Much like their 1999 World Cup victory, this is a cause that should unite sports fans in lending both support and appreciation.


Additional Reading:

CBS News – Glenn Crooks

ESPN – ESPN News Service/Associated Press

Inc Magazine – Jeff Haden – Michael McCann

The Nation – Dave Zirin

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