U.S. women’s soccer team sues governing body over gender discrimination

Julie Ertz of the U.S. heads the soccer all during the She Believes Cup in 2019
Unites States midfielder Julie Ertz (8) heads the ball during the She Believes Cup match between the USA and Brazil on March 5, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Just a month before the United States begins its title defense in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the entire U.S. women’s national team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The lawsuit is a significant escalation of a long-running fight over pay equity and working conditions for the most dominant international women’s team just months before women’s soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup.

In the suit, filed on Friday in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the players accuse the federation of “institutionalized gender discrimination.” Friday is also recognized as International Women’s Day.

The team, one of the United States’ most successful competitors across international sport, claims the governing body for U.S. soccer discriminated against the players via their paychecks, how and where they played, how they trained and coached, received medical care and traveled to matches.

The Women’s World Cup kicks off June 7 in France with the U.S. favored to retain its title. The Americans are the most successful team in women’s soccer, winners of three World Cups, four Olympic gold medals, eight CONCACAF Gold Cups and 10 Algarve Cups.

The issue of equality is not solely an issue for the U.S. team. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, arguably the best female soccer player in the world, is not expected to play in this summer’s Women’s World Cup. A major reason for her absence is what she described as a lack of respect for female players in Norway.

The 23-year-old striker stepped away from Norway’s national team in 2017 after its surprising elimination in the group stage of the UEFA Women’s Championship.

“Football is the biggest sport in Norway for girls and has been for years, but at the same time girls don’t have the same opportunities as the boys,” Hegerberg told The Guardian in mid 2018.

“Norway has a great history of women’s football, but it’s harder now. We’ve stopped talking about development, and other countries have overtaken us.”

Not too long after Hegerberg announced her departure from the national team, the Norwegian Football Association (NFF) and Norway’s players’ association (NISO) signed an agreement on equal pay in a deal thought to be the first of its kind in international football.

The U.S. team’s lawsuit is similar to the actions of the U.S. women’s hockey team before the 2018 Winter Olympics when the team threatened not to participate in the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation world championships because of unequal treatment.  With help from the NHL, the parties reached a resolution on the pay gap between the women’s hockey team and the men’s reached a negotiated settlement. The women’s hockey team, much like the women’s soccer team, displayed sustained success in international competition, winning three straight IIHF world championships and two Olympic gold medals, three silvers and one bronze since the sport was introduced in the games in 1998. The team had threatened not to participate in last year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea if the salary issue was not resolved.

That resolution opened the doors to the team competing and winning their first gold medal since 1998, beating archrival Canada..

According to the New York Times, the American soccer players have requested class action status and are seeking to represent anyone who played for the team since Feb. 4, 2015.

The Times reported that U.S. Soccer did not respond to their request for comment. The suit alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act and violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts,” the suit said. “This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players – with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions.”

While the America women have won three of the seven Women’s World Cups played, the highest finish for the U.S. men’s national team in the World Cup’s nearly 90-year history of the men’s event was 2002, when the team reached the quarterfinals.. The U.S. men did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Both the men’s and women’s teams have separate collective bargaining agreements with U.S. Soccer, the NYT reported, with different payment structures. The men receive higher bonuses when they play for the U.S., but are paid only when they make the team. The women receive guaranteed salaries but with smaller match bonuses.

However, the multimillion dollar bonuses the teams receive from FIFA for participating in the World Cup are enormous – there is a pool of $400 million for the 32 men’s teams versus $30 million for the 24 women’s teams in the tournament.

The USWNT nearly went on strike before the 2016 Rio Olympic Games over pay and reached a contentious new collective bargaining agreement. Five players – including Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe – filed a federal complaint in 2016 accusing US Soccer of wage discrimination. The lack of resolution on that case led to this filing, the NYT reported.

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