U.S. women’s soccer equal-pay lawsuit ‘full-speed ahead,’ lawyer says

June 21 (UPI) — Don’t expect boycotts or protests from the United States Women’s National team during its quest for glory at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The world’s top team is focused on defending its World Cup title, but that doesn’t mean its other highly publicized quest is on hold. The gender discrimination lawsuit that 28 U.S. players filed in March against the United States Soccer Federation is going “full-speed ahead,” the players’ attorney, Jeffrey L. Kessler, said.

The women’s lawsuit was filed March 8 under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The suit alleges unequal pay compared to their counterparts on the men’s team.

The soccer federation denied the allegations in court papers, saying every decision “with respect to the conduct alleged in the complaint was for legitimate business reasons and not for any discriminatory or other unlawful purpose.”

The federation did not, however, move to dismiss the suit.

“I think they recognized that a motion to dismiss would have had zero chance,” Kessler said.

In the soccer world, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, known as FIFA, serves as the international governing body for the sport. FIFA distributes cash that national teams win to their respective federations. Those federations can choose how they disperse the money.

The U.S. federation contends in its response to the suit that its pay practices “are not based on sex” and any alleged pay differential between the women’s and men’s team is based on differences in the aggregate revenue generated by the teams.”

Kessler said lawyers will meet with U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner after the World Cup ends to schedule discovery, during which the women plaintiffs can ask for documents and information from the U.S. federation. The U.S. federation also can request documents from the plaintiffs and hold depositions of players, federation employees and others involved in the alleged pay discrimination.

The U.S. players hope to go to trial in 2020, their lawyer said.

Focus at Women’s World Cup

Women’s soccer stars have been vocal about equality throughout the World Cup. Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg chose to sit out the tournament instead of playing for Norway, citing a lack of respect for women’s players in her country.

Hegerberg first stepped away from the team in 2017, after the Norwegian Football Federation signed an agreement resulting in equal pay for the men’s and women’s players starting in 2018.

“In the end it’s not about money either,” Hegerberg told France 24. “It’s all about attitude and respect for the sport and women being treated equally as men.”

No players sat out for the United States as it swept through Thailand, Chile and Sweden in the group stage to reach the knockout round.

“I expect the team to do their best and become the world champions once again,” attorney Kessler said. “They have people like me to work on the case. They need to work on what they do best, which is be the premier women’s soccer team in the world.”

Former U.S. women’s coach and current University North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance remembers when women’s national team players didn’t get a salary, but received $10 per diem for expenses. Players stockpiled the money for a small post-tournament purse.

“Back then, there wasn’t even a consideration to make any comparisons,” Dorrance said. “This was sort of pre-equal pay discussions.”

The U.S. women assert the the U.S. federation gave the men’s team performance bonuses totaling $5.375 million after losing in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, while it gave the women $1.725 million for winning the 2015 World Cup.

U.S. women players said they earned $15,000 each for being asked to try out for the team and making the roster between March 2013 and December 2016.

The women said male players made $55,000 each for making the team’s roster in 2014 and could earn $68,750 for making the roster in 2018, but the U.S. federation denied those claims.

The women further claimed that if each team played and won 20 exhibition games in a year, women’s players would make a maximum of $4,950 per game, while men’s team players would earn an average of $13,166 per game.

The U.S. women’s team has garnered more revenue from its games than the U.S. men’s games since the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Women’s games generated $50.8 million from 2016 through 2018, while men earned about $49.9 million, according to audited financial statements provided by the U.S. federation. The figures first were reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. men’s team has voiced its support for the women’s efforts to be paid equally.

“I thought [the U.S. federation] reply was frankly weak and sort of ignores the reality of the situation,” Kessler said.

“For example, one of their ‘major’ claims from their answer was the discrimination was financially justified with the revenues of the teams. But in fact, if you read the Wall Street Journal … you know that the women’s team — since 2015 — has generated more revenue than the men.”

Pride in winning

While the effort for equality continues, the focus still remains on performance.

“I think that a lot of female professional athletes spend a lot of time off the pitch, the court, whatever they are playing on to advocate for better treatment of women in sports and in all careers,” U.S. star striker Christen Press told reporters Wednesday. “I think we take a lot of pride in that.”

She added: “At the end of the day, when I sit back and look at what we can do to help the future of the game, there is nothing more important than our performance and our performance on the biggest stage.”

The USA’s 3-0 win against Chile reached more than 1.6 million viewers, becoming the second most-watched Women’s World Cup game in Spanish language history, trailing only the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. The USA-Chile telecast on Fox also had the best overnight rating for any English-language soccer telecast since the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup final.

Brazil’s Marta passed Miroslva Klose to become the World Cup’s all-time leading scorer Tuesday. After she scored the goal, she pointed to the “Go Equal” logo on her cleat. “Go Equal” is a movement demanding equal pay for men and women.

“This record doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to all of us,” Marta told reporters. “I share it with anyone fighting for more equality.”

Marta said she wanted to emphasize that it’s not only in sports, but there is a “struggle for equality across the board.”

Press said the U.S. women are using the tournament as a way to celebrate all the team has fought for and continues to fight for.

“I think our team in particular has done so much in that fight for equality, but the best thing we can do is have great performances in this tournament,” she said.

Dorrance has coached many college players who moved onto the national team, including Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath, among others. He isn’t in France helping the U.S. team, but rather in Chapel Hill, N.C., seeking more resources for his college soccer squad.

“My main interest with the [U.S. women’s team] is are we still competitive in the world arena? … “I’m not a social justice warrior, I’m a soccer coach. There are a lot of coaches that are social justice warriors, but what intrigues me right now is the fact that the [USA] is still dynastic.

“I’m spending most of my time in that silo, trying to develop discussions about how the U.S. can remain on top of the world. It doesn’t mean I don’t have great empathy for this social justice movement. I think for us to become successful, we have got to figure out a way to sustain these young women who are playing.”

Dorrance said one of his main concerns is doing his best to sell out North Carolina’s new soccer stadium on a consistent basis.

“If we can start to sell out our pro games and start to get people to watch the game at the highest level, then I think the status of these women is going to change.”

“I think right now we are simplifying our mission if the mission is just to get [the U.S. federation] to pay the women what the men are getting paid. I think there is a broader and more effective campaign that all of us can participate in.”

To further the women’s cause, nutrition snack company Luna Bar announced in April that it will give each member of the U.S. women’s team a one-time payment of $31,250 for competing in the World Cup in an attempt to equal the men’s bonuses. Adidas also has pledged to give its sponsored players the same performance bonuses as their male counterparts if they win the World Cup.

When they return from France, many team members will refocus on their lawsuit. Attorney Kessler said that win or lose on the soccer field, he believes “the U.S. women will prevail in this separate struggle for equal pay.”

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