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USWNT: Pay inequality, or simply a bad deal?




When the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) won the 2019 World Cup, it achieved a major accomplishment by becoming only the second country to win consecutive women’s World Cups. However, rather than the focus being on celebrating this significant achievement, the spotlight was cast on an ongoing fight for gender equality.


The USWNT filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation on March 8, 2019, prior to the start of the 2019 World Cup. The lawsuit was filed due to the discrepancy in pay between the players on the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) and the USWNT.


The USWNT’s fight for equal pay had been going on for several years leading up to the lawsuit, with the USWNT claiming the U.S. Soccer Federation was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act. The team brought attention to its case throughout the World Cup, encouraging chants of “Equal Pay” by fans and speaking about the cause in numerous interviews the players gave during the soccer tournament.


After winning the World Cup, the USWNT players seemed even more invigorated to continue their fight for gender equality. Days after the World Cup win, team captain Megan Rapinoe said the win meant “[c]ertainly much more than [just] the World Cup” and that it was “a monumental win in so many ways” in regards to women’s rights and gender equality. [1] After failed mediation, U.S. Soccer made several comments which said that unequal pay is fair because “men are bigger, stronger, [and] faster”; the USWNT pushed forward with their gender-discrimination lawsuit. [2]


Now, over a year after filing the initial suit, the USWNT suffered a major setback in its lawsuit. On Friday, May 1, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner for the Central District of California dismissed the equal pay claim.[3] The main reason behind the decision was based on the men’s and women’s teams having negotiated different pay deals. The players on the USMNT only earn bonuses for games played and have no guaranteed salary; they were essentially paid under a “pay-to-play” model.


In contrast, the USWNT deal includes lower bonuses for games played but gives them additional payments including a guaranteed salary and other fringe benefits. The history of negotiations between the USWNT and the U.S. Soccer Federation shows that the women’s team rejected a “pay-to-play” offer similar to the current deal the men’s team has. Also, the USWNT players were actually paid more per game and on a cumulative basis than the USMNT players. Therefore, the equal pay claim was dismissed (the suit survives due to additional claims of unequal spending and support services for the USWNT).

Though this recent decision to dismiss the equal pay claim is a major hindrance to the USWNT’s goal of equal pay, the team does not plan on abandoning its pursuit. Team captains Rapinoe and Alex Morgan vowed to continue their fight for equal pay and plan to appeal the decision to dismiss the equal pay claim, with Morgan saying, "We are fighters and we will continue to fight together for this.” [4] With the passion displayed by the USWNT and the significant support the team has received (including from Billie Jean King, presidential candidate Joe Biden and the USMNT), it is clear the USWNT’s fight for equal pay is far from over.


The legal question of whether there is ongoing gender discrimination cannot be answered simply by looking at how much the players for each team make. Though the USWNT players made more than their male counterparts, the USWNT players were also much more successful in their endeavors. The USWNT went further in their tournament and ultimately won the championship; if they had the same pay structure as the men’s team, they would have been paid significantly more than what they actually made. However, the flipside is also true; had the men’s team been paid under the USWNT’s deal, the men players would have made more than they did.


The court must tread carefully in determining whether the U.S. Soccer Federation is practicing gender discrimination or whether the soccer teams simply agreed to unfavorable deals. If the women’s team is allowed to retroactively change the terms of their deal to mimic that of the men’s team due to their alleged pay inequality, would the men’s team not also have the argument that its deal should have been the same as the women’s original deal because it was more favorable to the men? It is important to ensure that the decision is based entirely off of gender equality and women’s rights and that those goals are legitimately furthered by ruling for the USWNT.


If the court uses the argument for equal pay to interfere with a legitimate agreement that did not have true discriminatory issues, a dangerous precedent will be set. The freedom to contract would be negatively impacted, which would have wide-reaching impact on the common law of contracts and considerable effects on fundamental rights and legal principles.





___________________________________ Justin is a second-year law student at Florida State University College of Law and a managing editor of The Sports Blawg.




[1] Sean Gregory, 'You Will Not Silence Us': Megan Rapinoe Talks Equal Pay, World Cup Celebrations and Presidential Tweets, TIME (July 10, 2019), https://time.com/5623543/megan-rapinoe-world-cup-trump-equal-pay/.

[2] Meredith Cash, US Soccer says unequal pay for women is fair because 'men are bigger, stronger, faster,' as USWNT sues for $67 million, Business Insider (February 21, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/uswnt-lawsuit-players-suing-equal-pay-2020-2.

[3] Debra Cassens Weiss, Federal judge tosses unequal pay claims by U.S. women's soccer team, allows other claims, ABA Journal (May 4th, 2020), https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/federal-judge-tosses-unequal-pay-claims-by-us-womens-soccer-team-allows-other-claims.

[4] Reuters, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe vow to push forward after USWNT legal setback, ESPN.com (May 4, 2020), https://www.espn.com/soccer/united-states-usaw/story/4091797/alex-morgan-megan-rapinoe-vow-to-push-forward-after-uswnt-legal-setback.

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