The most consequential parts of the U.S. women’s national team’s lawsuit against U.S. Soccer over an alleged lack of equal pay didn’t even make it to trial.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner granted a summary judgment to U.S. Soccer, saying that the USWNT players’ case for unequal pay wasn’t worth arguing in front of a jury. The trial that was once set to begin on May 5, but then was pushed back to June due to the coronavirus, will only continue with lesser issues at hand — such as travel and accommodations.
Judge Klausner took the U.S. Soccer position that the women’s team was paid more on a per-game basis than the men, which is a bit tricky based on win bonuses and the sort. Regardless, even if the USWNT’s collectively bargained deal with U.S. Soccer produces unequal pay to the men, the fault lies with the women and their representatives who agreed to it.
“The WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT, and that the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for other benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players,” Judge Klausner wrote in his 32-page summary judgment. “Accordingly, [the WNT] cannot now retroactively deem their CBA worse than the MNT CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the MNT's pay-to play structure when they themselves rejected such a structure.”
Essentially, a deal is a deal.
So deal with it.
In a legal sense, this was a resounding victory for U.S. Soccer and a humbling loss for the women’s team, who has vowed to appeal the ruling and continue the fight.
If the world existed inside a legal vacuum, that would make sense.
In truth, this was a loss for both sides. And it’s why they need to get together to repair a partnership that has the potential to be lucrative for all parties. A deal is also of great significance in the long-term growth of the women’s game, both domestically and internationally.
A win in a court of law is not the same as a win in the court of public opinion. Fans tend to side with players, not management, and sponsors, who are free to spend elsewhere, will always side with fans.
That can include the United States government, where Saturday presumptive democratic nominee Joe Biden tweeted that to U.S. Soccer: “equal pay, now. Or else when I’m president, you can go elsewhere for World Cup funding.”
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) May 2, 2020
Politicians say lots of things on the campaign trail, but they tend to take the side of popular opinion. With the summary judgement, U.S. Soccer doesn’t have to meet all of the WNT demands. Compromising on some, however, is good business.
Meanwhile, the kick-ass women’s national team, whose fight for better treatment included fans at the World Cup final in France chanting “equal pay,” might not want to drop the appeal and find common ground. That’s what it should do, though.
U.S. Soccer may have won in court, but moving forward, it needs the support of the women’s team as much as the women’s team needs the support of U.S. Soccer.
The federation’s legal strategy could be described as scorched earth, arguing dismissively and insultingly against many reasonable (if not ultimately legally persuasive) points the women were making. That included stating the women’s team didn’t deserve equal pay because of “indisputable science” that men’s players were of superior ability and athletic skill and strength.
No, the USWNT wouldn’t beat the USMNT in a game. But that isn’t the issue. Serena Williams couldn’t win the men’s field at Wimbledon either. The stands are still packed.
That legal filing cost U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro his job.
The women’s team is extremely popular and increasingly generates revenue via ticket sales, media deals, sponsorship and merchandise. The far less competitively successful men benefit financially from playing in international tournaments or in friendlies that command high media and sponsorship rights mostly because of the other teams, not necessarily them. There is nothing similar to Lionel Messi or Mo Salah driving up TV deals for the Women’s World Cup.
The USWNT is the engine pulling women’s soccer globally along at a slower (but increasing) speed. The USMNT is a caboose on a far faster train.
U.S. Soccer’s legal case, while ultimately successful, was insulting. Major sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Budweiser and Visa, denounced it.
The organization can’t afford to be seen as anti-female or anti-women’s national team. Victory comes at a cost. Those companies could move their dollars to other sports or just sponsor players individually (which might be good for stars, but not everyone else).
As the country heads into extremely uncertain economic times, that is a risk neither U.S. Soccer nor the players can afford to take.
In an effort to cut costs, U.S. Soccer recently ended its national developmental academy system. That move may make sense on the men’s side, where MLS teams are expected to step in the way professional teams do around the globe. In girls soccer, though, there aren’t well-funded pro clubs dotting the landscape. The elite developmental system is now decentralized, confused and scrambling.
U.S. Soccer needs to be on the side of the women’s team. And the women’s game needs U.S. Soccer behind it. Together they are far stronger. And richer.
Yes, a deal is a deal and a legal fight is a legal fight, but sometimes a new deal and the avoidance of a prolonged court battle is the best path for everyone.
Figure it out. Then fight together.
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