After a federal judge dismissed the equal pay claims of the World Cup-winning women’s national team on Friday night, it was not the words in the United States Soccer Federation’s response that stuck out. It was the ones that weren’t there.
Nowhere in its two-sentence statement did U.S. Soccer say it was happy with the decision.
The federation, which the women’s national team began battling legally four years ago, had every reason to celebrate, of course. After a protracted fight that had pummeled the federation’s reputation, embarrassed its leaders, angered its sponsors and threatened its financial future, the judge’s ruling granting summary judgment in its favor in relation to equal pay arguments was not a mere triumph over the players. It was a devastating rejection of the core argument of the women’s case.
For years, the players have argued that they are paid less than their counterparts on the men’s national team. Over and over, they made the case that they deserved equal pay. They repeated that rallying cry in hashtags and on T-shirts and in news conferences, and they heard their fans chant it at friendly matches, World Cup finals and victory parades.
And then in one crushing paragraph in Friday’s ruling, the judge in their lawsuit, R. Gary Klausner of Federal District Court in Los Angeles, told them they were wrong.
Not only had U.S. Soccer not paid the players less than the men, Judge Klausner wrote, it had convinced him that “the WNT has been paid more on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis than the MNT” over the years covered in the case. The evidence the players’ lawyers presented to counter the federation’s math, he concluded, “is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact for trial.”
In effect, he said, they could never win.
The brutal irony, of course, was that in choosing to fight U.S. Soccer while they were at the peak of their powers — World Cup champions, social media stars and respected, global spokeswomen for women’s empowerment and equal treatment — the women’s team had also picked the absolute worst time to line up a few years of their salaries against a few years of the men’s pay.
Since February 2015, the agreed-upon start of the class-action period in the case, the women’s team has claimed two World Cup titles (and millions in bonus payments for those triumphs) and won other major gains by negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer. The United States men’s team, on the other hand, has plumbed new lows, with even its failures serving to cripple the women’s case.
By failing to qualify for the only men’s World Cup played during the class window, the men became ineligible for millions of dollars in performance bonuses of their own. Those payments would have swelled their paydays from U.S. Soccer far beyond what the women could ever earn.
So U.S. Soccer was able to argue not only that it was not paying the women less, but that it was already paying the women’s team more than the men. The fact sheets outlining the numbers — like so many of U.S. Soccer’s actions in the case — played terribly in the court of public opinion, and they infuriated the women’s players. But as a legal argument they allowed Judge Klausner to conclude that the federation’s figures, at least in the narrow time window he was considering, were accurate.
The women’s players have vowed to appeal his ruling, and they pledged to pursue the remaining claims of inequality that Judge Klausner preserved, centered on travel, hotel accommodations and team staffing. But their success in the courts now seems farther away than ever.
That does not mean, however, that there isn’t a path to something resembling victory still available to both sides. The only question is what that peace might cost.
The players may need to take the first step, which would be humbling but also not unprecedented. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe, perhaps the players’ most effective advocate, has long acknowledged that equal pay is a “complex argument” not limited to compensation, and in the past she and her teammates have pressed for what were ultimately fruitless attempts at mediation.
What’s a fair resolution? Last year, U.S. Soccer made an opening bid to settle the case by offering the players $9 million. In a court filing earlier this year, the women’s players made their counteroffer: $67 million.
With their leverage gone, that figure is most likely just a dream now. But a negotiated settlement is not, and U.S. Soccer appeared to leave open the door to one on Friday night.
“We look forward to working with the women’s national team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game both here at home and around the world,” U.S. Soccer said in its statement, which notably expressed no pleasure in the favorable outcome.
But much has changed since the equal pay war began: U.S. Soccer has a new president, the former women’s player Cindy Cone, and a new chief executive, and neither of them could reasonably be tied to past missteps and injustices.
For them, and for U.S. Soccer, rebuilding a functional relationship with the women’s team — the federation’s most valuable asset and a critical moneymaker in troubled economic times — should be a top priority. If that means eating some crow and cutting a check to signal an eagerness to move forward, it might even work.
Privately, parties on both sides have long agreed that a negotiated peace is the best way out for U.S. Soccer and its women’s team. Now, it may be the only way to make everyone happy.