Five star players of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo) made headlines this week by filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging gender wage discrimination against the U.S. Soccer Federation. In their charge, the players allege that they should be paid at least as much as (if not more than) the players for the Men’s National Team. The players filed the charge amid contentious negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, which have already resulted in a separate lawsuit and serious questions about whether the team will be participating in the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil.
In their charge, the players allege that they are paid as little as 38 percent of what the Men’s National Team Players earn. More specifically, the charge alleges that top-tier Women’s National Team Players earn $72,000 per year to play a minimum of 20 exhibition games (“Friendlies,” with no additional pay for games beyond the 20—unlike the men’s team which is paid for each game played) and that they earn $99,000 if they win all 20 Friendlies. Meanwhile, the men earn $100,000 if they lose all their Friendlies and can earn up to approximately $260,000 if they win. As for the World Cup, the women’s team earned a total of $2 million last year for their championship performance in Canada while the men’s team was paid a total $9 million despite their failure to advance past the top 16 in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
If the matter proceeds, the women’s team players will have the burden of proving that: (1) higher wages were paid to a male employee, (2) for equal work requiring substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibilities, and (3) the work was performed under similar working conditions. Assuming they are able to meet this burden, the federation may offer a variety of affirmative defenses, such as the pay differential being based on any factor other than sex (e.g., economic benefit to the employer).
Anticipating that the U.S. Soccer Federation will respond by offering a nondiscriminatory business reason for the pay disparity (such as women’s professional sports being less popular and less lucrative), the players allege in the charge that the women’s World Cup win and victory tour dramatically increased U.S. Soccer’s bottom line from a projected $430,000 deficit for 2016 to a $17.7 million profit. Indeed, the numbers released by Fox indicate that last year’s telecast of the women’s World Cup Final against Japan was the most watched broadcast in the U.S. of a soccer game (men’s or women’s) ever.
The President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati, responded on Thursday stating, “We think very highly of the women’s national team and we want to compensate them fairly, and we’ll sit down and work through that with them when all this settles down.” A federation spokesman, Neil Buethe, has also called some of the revenue figures in the charge “inaccurate, misleading, or both.” The federation has argued that the players’ pay was collectively bargained and that the women’s team players opted for the economic security of a salary-based system (plus provisions for severance/injury pay, health benefits, maternity leave, and other benefits not available to the men’s team) as opposed to the bonus-centric plan under which the men work. In addition, as U.S. Soccer noted, the World Cup prize money is determined by FIFA rather than by the federation.
By contrast, Solo stated in an interview, “In this day and age, it’s about equality. It’s about equal rights. It’s about equal pay. We’re pushing for that.” She also stated, “We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships, four Olympic championships, and the [men] get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.” Players for the men’s team, such as Tim Howard and retired player Landon Donovan, have offered their public support for the women’s team. Hilary Clinton has also voiced her support.
This isn’t the first time the women’s team has raised issues of gender equality. Abby Wambach led a group of players in filing a complaint in Canada about the artificial turf playing surface and pointing out that the men’s World Cup is played on natural grass. The issue came up again during the team’s victory tour when a game in Hawaii was cancelled due to the artificial turf being deemed unsafe by the players.
As for the currently pending charge, U.S. Soccer will likely have the choice of participating in mediation in an effort to resolve the charge or proceeding with the investigation and submitting a statement responding to the allegations and outlining U.S. Soccer’s position.