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Explaining the USWNT Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

BRAD SMITH/ISI PHOTOS

With sports still on hiatus, the biggest upcoming showdown is between the U.S. women’s national team and their own federation.

On June 16th, the USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit will finally head to trial in what promises to be one of the defining moments in women’s sports history (yes, it’s that big of a deal). But while the lawsuit has been making headlines for over a year, there remains a surprising amount of confusion regarding exactly what’s being alleged, what’s being sought, and how U.S. Soccer intends to defend itself. There’s no easy way to summarize the case, so we won’t bother trying. Instead, we’ve prepared a comprehensive guide outlining what’s at stake and why the outcome is anything but obvious.

It should be noted that the trial was originally scheduled to begin on May 5th, but was pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. This delayed start theoretically gives both sides more time to reach a pre-trial agreement, especially given U.S. Soccer’s recent change in leadership. Then again, there was also tremendous pressure on U.S. Soccer to settle following last summer’s World Cup, and yet, nothing happened. Even if the two sides do choose to enter mediation once more, the arguments laid out below still provide the terms of the debate they’ll be having behind closed doors, rather than in front of a jury.

First, some background:

No matter one’s rooting interest in the upcoming trial, it should be clear that U.S. Soccer’s impact on women’s soccer has been undoubtedly net positive. Though it may not have much competition in this regard, there’s no question that within the global context, the federation has been the strongest institutional advocate for the sport for several decades running. Its long-term investment in the women’s national team is a big reason why the USWNT remains the most accomplished squad in the world.

In one of the federation’s legal filings, they even quote an earlier Megan Rapinoe praising the federation’s support for both women’s soccer in general and the national team specifically. (Indeed, rumor has it that there are still high-ranking U.S. Soccer executives who are privately furious that anyone would suggest the federation has hurt rather than helped the growth of women’s soccer.)

But even throughout their decades of successful partnership, tensions have always lingered between the team and the federation. Players have long complained that their support from U.S. Soccer, while superior to their opponents’ around the world, was and continues to be inferior to the treatment provided to their male counterparts at home. And while such complaints have often been kept beneath the surface, they’ve occasionally burst out into public view. Two such notable occasions involve the legendary 1999ers and an earlier version of this current USWNT.

In 2000, just months removed from their historic World Cup victory in Pasadena, the 1999 national team boycotted a tournament in Australia over inadequate pay. And in 2016, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo filed a pay discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, again alleging pay disparity. In three years, this complaint went nowhere, leading the players to change course and file their current lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court.

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The facts of the case:
  • The lawsuit was filed under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act on March 8th, 2019, International Women’s Day.

  • The USWNT are alleging that they have been subjected to “institutionalized gender discrimination,” and are therefore entitled to damages. In essence, they are asking for an increase in salary and significant back pay.

  • The lawsuit was granted class action status in November, meaning any woman who suited up for the USWNT going back to February 2015 is entitled to seek injunctive relief and back pay damages.

  • Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn are the class representatives. (Hope Solo filed her own gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer last August, after she was terminated by the federation.)

  • Trial is set to begin June 16th, pending any last minute settlement between the two sides and/or further COVID-19 delays.

What the USWNT is alleging: 

The USWNT is trying to prove that, as employees of U.S. Soccer, they have been subject to institutionalized gender discrimination. In layman’s terms, they’re arguing that they’ve done the same work as the men’s team, but have been paid less because of their gender. That’s illegal, in case you were wondering, and now the national team is asking the law (i.e., the court) to step in and force U.S. Soccer to write them a check.

While the heart of the case is pay disparity, it’s important to note that the USWNT has to do much more than just prove they’ve been paid less than the men. U.S. Soccer could readily concede this point and still win the case if they can successfully argue that either such inequity is the result of anything but misogyny, or that the two national teams perform fundamentally different jobs.

This second line of reasoning was famously and disastrously pursued in a recent legal filing that claimed that the USWNT had less responsibility and skill than their male counterparts — hence, they supposedly do a different job. The blatant misogyny and disrespect of such comments sparked immediate outcry, and eventually led to the resignation of then-U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro.

The big thing to take away from all this is that the USWNT has a higher burden of proof, as they have to prove they do the same job as the men, are still paid less, and it’s because of their gender. U.S. Soccer, on the other hand, only needs to refute one of these claims, by proving either the two teams don’t do the same job, the women aren’t always paid less, or that when they are, it’s not because of their gender.

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What the USWNT wants:

In short: better pay and restitution (i.e. back pay). The first of these two demands has received the majority of media coverage, in large part because the outcome is easy to measure: either U.S. Soccer pays its national teams more or less the same, or it doesn’t.

Back pay is a trickier calculation, but an expert witness called in by the USWNT put the initial estimate at $67 million. Such a figure was reached by calculating what the women would have earned for their past performances if they were operating under the same compensation structure as the men. Naturally, U.S. Soccer had some problems with the math, most notably the fact that it included World Cup bonuses, which are set and paid for by FIFA.

And this $67 million is only the beginning: the players are also seeking damages including attorney fees as well as punitive damages to deter future discrimination. This aspect of the case has been wildly under-discussed (fans at the World Cup, after all, were chanting “equal pay,” not “back pay”). Raising the USWNT’s wages is one thing. Forking over an additional $67 million+ is another thing entirely, and if you’ve heard U.S. Soccer complain that this lawsuit could bankrupt them, this is what they’re referring to. They have enough money to pay the women’s team more. They likely don’t have enough to pay them back without making serious cuts to their operations, especially their youth development efforts.

What the USWNT will argue: 

They make less money for doing the same job as the men:

  • Given their respective pay structures (more on this in a second), if both the women’s and men’s teams won 20 games in a row, a USWNT player would earn $28,333 less, or about 89% of what her male counterpart would make.

  • Prior to 2017, when the USWNT negotiated a new CBA, these numbers were even more skewed: a top player on the women’s team would have earned $99,000 for those 20 wins, or 38% of the $263,320 of a men’s team player. (Remember, this lawsuit includes players who suited up for the USWNT going back to 2015).

  • Then there’s the question of World Cup payouts: in 2014, the men’s team was paid $5.375 million in World Cup bonuses for being eliminated in the round of 16, while the women were paid $1.725 million for winning the whole thing in 2015 (more on this later).

In addition to unequal pay, the team is also subject to unequal support:

  • From 2014-2017, the women played 21% of their domestic games on artificial turf versus 2% for the men.

  • And in 2017, the USSF chartered at least 17 flights for the men’s team. For the women’s? Zero.

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BRAD SMITH/ISI PHOTOS

Lastly, in recent years, the women’s team has (probably) brought in more revenue to U.S. Soccer than the men’s. According to the Wall Street Journal, between 2016 and 2018, the women’s games earned $50.8 million in ticket sales revenue while the men brought in $49.9 million.

Ticket revenue only accounts for a quarter of U.S. Soccer’s total operating revenue. The rest comes from sponsorships and broadcasting rights, which U.S. Soccer sells as a bundled package for both teams, making it impossible to know how much each contributes. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that the USWNT is pitching in more than their fair share. The final from last summer’s World Cup was the most watched soccer game in the U.S. since the 2015 WWC final. And during the 2019 tournament, according to Nike, the USWNT home jersey became the number one single-season jersey ever sold on Nike.com. These disparate facts alone can’t definitively prove that the USWNT is bringing in more revenue than the men’s team, but then again, neither can they prove the men are doing better.

Anyone who tries to dismiss the USWNT’s case by blindly citing “the numbers” hasn’t done their homework. To be blunt, the job of a national team is to make money for their federation. And though we’re missing some important numbers, the ones we do have suggest that the women’s team is, at worst, bringing in revenues similar to the men’s.

What makes this complicated: 

Technically speaking, equal pay between the national teams isn’t currently possible given the differences between each team’s collective bargaining agreements. This is a key point of U.S. Soccer’s defense, as they have continually made the claim that rather than institutionalized misogyny, it’s primarily structural differences between the two CBAs that account for the unequal pay.

Soccer players’ pay is fairly complicated, but the basic breakdown between the two CBAs is as follows: the women have a guaranteed base salary and are eligible for performance based bonuses (i.e. suiting up and winning games), whereas the men have no base salary and only receive performance bonuses for playing and winning games. The women’s agreement also includes medical and dental insurance, paid child-care assistance, paid pregnancy and parental leave, and severance benefits — benefits that U.S. Soccer says are not provided to the men’s national team. (As you can imagine, there’s disagreement between the sides as to how much these benefits should factor in.)

This is where things get tricky: the reason the men can afford a riskier, but potentially higher-paying contract (i.e. one without guarantees, and only bonuses) is because their MLS clubs already give them a significant salary, which also includes all the benefits that U.S. Soccer provides the women’s team. And while they won’t publicly state this for fear of tarnishing the NWSL, it’s fairly obvious that the USWNT felt pressured to negotiate a “safer” CBA (with guaranteed salary + benefits) because their NWSL clubs couldn’t promise them the financial security they needed.

But it gets even more complicated: U.S. Soccer pays the NWSL salaries of USWNT members, and is (for at least another year) essentially managing the league. This fact could be used against U.S. Soccer: if they invested more in the NWSL, the USWNT could afford a stronger starting position when negotiating their national team contracts. But this same fact could also be used in U.S. Soccer’s defense, as it makes it harder to accuse the federation of gender discrimination when they’re paying double salary for each of their national team players.

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Does U.S. Soccer have a case? 

There are multiple reasons to think U.S. Soccer could walk away from this case with their bank accounts intact. For starters, they’ve made significant efforts in recent years to address many of the issues raised by the national team. The USWNT hasn’t played a match on artificial turf since 2017, and U.S. Soccer has also begun to charter flights between games. Other inequities, ranging from hotel accommodations to meal money, have also been rectified. Such gestures aren’t world-changing, but they could make it difficult for the national team to prove that their federation is actively discriminating against them because of their gender.

But the biggest reason U.S. Soccer might walk away winners? They’re not the only party at fault.

For example, consider the differences in World Cup payouts. Clearly, everyone needs to do more to close the pay gap between the two tournaments: that includes sponsors, broadcast partners, FIFA, various national federations around the world, and yes, U.S. Soccer. But the simple fact is that at this moment, FIFA unilaterally controls the prize money, and given that the men’s tournament generates close to $6 billion in revenue versus $130 million for the women’s, it’s no surprise that FIFA chooses to pay out significantly higher bonuses to the men’s teams. That won’t change until every stakeholder ups their investment in the women’s tournament, and while U.S. Soccer is certainly one such stakeholder, it’s going to be hard to find them solely responsible for the current discrepancy in prize money. (On a positive note, FIFA is apparently planning to double the prize money for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.)
Every piece on the gameboard is interconnected. If the NWSL had more investors and were a more financially stable league, the USWNT could negotiate for riskier contracts back-loaded with performance bonuses.

The fact is that this case only has one defendant in court, but the criticisms being made reach far and wide. The USWNT is demanding that women’s soccer be given its due respect. And while U.S. Soccer has a role to play in both growing the World Cup and stabilizing the NWSL, the question now is whether the federation will be found liable for failing to live up to its duties, or if it will be spared as simply one of many institutions that needs to improve.

But let’s be honest, the USWNT may have already won

There’s a sense in which this case has already been decided. While you shouldn’t trust media narratives to accurately predict the fate of any case in court, they’re a pretty decent barometer of what the public is thinking. And right now, just about everyone is on the side of the USWNT, especially after the fiasco leading up to Cordeiro’s resignation.

And though the court of public opinion can’t force U.S. Soccer to write a check to its national team, it can continue to put pressure on the federation to step up their efforts, no matter what a jury in Los Angeles decides. Regardless of the case’s outcome, fans and commentators will be pressing U.S. Soccer to up their support for the USWNT, especially if, as seems likely, they continue to achieve at a significantly higher level than the men’s team.

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In suing their own employer, the USWNT players have also become the de-facto face of a broader fight for gender equality both in sports and the American workplace. In recent years, athletes in other sports, including WNBA players and the U.S. women’s hockey team, have reached out to the USWNT, asking for advice regarding their own respective battles for improved equity and playing standards. And while the gender pay gap won’t be closed overnight, either in sports or the economy more broadly, the USWNT have done us all a favor by dragging the fight out into the light. Their willingness to openly and boldly assert their value and air their criticisms has opened the conversation to more urgent and pointed rhetoric. They’ve cleared the airways of vague, inoffensive chatter by clearly stating their opinions and demands. And in doing so, they’ve radically enlarged our collective understanding of what athletes can do when they apply their ambition and celebrity to a greater social cause.

The case is too complicated to call ahead of time, and yet it already feels historic. The USWNT are more than just a soccer team, and what’s being debated is far more than any specific dollar amount. This case has become a referendum on women’s sports, and both the players and U.S. Soccer know it. For any other team, that could be too much to bear. For the USWNT, this is exactly what they signed up for.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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