How U.S. Soccer’s Biggest Embarrassment Won Them a Lawsuit

Photo Source: AP Photo / Jeffrey McWhorter.

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team suffered a massive defeat in U.S. Federal Court for the Central District of California, as two of their four complaints were thrown out by Judge R. Gary Klausner in a decision filed on Friday, May 1.

The players of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team alleged that the U.S. Soccer Federation violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The WNT was looking for equal bonus payments as the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, as well as equality of field surfaces, travel conditions, and support services. Judge Klausner ruled that only Title VII claims regarding travel conditions, and personnel and support services could continue, as the primary claim under the Equal Pay Act was thrown out. This gave the U.S. Soccer Federation a huge victory in this important matter, just a few months after the U.S. Soccer Federation’s attorneys alleged that the men and women soccer players could not be paid equally because their work was different.

However, the U.S. Soccer Federation did not prevail on this logic. They succeeded because the court stated that equal pay claims could not prevail if the women’s total compensation was more than the men’s. During the period in question, the U.S. Women’s players averaged $220,470 per game, while the men’s players averaged $212,639 per game. Additionally, the court states that the U.S. Women could not file a claim to retroactively ask for the compensation structures to be comparable to the men because the current payment structure was the result of a collectively-bargained agreement between the .S. Soccer Federation and the union representing the Women’s National Team.

Even though the U.S. Soccer Federation may win in court, they have taken a loss in the court of public opinion. There is no doubt that U.S. Soccer has taken a reputational hit across the soccer world. The Men’s National Team did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup after an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago. However, that embarrassing loss may have given the U.S. Soccer Federation the victory in this case.

The Women’s National Team payment structure is two-pronged, with a salary component and a bonus component. The U.S. Soccer Federation contracts 20 players to be paid $100,000. Additionally, players receive bonuses for each game they play. The bonus payments would increase due to multiple factors, including whether the game was won, lost or tied; the ranking of the opposing team; and whether the game was a friendly or in a tournament. The Men’s National Team is different, in that they do not receive a salary. All of the compensation for the men is from pay-to-play. Just like the women’s bonuses, the men’s bonuses increase due to performance.

The Women’s National Team is the reigning FIFA Women’s World Cup champions, while the Men’s National Team did not qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. 

If the Men’s National Team were to win the World Cup, just like the women, they would be paid an extra $9.375 million – roughly $407,609 to every player on the 23-man roster. If the Men’s National Team were to just qualify for the World Cup, they would receive $2.5 million – roughly $68,750 per player. Thus, adding the bare minimum of $68,750 to the existing $212,639 paid to the Men’s National Team, the total compensation argument made by the court succeeds.

This ruling by Judge Klausner opens up two possible areas of appeal on the Equal Pay Act claim. First, should the analysis of bonus payments between men and women be standardized to an equal level of achievement? There is no doubt that if the men were to achieve the same level of success as the women, they would receive much more money than the women. Second, can terms of a contract that violate the Equal Pay Act be thrown out if the terms of the employment contract were the result of a collectively-bargained process? Essentially, can a party lose federal protection because the party implicitly negotiated away that right? These questions would take the lawsuit off the pitch and would open the results of this lawsuit to Equal Pay and CBA issues across the board.

The players of the U.S. Women’s National Team lost a lawsuit because they were more successful than the Men’s National Team. However, the two questions that should get brought up on appeal may allow this ruling to be carried across all areas where women are not compensated on an equal basis to men.

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'21 J.D. Candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Law.​

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