“It only took this long?” That was the reaction of my teenage daughter to the news that US Women’s Soccer has FINALLY achieved its objective of equal pay with the men’s team. The great news: the US Women’s & Men’s Soccer Teams have each ratified a collective bargaining agreement that actually does provide equality in pay between the sexes. No more second class citizens. No more playing on unsafe surfaces. The end of a ridiculous disparity in pay that caused an elite World Cup Champion & Olympic gold medal winning women’s squad to be paid less than a men’s team that struggled to qualify for the World Cup. It is definitely cause for celebration. My daughter’s reaction, however, reminded me that it is important to recognize WHY it took so long for something that should have been a given to begin with. Equal pay for equal work, right? So, why should women in ANY profession receive less than their male counterparts?
This struggle began in earnest in 2016, when five of the US Women’s National Team players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that they were receiving unequal pay relative to their male counterparts. Subsequently, the entire United States Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA) filed a class action lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation (USSF) in March, 2019 alleging violations of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act due to unequal pay and inequitable working conditions. The litigation became ugly when USSF counsel filed a document claiming that there was no violation of the Equal Pay Act because “the overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength”. The fallout from this misogynistic claim ultimately forced the resignation of USSF President Carlos Cordeiro. Then USSF Vice-President Cindy Parlowe Kone succeeded Cordeiro, with a corresponding shift in US Soccer’s tone.
Meanwhile, as the US National Women’s Team won the World Cup in July, 2019, the crowd chanted, “Equal pay!”, bringing additional pressure to bear upon USSF. In the wake of the historic victory, USSF sponsor Procter & Gamble took out a full page ad in The New York Times, committing $529,000 – or $23,000 for each player on the roster, with the statement: “Women just made history. But they have always deserved equal pay.” As public pressure mounted, however, a district court decided to reject the claims of unequal pay and working conditions (based upon the number of games played on grass as opposed to turf). The district court based its decision upon differences in the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) negotiated between the men’s and women’s teams with USSF. Under the men’s CBA, players were paid only when called to camp and playing, while the women’s pay under the CBA was guaranteed. Underlying all of this is the tremendous discrepancy between the success of the two teams. The women’s team has won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals since 1990, while the men’s team failed to even qualify for the most recent Olympics.
In February, USWNTPA settled with USSF for $22 million. That settlement was contingent upon ratification of a new CBA, in which USSF pledged to pay the men and women equally. One of the most difficult aspects of the pay issue involved the disparity between the amount awarded by FIFA to each squad. The women received only $4 million from FIFA upon winning the 2019 World Cup, while the men would have received a minimum of $18 million had they simply qualified for the first round of the 2018 World Cup. Under the new CBA, going forward, amounts received from FIFA will be split between the teams equally. Other significant terms include identical performance-based bonuses for all games and competitions and the same salary structure for both teams. Similarly, commercial and ticket sharing revenues will be shared. With respect to working conditions, the CBA guarantees equal quality venues and playing surfaces, staffing, accommodations and travel. Both teams will receive retirement and child care benefits.
While this is clearly a seminal moment in the history of women’s sports, it is important to remember the massive amount of effort, time, energy and cost to get here. As we celebrate the victory, we must resolve that fundamental principles of equality must become the norm and not the occasion for multi-year litigation.
Helen A. “Nellie” Drew is an expert in sports law, including professional and amateur sports issues ranging from NCAA compliance and Title IX matters to facility construction, discipline of professional athletes, collective bargaining and franchise issues. Drew formerly served as an officer and in-house counsel to the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League, after previously working as outside counsel to the Sabres and the NHL. Among her more interesting experiences were assisting former USSR superstar Alexander Mogilny in obtaining asylum status in the U.S. and working on multiple NHL expansions, including San Jose, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay.
Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. She is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports.