She was the first to sue U.S. Soccer over alleged pay discrimination, and while her former teammates recently reached a tentative settlement in their much more famous case—the Morgan v. U.S. Soccer class action—her case still stands.
And Hope Solo, the former USWNT goalkeeper and two-time Olympic gold medalist, vows to see it through. Along with attorney Rich Nichols, Solo recently sat down with Sportico for an exclusive interview. It is the first time Solo has been interviewed about her case since she filed it in 2018.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re beating your head against a brick wall,” Solo confessed, “trying to get the facts out there.”
Those “facts,” Solo maintains, center on a “fight about equal pay for the next generation” of women soccer players. Solo insists the only way to ensure the fight is won is to win in court and create legal precedent.
Last month, Solo’s former teammates led by Morgan reached a tentative settlement with U.S. Soccer in their case, a week before Turner Sports secured the rights to air U.S. national team home contests from 2023 through 2030. If certain conditions are met—more on that below—U.S. Soccer will pay the players $22 million and spend another $2 million on post-career planning and other initiatives. The players had sought more than $66 million but lost at the district court level and faced uncertain prospects in their appeal. A fundamental legal hurdle for the players is that their own union bargained the pay rules that have come under attack.
While $24 million is a considerable figure, Solo charges it nonetheless reflects a “fraction of the money of what is owed in back pay” and, more important, is not “actual equal pay money.” She stresses that this pay would not constitute any sensible definition of “equal pay” when judged “in comparison to the men for the games they played.”
Some of the settlement conditions, Solo further asserts, “are very, very, very difficult, if not impossible, to ever meet.” They entail U.S. Soccer reaching labor agreements with the separate unions for the women’s and men’s teams that will pay the women and men’s players “equal pay” going forward—including with respect to redistributing money paid by FIFA for World Cup prize pay, where there is currently a gap of more than $30 million between pay for men’s and women’s teams. U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner must also approve the settlement and accompanying class-action fees owed to the attorneys.
Nichols says equalizing FIFA World Cup prize money, either by FIFA changing its method of calculation or by the men’s and women’s teams accepting a method of redistribution, is “never going to happen.” Nichols contends there is no indication FIFA has any intent to make such a change, or that the two teams agree about equalizing World Cup money.
He also expresses doubt that USWNT and U.S. Soccer will settle on which sources of revenue would comprise “the equal pay rate,” which he says is the “dispositive issue in their case.” Nichols emphasizes that while “equal pay rate” might make sense from an aspirational standpoint—players on both teams are paid an equal rate—the details about what that phrase means in practice are much more contentious.
He insists there is continued uncertainty about whether performance bonuses will be included in determining equal pay rates. If equal pay for women players is based mainly on them winning, and thereby gaining performance bonuses, their pay is not necessarily “equal” to men. Nichols goes so far as to say the women players “are earning peanuts” if those bonuses are removed.
Nichols also disputes the portrayal of the $22 million as back pay. “They settled the litigation for $22 million; whether or not there is equal pay is still up in the air.” He further warns that some of the millions will go to the attorneys.
For Solo and Nichols, the legal fight began in 2016, when Solo was still on the team and Nichols led the women’s players union as executive director and general counsel. In March of that year, Solo, along with teammates Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, filed on a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“For the first time in history,” Nichols recalls, “professional athletes basically sued their existing employer for violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title 7 [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act]. It was a bold action.” Nichols estimates the women players were earning about 75% less than men, “notwithstanding the fact that they performed much better obviously than the men and brought in more revenues than the men.”
Initially, the EEOC, which Nichols says sometimes “takes 18 months before they even acknowledge that you’ve filed,” seemed highly engaged. The EEOC “jumped on it right away,” calling the players only five days after the filing. An EEOC official, Nichols asserts, “told us that this case is going to be at the top of the list of investigations and then we’re going to get on it and hopefully have some kind of a decision before the end of 2016.”
The timeline changed dramatically in November, when Donald Trump was elected President.
Nichols then heard from the EEOC that “the more progressive EEOC lawyers and investigators” were on their way out. Efforts to quickly resolve the matter before the new administration arrived failed. Nichols said the women players then didn’t hear from the agency for about 15 months. And when EEOC officials finally reached out, “they basically told us that, ‘Hey, we’re new. We’re not really sure what is going on in the past with this case. We’re not going to go back and find out.’”
Inaction led Solo and Nichols to request a right to sue letter from the EEOC, which paved the way for her to sue U.S. Soccer in August 2018. Solo and Nichols say they reached out to her former teammates and their attorneys about joining her lawsuit but found no interest. Nichols says he still kept everyone informed about case developments. He also asked the other players and their attorneys for a courtesy: advanced notice if they file their own lawsuit.
Nichols says his request for advanced notice was technically met, but not in a constructive way. He received a text 15 minutes before the Morgan case, structured as a class action, was filed in March 2019.
While Solo v. U.S. Soccer garnered almost no media attention, Morgan v. U.S. became a cause célèbre, with former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, among other national figures involved in the 2020 presidential election, praising the players.
“It’s not annoying,” Solo said of the other case attracting the spotlight. “That’s not the right word.”
Instead, she finds it frustrating, “because there are a lot of players who will be left out of the fight,” including, she says, current players who might not get “equal pay” if that term doesn’t mean what it has been portrayed as.
Solo, who is married to retired NFL player Jerramy Stevens, sees a mainstream media that “wants to gloss over” facts and instinctually “wants to celebrate” the class action, because of the social themes it raises in a society impacted by calls for gender and racial equality.
“Nobody really wants to see what’s going on,” she opines. She argues there’s an unwillingness to “to lift the veil” and look at details. To be sure, details about pay, compensation and related workplace metrics were points of contention in the litigation, with the parties having offered starkly different accountings and divergent methods of calculation.
Solo concedes that what has become a six-year—and counting—legal fight “has been exhausting.” After the settlement was announced, some players confided in Solo that “they just wanted it to be done and over.” Solo insists the players should be willing to maintain the battle; otherwise they play right into U.S. Soccer’s hands.
“U.S. Soccer,” she warns, “is waiting for us to be tired so that we just throw in the towel.”
Solo, who recently launched a podcast on SiriusXM, maintains that she has no intention of backing down. Her lawsuit is before Judge James Donato in the Northern District of California (San Francisco). Other players, she says, have always been welcome to join.
“I expect it’s going to take a long time,” Solo predicts.
For a video of the entire interview, click here.