The six-year legal dispute between USWNT players and soccer’s governing body essentially ended on Tuesday as the two sides filed a joint motion at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit indicating they have reached a settlement. The agreement will pay the players $22 million in backpay, with an additional $2 million going to fund other initiatives, including post-career planning.
The deal is contingent on USWNT and U.S. Soccer ratifying a new CBA that will pay men and women’s players equal rates going forward, and approval of the settlement by U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner.
The settlement means an oral argument in USWNT players’ appeal that had been scheduled for March 7 at the Ninth Circuit will not take place. Neither the settlement nor accompanying joint press statement contains any admission of wrongdoing by U.S. Soccer. Instead, the two sides write that they “proudly stand together in a shared commitment to advancing equality in soccer.”
The settlement ends a case that stood to cause long-term damage to the U.S. soccer brand at a critical juncture in the sport’s growth. From a brand perspective, the deal will enable U.S. Soccer to promote the sport without accusations of sexism in pay clouding its positions.
In 2016, a group of USWNT players, including 2020 Olympians Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They maintained they were paid less than USMNT players on account of sex.
In 2019, the players filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal district court arguing that U.S. Soccer was violating the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. These laws make it illegal for employers to pay women lower wages than men for equal work. However—and as became crucial during the litigation—differences in pay that reflect non-discriminatory reasons are not illegal.
U.S. Soccer maintained USWNT players were paid equal or more than USMNT players. It also highlighted that the women and men teams were paid differently on account of the different unions for each team negotiating different systems of pay.
The union for the women’s team negotiated a system that contains higher guarantees but lower bonuses, whereas the union for the men’s team negotiated one that supplies higher bonuses but without pay guarantees. While attorneys for USWNT players insisted that unions and management can’t bargain around pay rate discrimination, Judge Klausner granted U.S. Soccer summary judgment in 2020. He reasoned that when a union and management bargain rules governing employees’ wages, hours and other working conditions, those terms are binding. This viewpoint captures a legal principle that courts ought not to interfere with, or rewrite, rules in CBA since doing so could make those agreements less secure.
Last year, the two sides reached a settlement on claims involving travel, hotel accommodations, venue selection and staff size. Dispute over pay remained, until now. Since last year, U.S. Soccer has insisted that CBAs for the men’s and women’s teams guarantee equal pay, including in the distribution of FIFA World Cup prize money. FIFA, not U.S. Soccer, determines distribution of prize money, and the world’s governing body for soccer has awarded far less to women than men. U.S Soccer has insisted that the two CBAs must agree to equalizing features to avert disparities (and, by implication, potential legal disputes).
Like in any litigation settlement, there’s a give and take for each side.
For USWNT players, they will be paid money they insist they are rightfully owed. While they sought more than $66 million in backpay, $22 million is still a sizable feature—especially after losing at the district court level and more so considering they faced uncertain chances before the Ninth Circuit. Judges are traditionally reluctant to change CBAs that were negotiated by union and management, especially given the potential precedential impact of doing so on labor relations in other industries. By reaching a settlement, the players secure backpay and avoid the risks of losing or enduring years of additional litigation. Going forward they will be paid equally, too.
For U.S. Soccer, the settlement ends a case that, even when winning, has damaged its brand. It’s not a stretch to say that a decisive majority of politicians, journalists, broadcasters and influencers who have opined on the case have sided, often bluntly, with the players. At times U.S. Soccer’s damage has been self-inflicted, including when using awkward if not offensive language in trying to distinguish the job of a USWNT player from a USMNT player. A settlement allows U.S. Soccer to celebrate with the players and strike a united front going forward. Even if U.S. Soccer had prevailed at the Ninth Circuit and potentially before the U.S. Supreme Court, the public might still have regarded it as the villain.
With assistance from Luke Cyphers.