Players from the United States women's national team have settled their class action equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for a total of $24 million, the two sides announced in a court filing on Tuesday.
In settling the suit, the players will receive a lump sum payment of $22 million. This amount will be distributed in a manner proposed by the USWNT players and approved by the District Court. U.S. Soccer will also pay an additional $2 million into an account to benefit the USWNT players in their post-career goals and charitable efforts related to women's and girls' soccer. Each player will be able to apply for up to $50,000 from this fund.
The settlement is contingent on a new collective bargaining agreement being ratified by the players on the USWNT. Once this takes place, final approval of the settlement by the District Court will be scheduled. According to a statement from the players, "This will fully resolve the litigation."
The USSF has also committed to providing an equal rate of pay going forward for the women's and men's national teams "in all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup." The issue of World Cup bonuses had long been a point of contention for the players.
"There's no real justice in this other than this never happening again," OL Reign and U.S. international midfielder Megan Rapinoe told ESPN. "With the settlement of the working conditions and this settlement which is contingent upon a CBA that will have equal pay going forward, there's no other way to look at it than just a monumental win for women's sports and women's soccer, in particular."
The women's players' union, the USWNTPA, echoed Rapinoe's sentiments, calling the settlement "an important step in righting the many wrongs of the past."
"The USWNTPA congratulates the players and their litigation team on their historic success in fighting decades of discrimination perpetuated by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Although the settlement reached today is an incredible success, much work remains to be done," it said in a statement.
The players had previously been seeking $66.7 million in back pay, but the settlement amounts to a significant victory for the players, who have long championed the equal pay fight for women's sports. The journey came with some significant bumps in the road -- at one point, the equal pay portion of the lawsuit was dismissed, forcing the players to appeal -- but in the end, the players emerged with a considerable amount of money, even though the settlement amount was less than what the players were asking.
"I'm not a big fan of roller coasters, in real life or figuratively," Rapinoe said of the up-and-down process. "I did think we would get to this point, 100%. I did think we would win all along in this. This is a win for us. And this is a win for the for the players for the next generation, for women's players around the world."
The USSF emerges from the lawsuit bruised not only in the pocketbook but also in the court of public opinion. The chants of "Equal pay!" at the 2019 Women's World Cup final, won 2-0 by the U.S. over the Netherlands, showed fans' allegiances. But the organization will be pleased to have the litigation off its plate, allowing it to move forward and repair its relationship with the USWNT. It also counts as a promise kept for U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone.
"I said it many times before, that resolving the litigation was a top priority for me. I think I said it on Day 3 of my presidency, and I continue to feel that way," Cone told ESPN. "I continue to be optimistic that we are going to get this done and like Megan says, I think this is a win for us soccer, so win for women's team sports and women in general."
Settlement talks have been going on and off since the lawsuit was filed, but the previous weeks saw an acceleration of discussions. A hearing scheduled for March 7 also provided some motivation to get a deal done.
"I think what made the final push across the line was I think, just getting the players together," Cone said. "And just communicating with me and a couple of my board members with the players and trying to see where the sticking points were and how we can move forward. I think everyone wants to move forward so that we can shift the focus from this litigation."
The 28 national team players first filed the lawsuit in March 2019, accusing the USSF of "institutionalized gender discrimination" toward the team. The lawsuit was filed under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and focused on two areas: equal pay and working conditions.
The contentious nature of the suit increased in March 2020, when a legal filing by the USSF was made public. The filing disparaged players on the U.S. women's national team, saying they "do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort" 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." Following an intense backlash, then-USSF president Carlos Cordeiro resigned and was replaced by Cone. Both are running for USSF president in an election that will take place the weekend of March 5.
The women's suit suffered a significant blow in May 2020, when U.S. District Court Judge Gary Klausner granted the USSF's motion for summary judgment on the equal pay claims, effectively dismissing that portion of the case. He ruled that during the class period in question, each women's player actually made more money per game than their male counterparts. Klausner did rule that the Title VII claims related to working conditions -- which included use of charter flights for travel, venue selection, amount of support staff and hotel accommodations -- could move forward. That aspect of the suit was settled out of court in December 2020.
The women filed an appeal on the equal pay claims last July, stressing that Judge Klausner erred by not looking at rates of pay and the fact that the women had to win more often than the men to receive their bonuses.
The men's and women's players are represented by separate unions, and as such had different pay structures in their respective CBAs. The men operated under a pure pay-to-play model in which they were compensated only if they were called into a national team camp and earned additional money if they played in actual games.
The women operate under a hybrid system in which at present, 16 players are signed to full-time contracts with the USSF on a salary of $100,000 per year. Those players get paid whether they are called up for a game/training camp or not, even if they are injured. The women players also receive benefits such as parental leave. The remaining women's players are called "non-contract players" and get paid only when they are called in to the team.
The primary sticking point was the respective bonus structures in each contract. Making a World Cup team would net a men's player $67,000, while a woman would make $37,500. A win by the USMNT against a team outside the top 25 in the FIFA rankings will result in a player getting bonus of $9,375, while a loss will result in a payment of $5,000. For the women, a win against a team ranked outside the top eight would give each player $5,250, and nothing for a loss. Winning the World Cup would net each male player $407,608 -- a long shot at best -- while a woman would make $110,000.
The USSF argued that the women's contract was collectively bargained and that the players preferred a structure with guaranteed salaries. The USSF added that it had no control over the bonuses FIFA paid for winning the men's and women's World Cups, and if it were forced to pay what the women were asking for, it would bankrupt the federation. The women insisted that the disparities in bonuses alone showed that they were being discriminated against.
Work still remains to be done for the USSF as it relates to the respective CBAs. Cone is optimistic that the work can be completed by the end of the March.
"We have a lot of work to do and continuing to rebuild the relationship with the players," Cone said. "We have to come to a solution on the CBA agreements. But the focus now shifts to growing the game from a commercial perspective with our strategic partners, and having the players on our side to go hand in hand and to encourage FIFA to equalize the World Cup prize money."
Cone's sentiments were echoed by Rapinoe, who is prepared to take the equal pay fight to FIFA.
"I think for a long time, that [World Cup bonus] inequity was just sort of willingly passed along to us," Rapinoe said. "I think both parties agree now that that's not the right way to go about it. And so both of us can go lockstep and go at FIFA for how unfair, not just the prize money but the resources and the investment and the care and effort and everything put towards the women's game.
"I'm looking forward to being a part of that change moving forward."