Six years after a group of American women’s soccer stars launched a landmark legal fight to win equal pay from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the two sides announced Tuesday morning that they’ve agreed to a settlement worth $24 million.
The campaign began in March 2016 when five of the national team’s biggest stars — Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Delran’s Carli Lloyd — filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In March 2019, just three months before a World Cup they went on to win, an even larger group of players took U.S. Soccer to federal court in Southern California. They sought damages including nearly $67 million meant to make up for past differences between men’s and women’s World Cup prize money.
The agreement calls for the players to receive a $22 million direct payment, to be “distributed in a manner proposed by the USWNT players” and approved by the federal court, Tuesday’s announcement said.
U.S. Soccer will put another $2 million in “an account to benefit the USWNT players in their post-career goals and charitable efforts related to women’s and girls’ soccer,” with each eligible player able to apply for up to $50,000.
The announcement also specified that from now on, “U.S. Soccer has 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.”
Those terms plus previous agreements — one on travel accommodations and behind-the-scenes support, another eliminating U.S. Soccer’s subsidies of national team players’ NWSL salaries — will bring the men’s and women’s teams the closest they’ve ever been to truly equal compensation.
U.S. Soccer’s board of directors has already voted its approval of the deal, two sources with knowledge of the matter told The Inquirer.
“It’s a win for everyone: it’s a win for U.S. Soccer, the players, for women’s sports, and for women in general,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Cone said in a late-afternoon news conference with a slew of the team’s big stars.
Triumph for USSF president
The settlement is contingent on the players union for the women’s team, a separate group from the lawsuit plaintiffs, and U.S. Soccer agreeing on new collective bargaining agreements for the women’s and men’s teams. The women’s deal is in a short-term extension through the end of March after expiring at the end of 2021, while the men haven’t had an active CBA since the end of 2018.
As big of a win as it is for the players, it might be an even bigger win for Cone. A former star player in her own right — with two Olympic gold medals and a 1999 World Cup title on her mantel — she settled the case for more than $40 million less than the nearly $67 million the players originally sought.
The differences in compensation were codified mainly by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Both the players and the USSF have called out FIFA for years over the discrepancy, and now they can do so even more strongly.
“This is a momentous occasion, and just so important for the future of our relationship with the women’s team, [and] of the business that this will help create from a commercial standpoint, from a broadcast rights standpoint,” Cone said. “But just on a personal level, being a former player, this was something that I have tried to resolve since the day I became president. It took me a lot longer than I was expecting it to take, but we got here today and I couldn’t be more excited.”
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, who in addition to running that league is on the U.S. Soccer board, praised Cone for the accomplishment.
“If it wasn’t for her focus and her courage and her steadfastness, I don’t believe that she would have been able to lead a settlement,” Garber said. “So I want to congratulate her for that.”
Cone is running for reelection to the USSF presidency against Carlos Cordeiro, her predecessor. Cordeiro was president when the federation’s lawyers published a filing with sexist language in the equal pay lawsuit, and when women’s team star Christen Press filed a complaint in 2018 accusing her then-club coach at the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars of emotional abuse.
Cordeiro claimed he didn’t know about either matter at the time, but still resigned in March 2020 after the sexist filing.
The lawsuit’s latest appeal hearing was set for March 7, two days after the election will take place at U.S. Soccer’s annual general meeting.
“I’ll be the first to admit that the federation has made mistakes in the past, and as a former player, I definitely understand the frustration of being treated that way — and in dealing with my predecessor,” she said, a barely-veiled shot across the ballot. “But I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done and continue to do on equal pay. And this is just one step towards rebuilding our relationship with the women’s team.”
It remains to be seen how the settlement will affect the election, in which just over 40% of the electorate is made up of state and regional-level youth and adult amateur soccer associations. Many of those entities have backed Cordeiro thus far, complaining that Cone has paid too little attention to them and too much attention to the senior national teams — especially the women.
Garber, for the record, would not say who he’s voting for when he was asked directly Tuesday. Nor would the two Athletes’ Council members on the players’ call, Sauerbrunn and Morgan.
Players, supporters celebrate
While the players didn’t show their cards on the election, it’s no secret that they don’t like Cordeiro. When the news of his candidacy was first reported, Rapinoe accused him on Twitter of resigning because he “embarrassed everything and everyone with caveman levels of misogyny.”
Now Rapinoe and her teammates are celebrating.
“It’s a Herculean task to win a World Cup, certainly in the fashion we did with all that we were fighting for off the field,” Rapinoe said. “And this felt just as Herculean — or probably bigger in so many ways.”
Sauerbrunn barely hid her feelings, either.
“Cindy, this is a thank you to you for your leadership,” she said. “You became president at a time when I think our relationship with the federation was at its worst, and you opened up dialogue with the players, and you did exactly what you said you were going to do. And so thank you for your efforts, and we really look forward to rebuilding that relationship.”
Sauerbrunn also cited a tweet by Sophia Smith, one of the U.S. team’s rising stars, which said: “No amount of words can say thank you enough to all of the USWNT players who have been fighting for this for so many years. Not only for themselves but for the next generation and every single one after that. Thank you for never giving up and teaching us to never settle for less.”
And the U.S. women’s team’s current captain thanked the U.S. men’s players union for its support of the women’s cause.
“The fact that they’re sitting in on a lot of these sessions and we are coordinating compensation proposals and things like that,” Sauerbrunn said, “I think really shows that they are a proponent, and they see the value in women being treated and paid equally to them.”