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USWNT players, U.S. Soccer Federation reach deal on key parts of gender discrimination lawsuit

A court settlement announced Tuesday sets new rules on venues for games, charter flights, hotels, and support staff behind the scenes. But there's no deal on equal pay yet.

U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone.Read moreCharles Rex Arbogast / AP

The U.S. Soccer Federation and the players of the women’s national team program announced a breakthrough settlement Tuesday in their long-running legal battle over unequal working conditions for the men’s and women’s teams.

The settlement resolves players’ grievances on four subjects: venue selection, charter flights, hotel accommodations, and professional support. It will be formalized through an amendment to the women’s players’ collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.

It’s a significant accomplishment for U.S. Soccer president Cindy Cone, a former star player and Federation vice president who was thrust into the job in March when Carlos Cordeiro resigned. There’s also a new CEO, Will Wilson, who came in after longtime executive Dan Flynn stepped down 15 months ago.

“I hope that the women [players] and their lawyers see that we are taking a new approach,” Cone said. “The way that we reached this settlement was in a collaborative way. There was a lot of back and forth and trying to understand where each side was coming from, and that’s how we reached this resolution.”

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For years, the women’s players have complained that they had to play games on artificial turf more often than the men, fly commercial more often than the men, and stay in lower-quality hotels than the men. They also took issue with the women’s national team’s behind-the-scenes staff not being as big as the men’s program.

The turf battle was the one that got the most public attention, especially in the years after the 2015 World Cup, which FIFA infamously mandated be played entirely on artificial surfaces. Even when U.S. friendlies in big cities drew big crowds, players were unhappy about having to play on turf in New Orleans, Cincinnati, Seattle, and elsewhere.

In December 2015, the players refused to play on turf at Honolulu, Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium after they pulled up seams in the surface. The game was canceled the day before it was to be played.

The new deal mandates that U.S. Soccer “follow specific guidelines in selecting venues to ensure [women’s team] matches are played in top-tier venues,” and mandates that games “be played on grass in almost all circumstances.”

That flexibility leaves the door open for the women to play in soccer hotbeds like Portland, Ore., and Atlanta, where stadiums have high-quality artificial surfaces.

On charter flights, U.S. Soccer has traditionally used them for travel to other countries but not as often domestically. And since the women play far fewer road games than the men, they’ve flown by charter less often.

The new deal mandates “an equal number of charter flights” for both teams no matter whether for tournaments, friendlies, training camps, or anything else.

There is no hard minimum number of flights. Instead, it will be set by whichever team plays in more official regional competitions over the term of the deal minus charter flights paid for by regional governing body Concacaf. (Charter travel to the World Cup and Olympics is automatic.)

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On hotels, the new deal says U.S. Soccer “will maintain comparable budgets” for both teams in paying for rooms and nights, and “will follow specific guidelines” to ensure that the women’s team “stays in top-quality hotels.”

On support staffs, the new deal mandates that each senior national team gets 18 to 21 “dedicated operational and technical support service professionals” as well as separate lead physicians and “a pool of two to five additional physicians.”

There’s also the ability for the teams to add up to 11 extra short-term staff, excluding physicians, for training camps or games as contract hires.

The flexibility there is deliberate, as it allows the men’s and women’s programs to fill the support positions as they see fit.

The settlement includes a reporting mechanism for players to flag violations. It also gives the women’s players’ union the option to match any changes to terms that the men’s union gets. The new deal’s terms will stand for four full years from when the settlement becomes official.

There’s one big thing the settlement does not include: any provisions on equal pay, whether for current salaries or the $66 million the players want in back pay to make up for gender differences in FIFA World Cup prize money. That part of the lawsuit continues, and the players filed a motion Tuesday to accelerate a judgment of their appeal of their loss on the subject in May.

“We are pleased that the USWNT Players have fought for – and achieved – long overdue equal working conditions,” the players’ spokesperson, Molly Levinson, said in a statement. “We now intend to file our appeal to the Court’s decision which does not account for the central fact in this case that women players have been paid at lesser rates than men who do the same job. We remain as committed as ever to our work to achieve the equal pay that we legally deserve.”

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Cone offered an olive branch.

“I will sit down with the women anytime to try to work through the issues that they still have on equal pay,” she said. “I can tell you that we are 100% committed to equal pay. I think moving past this litigation is not only important for soccer in the U.S., but I think it’s important for soccer globally.”

But she was just as blunt in asserting that the Federation can’t afford all of the back pay the players are seeking.

“We’ve offered them the same contracts as the men for all games that are controlled by U.S. Soccer, but unfortunately, the response has been that they didn’t want to negotiate with U.S. Soccer unless U.S. Soccer was willing to make up the FIFA World Cup prize money,” Cone said. “[It] just isn’t possible, from U.S. Soccer’s standpoint, to make that up. Even pre-COVID, this would be devastating to our budget and to our programming. But given COVID, not to be overly dramatic, but it would likely bankrupt the Federation.”