USWNT: $24 Million Equal Pay Agreement: Is It Really Fair?
A long fought battle finally drew to an end a few weeks ago when the US Women’s National Team reached a historic $24 million equal pay settlement agreement. In a joint statement that was issued from both the US National team and the U.S. Soccer Federation, the parties announced that the equal pay claims in litigation since as early as 2016 had been resolved, pending negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. In the agreement, U.S. Soccer agrees to pay a $22 million lump sum in back pay to the players. Additionally, the federation will put $2 million into a fund to support USWNT post-career goals and charitable efforts, of which each player can collect up to $50,000.
The journey began nearly six years ago, when five players from the Women’s National Team filed a wage discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After little headway was made, the players withdrew their 2016 claim and raised the stakes, bringing together a total of 28 players together to sue U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination in March 2019. The lawsuit alleged that female players were not being paid the same amount as their counterparts on the men’s national team, despite a showing of higher television ratings and superior performance on the field. The timing of the claim was no coincidence; it came less than a year after the completion of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which the U.S. Men’s team failed to qualify for. Soon thereafter, the 2019 World Cup gave female players an opportunity to back up their pleas in their equivalent competition. The women’s team did just that, winning the 2019 World Cup final, 2-0 against the Netherlands. According to a statement from Fox Sports, 14.3 million American viewers tuned in for this championship game. This was a 22% increase from the 11.4 million that watched the Men’s World Cup Final between France and Croatia.
Despite the proof in numbers, the lawsuit was dismissed in 2020, after federal judges blamed contractual structuring differences between men’s and women’s players for the discrepancy. In July 2021, the players filed an appeal. The settlement agreement, announced February 22, 2022, was finally reached almost six years after the original complaint was filed. Although it’s welcomed news for the players and a huge triumph for women’s sports in general, it begs the question: what took them so long?
Without trying to play the blame card, it’s interesting to consider what would have happened if the men’s team had taken a stand against the treatment of their female counterparts. This is not to say that the men didn’t speak out against the inequality. Within the appeal women’s team, lawyers for the men’s national team called the ruling “flawed” and “oversimplified”, pointing out that when the court blamed contractual differences, they failed to account for the fact that women’s pay relied on their performance, not just the number of games they played. As impactful as their support was, it’s interesting to think about what may have happened if they pushed even harder. Could a threat of a strike from the men’s team have accelerated this equal pay agreement? I guess we’ll never know. What is certain is that less talk and more action from women’s rights allies will always draw more attention to important matters, which can never hurt.
It may have been a long road to get to this point, but that’s not to take away from the historic precedent the USWNT has set with this settlement. For decades, women have been paid less than their male counterparts, even outside of sports. An equal pay agreement on such a public stage only puts pressure on the rest of the world to reevaluate their own policies and strive to do the same. Yet Purdue University gender studies professor Cheryl Cooky points out the dangerous standard set by the agreement. “What happens if the USWNT is no longer the dominant force it has been over the past three decades?” She writes in her article : “Why must women athletes be the absolute best in their sport to be considered equal to men?” She goes on to say that, “A true win for equality would be for women athletes to be compensated fairly, and for both the men’s and women’s teams to receive equal treatment by the federation, regardless of how much revenue they generate and how many titles they win.”
It doesn't help that women’s sports are still relatively new to the scene (it was only 50 years ago that women’s high school sports were largely non-existent). It will take years to reform a backwards way of thinking when it comes to gender pay gaps, although this agreement can certainly be considered a push in the right direction.
So what do you think about the agreement? Is Cooky’s point well taken? Can something be considered “equal” if one party had to work harder, be better, and do more to get there?
Sarah Mullahy is a Suffolk University Law School, a J.D. Candidate, '23 and a current intern at Wilmelsport.