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Do the US need to win the World Cup to secure their fight for equal pay?

Caitlin Murray


When the US women’s national team takes the field in France in June, they will be fighting for their football lives on the world’s biggest stage. But off the field, an even bigger battle will be plodding along: the players’ lawsuit over equal pay.

The Women’s World Cup kicks off next month and an ongoing gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation will coalesce into a summer of the highest stakes for the USWNT.

But do the USWNT players need to win another World Cup to help the lawsuit against their boss, US Soccer? And why did they file the lawsuit before the World Cup if it will only add more pressure?

“It was a tough a decision,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said of the timing to file the lawsuit. “We didn’t want people to think we were distracted by it going into the World Cup. But it was also time-sensitive so we really had no choice in the matter. We also know that we are professionals – we are very capable of multitasking but we are 100% focused on winning the World Cup and this is something we can pursue afterwards.”

The USWNT needed to file their litigation before World Cup because it came on the heels of a gender discrimination complaint filed in 2016. That complaint sat with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was unable to resolve the issue, and the players were eventually granted the right to sue US Soccer outright, which had a 90-day running clock.

This new lawsuit, which was filed by 28 players in the pool, shouldn’t add any extra pressure to win another World Cup. After all, that is one of the main arguments of the lawsuit: the women have been burdened with winning just to earn the compensation they do receive, while they men have been more handsomely compensated for losing. They shouldn’t have to win to be paid equally, they argue.

But winning would help a lot.

Part of it is because this is a public-relations battle as much as a legal one, and the players know it. The more popular the USWNT becomes, the harder it is for US Soccer publicly squabble with them and argue against compensating them well. Some of the accusations in the 2016 filing, fresh off the USWNT’s 2015 World Cup win, were hugely embarrassing to US Soccer, and the federation quickly fixed them – disparities like paying the women smaller food per diems and giving them smaller cuts of ticket sales than the men.

This time around, the public-relations aspect of the lawsuit seems to be having some similar success. Just by complaining so openly, the women have already convinced the federation to stop scheduling games games on artificial turf, which the men have almost never played on. The women’s team has also started being provided charter flights more often, closer to what the federation provides to the men’s team.

“We’ve been put in an incredible position to use the platform that we have and use the platform that we’ve been part of building to grow the game,” said winger Megan Rapinoe. “We very much realize that the better it is for us, the better it can be for everyone else.”

Legally, winning in France may help the USWNT as well.

There is precedent where courts have ruled that higher wages in men’s sports were justifiable if the men’s teams face more pressure to win and more demands on their time. In other words, it’s not always equal work between men’s and women’s teams, the court said. But the US women’s team plays more games in a calendar year than the men’s team does, and their expectations for success are astronomical compared to the men’s team, which didn’t even qualify for the last men’s World Cup.

The USWNT’s lawsuit goes directly after this argument. It points out that the women played 19 more games than the men in a three-year period, and it argues that the USWNT players “often spend more time practicing for and playing in matches, more time in training camps, more time traveling and more time participating in media sessions, among other duties and responsibilities, than similarly situated MNT players.”

The USWNT has also been earning more revenue from its games than the men’s team has over the past three years, according to US Soccer’s own public financial filings. (Revenues from broadcast deals are bundled together, so it’s impossible to determine if one team is more valuable in signing TV deals.)

But winning back-to-back World Cups is extremely rare feat. On the women’s side it has only happened once out of seven editions of the tournament when Germany won in 2003 and 2007. On the men’s side, it hasn’t happened since 1962, when Brazil won after winning in 1958.

Defying the odds and winning again while in the midst of suing your boss? It a large ask of the USWNT, but the players insist they won’t be distracted by any of the legal proceedings, even if the timing isn’t ideal.

“During the tournament, we’ll be very focused and there are not a lot other things that we’ll have our attention on,” Rapinoe said.

“Ultimately we would just like to be treated equally under the law,” she added. “In terms of timing, for a number of different reasons, we felt this was the next best, strongest step we could take as a continuation of the EEOC claim we filed a couple years ago. It was time to take the next step.”

The USWNT players have been here before.

Both Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn were two of the five players who filed the gender discrimination complaint to the EEOC in 2016. Months later, the US suffered their worst-ever finish in a major tournament at the Rio Olympics, getting knocked out to Sweden in the quarter-final round.

But the USWNT’s loss to Sweden in 2016 felt more like a fluke than a lack of focus from the players. After all, the US out-shot Sweden 26-to-3 and Carli Lloyd, another one of the players who signed onto the EEOC complaint, scored what should’ve been the game-winner in the 115th minute until the referees incorrectly waved the goal offside.

The World Cup is a game of inches and luck. If it weren’t for a couple of yellow cards in 2015 serving as a blessing in disguise, the US may have never won the tournament in Canada either. If the USWNT wants to lift the trophy again in France, a little luck will need to go their way.

But win or lose, their lawsuit will be waiting for them and they’ll have to deal with it when they get back. As the players said in a statement earlier this month: “We look forward to a trial next year after the World Cup.”