The monumental settlement of 24 million dollars and legally-binding promise of equal pay for the US Women’s National Soccer Team marks a turning point in the fight for gender equality. There is no social equality for women without financial equality. But this lawsuit isn’t only about money, it is about respect.
Female athletes have always been undervalued and underpaid. Women’s sports have continuously been viewed as inferior to men’s and portrayed as frivolous endeavors. “Early on in my career I was just so happy to be there and I was willing to take whatever scraps they gave me,” reflects Becky Sauerbrunn, captain of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) since 2021, in the documentary LFG (Let’s Fucking Go), an inside account of the USWNT’s fight for equal pay. “For so long women have been brainwashed into feeling gratitude for what they have.”
Jessica McDonald, fellow USWNT player, describes, in LFG, the sacrifices she made to chase a life on the pitch: “I was scraping pennies for the past seven years in my career, just trying to get by, literally living paycheck to paycheck. All season I had a full time job packing boxes at Amazon for 12 bucks an hour. Childcare cost more than my paycheck. So there was a lot of trainings when my infant toddler would be sitting at training on his own in his stroller.” Sadly, this story is one of many. Sauerbrunn illustrates the grim reality of being a professional female soccer player: “A large majority of my teammates in the [National Women’s Soccer League] do not make a livable wage. So many women have had to choose between living their dream and settling for another career.”
On March 8 of 2019, International Women’s Day, the USWNT players filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against their employer, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The USWNT’s road to legal victory has been anything but smooth. “Why did it take so long for this to happen?” asks Franklin junior and varsity soccer player Marlee Dorn. “Why should it take so much effort for something that should just be the norm?” Throughout the mediation process, the USSF criticized the plaintiffs for being “inflammatory” and accused them of inciting public confusion through misleading information. The USSF exhausted every resource available to thwart the progress of the lawsuit; the foundation even publicly promoted falsehoods such as “the job of [Men’s National Team (MNT)] player requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength than does the job of [Women’s National Team (WNT)] player,” which insinuates that women are biologically inferior and therefore have fewer responsibilities on the field. Public backlash to the USSF’s misogynistic statements spread like wildfire and soon after multiple sponsors threatened to pull their financial support, USSF’s former President Carlos Cordeiro resigned in March 2020.
Even after the resignation of Cordeiro, the USSF continued to resist negotiation. Their legal team clung to two weak arguments; the first being that some women on the team were receiving more compensation than some of their male counterparts and the second being that the MNT has brought in more revenue than the WNT. Both of these claims deceptively avoid the central facet of the lawsuit, equal pay for equal play. Although it is true that some of the WNT’s most prominent players did receive a larger paycheck than some players on the MNT, this was only possible because they had won more games and secured a World Cup title. You can’t look at total compensation, you have to look at the rate of pay. Sauerbrunn explains, “We had to be wildly successful in order to outearn our male counterparts.” Additionally, from 2016-2018, the WNT’s revenue was 50.8 million and the MNT’s was 49.9 million, and this gap will only increase as the WNT gains more media attention and global admiration for the formidable athletic dynasty they have built.
In May 2020 the USWNT’s lawsuit faced a serious blow when US Federal Judge Gary Klausner dismissed the team’s equal pay demands, ruling that only the working condition claims could go to trial. After receiving the devastating news, Megan Rapinoe, captain of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT), 2019 FIFA Golden Boot winner, and 2019 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, commented in an interview on LFG, “I am so sick of debating my own worth with the [US Soccer] Federation.” But nevertheless the USWNT persisted and after a successful appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, the USWNT has finally broken the glass ceiling.
This victory sets not only an invaluable legal precedent but a social one. It sends a message to the world that women deserve equal pay and should settle for nothing less. Although there is still much progress to be made, the USWNT has taken a major step towards leveling the playing field.