The judge in the United States women’s soccer team’s equal pay lawsuit rejected the players’ most important claims on Friday, delivering a crushing blow to the team’s four-year legal campaign against the United States Soccer Federation.
The judge, R. Gary Klausner of United States District Court for the Central District of California, accepted the federation’s argument in what is called a motion for summary judgment. In his ruling, he dismissed the players’ arguments that they were systematically underpaid by U.S. Soccer in comparison with the men’s national team. In fact, Klausner wrote, U.S. Soccer had substantiated its argument that the women’s team had actually earned more “on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis” than the men’s team during the years at issue in the lawsuit.
The players, through a spokeswoman, said they would appeal the decision. U.S. Soccer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Klausner’s ruling preserved the players’ claims about unequal treatment in areas like travel, hotel accommodations and team staffing. A trial on those issues is scheduled to begin June 16.
But in dismissing the equal pay argument that had been the heart of the players’ case, Klausner brought to an end — for the moment — a yearslong fight that had pitted the players against their employer, and transformed them from merely the world’s best women’s soccer team into global standard-bearers for pay equity, women’s rights and support for women’s sports.
The players, including stars like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, eagerly embraced that fight. They leveraged their popularity and their huge social media followings to rally supporters to their side, and their years of media experience made them savvy spokeswomen for their cause.
That was where they turned on Friday night.
“If you know this team at all you know we have a lot of fight left in us,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn wrote on Twitter. “We knew this wasn’t going to be easy, change never is.”
But never far from view was the fact that tens of millions of dollars were potentially at stake, costs that the federation said would be ruinous for its efforts to develop the sport in the United States. As the case moved through the courts, haphazard efforts at mediating the dispute went nowhere, and when U.S. Soccer’s president at the time, Carlos Cordeiro, pressed for a new round earlier this year, the players rejected the idea out of hand.
Asked in March what it would take to avoid a trial this year, Rapinoe replied acidly, “An actual offer for equal pay, and some considerable damages as well.”
The legal fight officially began in April 2016, when five top women’s players — acting, they said, on behalf of the team — filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. In their filing, the players said they were being shortchanged on everything from bonuses to appearance fees to meal money.
Frustrated with a lack of progress, the team withdrew that complaint in early 2019 and sued U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination. At that point, the campaign was 28 players strong and bolstered by vocal public support, plus the first of what would be two consecutive Women’s World Cup championships.
In the lawsuit, the team accused the federation of pervasive discriminatory treatment that affected everything from the players’ paychecks to the fields where they played and the hotels where they slept during tournaments.
U.S. Soccer long argued that the claims of discrimination were unfair. It said, accurately, that the players had negotiated their own pay and working conditions in a series of collective bargaining agreements, and it even produced fact sheets arguing that the female players had actually earned more than the men in recent years.
U.S. Soccer’s strategy — using bonus figures for a women’s team that had won the World Cup and a men’s team that had failed to qualify for one — struck many as a risky, and misguided, legal strategy.
When U.S. Soccer filed legal arguments earlier this year in which it argued that the idea that men were superior to women was “indisputable science,” the women quickly laid claim to the moral high ground. They labeled U.S. Soccer’s strategy “blatant misogyny,” and within days Cordeiro resigned and the federation fired its lawyers.
In February, after years of failed negotiations and angry exchanges in court, the team even set a price for ending its lawsuit: $67 million. The amount, they said in a court filing, represented years of back pay and damages.
Then came Klausner’s ruling on Friday, a crushing defeat.
Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for the players, said the team would appeal Klausner’s decision, perhaps as soon as Monday, and that it would press on with the issues that remained — lesser fights related to unequal travel, hotel accommodations, and coaching and medical staffing for the women’s squad.
“We are shocked and disappointed with today’s decision, but we will not give up our hard work for equal pay,” Levinson said in a statement. “We are confident in our case and steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that girls and women who play this sport will not be valued as lesser just because of their gender.
“We have learned that there are tremendous obstacles to change; we know that it takes bravery and courage and perseverance to stand up to them. We will appeal and press on.”