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U.S. Women’s Players and U.S. Soccer Settle Equal Pay Lawsuit

A six-year fight over equal pay that had pitted key members of the World Cup-winning United States women’s soccer team against their sport’s national governing body ended on Tuesday morning with a settlement that included a multimillion-dollar payment to the players and a promise by their federation to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s national teams.

Under the terms of the agreement, the athletes — a group consisting of several dozen current and former women’s national team players — will share $24 million in payments from the federation, U.S. Soccer. The bulk of that figure is back pay, a tacit admission that compensation for the men’s and women’s teams had been unequal for years.

Perhaps more notable than the payment, though — at least, for the players — is U.S. Soccer’s pledge to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s national teams in all competitions, including the World Cup, in the teams’ next collective bargaining agreements. That gap was once seen as an unbridgeable divide preventing any sort of settlement; if it is closed by the federation in negotiations with both teams, the change could funnel millions of dollars to a new generation of women’s players.

The settlement is contingent on the ratification of a new contract between U.S. Soccer and the players’ union for the women’s team. When finalized, it will resolve all remaining claims in the gender discrimination lawsuit the players filed in 2019.

“It wasn’t an easy process to get to this point for sure,” U.S. Soccer’s president, Cindy Parlow Cone, said in a telephone interview. “The most important thing here is that we are moving forward, and we are moving forward together.”

For U.S. Soccer, the settlement is an expensive end to a yearslong legal fight that had battered its reputation, damaged its ties with sponsors and soured its relationship with some of its most popular stars, including Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd. U.S. Soccer was under no obligation to settle with the women’s team; a federal judge in 2020 had dismissed the players’ equal pay arguments, stripping them of nearly all of their legal leverage, and the players’ appeal was not certain to succeed.

For that reason, the settlement represents an unexpected victory for the players: Nearly two years after losing in court in one devastating ruling, they were able to extract not only an eight-figure settlement but also a commitment from the federation to enact the very reforms the judge had rejected.

Morgan, in a telephone interview, called the settlement “a monumental win for us, and for women.”

“What we set out to do,” she said, “was to have acknowledgment of discrimination from U.S. Soccer, and we received that through back pay in the settlement. We set out to have fair and equal treatment in working conditions, and we got that through the working conditions settlement. And we set out to have equal pay moving forward for us and the men’s team through U.S. Soccer, and we achieved that.”

In exchange for the payout and U.S. Soccer’s pledge to address equal pay in future contracts with its two marquee teams, the women’s players agreed to release the federation from all remaining claims in the team’s gender discrimination lawsuit.

The process could take months. The men’s and women’s teams have already held joint negotiating sessions with U.S. Soccer, but to make the deal work — the federation is seeking a single collective bargaining agreement that covers both national teams — the men’s players association will have to agree to share, or surrender, millions of dollars in potential World Cup payments from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Those payments, set by FIFA and exponentially larger for the men’s World Cup than the corresponding women’s tournament, are at the heart of the equal pay divide.

Cone, a former member of the women’s team, said in September that the federation would not sign new collective bargaining agreements with either team that did not equalize World Cup prize money. On Tuesday, the players association for the women’s team congratulated its members and their lawyers “on their historic success in fighting decades of discrimination perpetuated by the U.S. Soccer Federation,” but made clear that it planned to hold U.S. Soccer — and by extension the men’s team — to their public promises to support equal pay.

“Although the settlement reached today is an incredible success,” the union said, “much work remains to be done.”

The players’ long battle with U.S. Soccer, which is not only their employer but also the federation that governs the sport in America, had thrust them to the forefront of a broader fight for equality in women’s sports and drawn the support of fellow athletes, celebrities, politicians and presidential candidates. In recent years, players, teams and even athletes in other sports — ice hockey Olympic gold medalists, Canadian soccer pros, W.N.B.A. players — had reached out to the U.S. players and their union for guidance in efforts to win similar gains in pay and working conditions.

Many of those players and teams succeeded in winning major gains — Norway, Australia and the Netherlands are among the countries whose soccer federations have committed to closing the pay gap between men and women — even as the U.S. players’ case dragged on.

The equal pay fight began almost six years ago, when five star players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. The women, key members of a team that at the time was the reigning World Cup and Olympic champion, claimed that they earned as little as 40 percent of what players on the men’s national team were paid. The players — Morgan, Rapinoe, Lloyd, Hope Solo and Becky Sauerbrunn — said they were being shortchanged on bonuses, appearance fees and even meal money while they were in training camps.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Solo said, though U.S. Soccer immediately disputed them. Men’s players, Solo said, “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

Almost immediately, soccer fans took sides in the fight, cleaving U.S. Soccer down the middle. The federation briefly argued that the men brought in more money and drew higher television ratings, and thus deserved higher pay, but it soon abandoned the stance amid public backlash, player fury and a closer reading of equal pay law.

By then, the sides were already trading the first of what would be many shots in the news media, and in court. The federation won a ruling that blocked players from boycotting the 2016 Olympics while they pressed for new contracts, but only after an embarrassing gaffe in which one of its court filings failed to redact the home addresses and personal email accounts of about two dozen top players.

Later depositions produced uncomfortable exchanges that the public relations-savvy women’s players weaponized on social media and in slogans they sold on T-shirts. But they also produced statements the players would not forgive.

In March 2020, months after the women’s team won its second straight Women’s World Cup, U.S. Soccer’s lawyers argued in a court filing that playing for the men’s team required more “skill” and “responsibility” than the women’s equivalent.

“To see that blatant misogyny and sexism as the argument used against us is really disappointing,” Rapinoe said, adding, “I know that we’re in a contentious fight, but that crossed a line.”

U.S. Soccer apologized and replaced its legal team, but the divide had widened just a little more. A day later, the federation’s president resigned, and the women set their price for a settlement: $67 million. U.S. Soccer responded with an offer of $9 million.

A settlement has seemed the most likely way out for the sides since April 2020, when the judge in the women’s lawsuit, R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, dismissed the argument that they were systematically underpaid and said that U.S. Soccer had substantiated its claim 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 covered by the lawsuit.

The women’s team had, in one of the case’s great ironies, become a victim of its own success. In choosing to fight U.S. Soccer while they were at the peak of their powers as World Cup champions, the women had also picked the absolute worst time to line up a few years of their salaries against a few years of the men’s pay as the men at the time were foundering competitively.

By failing to qualify for the only men’s World Cup played during the lawsuit’s window, the men became ineligible for millions of dollars in performance bonuses, even as the women collected bonuses — twice — for winning their World Cup and won higher pay after successfully negotiating new contracts.

The women vowed to appeal the judge’s ruling, and a deal over working conditions signaled compromise was still possible. At the time, Cone, a former women’s national team player, had restated her persistent optimism that a larger deal could put the fight behind U.S. Soccer and the team, and her hopes for building “a different relationship” with the women’s team and of a chance to “rebuild the trust” between the sides.

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