Female Soccer Stars Bring EEOC Wage Discrimination Complaint

Pay for women’s soccer players lags that for men

By Allen Smith, J.D. Apr 1, 2016
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The U.S. women’s soccer team’s fighting spirit on the field is without parallel. Now some of the team's members are championing another cause—equal pay for equal work. 

The men’s team is far less successful than the women’s, but the U.S. Soccer Federation pays its members far more, five members of the U.S. women’s soccer team alleged in a wage discrimination complaint filed March 29 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

The women’s national team (WNT) has won three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals—an accomplishment no other country's team, whether on the men’s or women’s side of the sport, has reached in Olympic competition. And the pay for making the Olympic team roster is equal for the women’s and the men’s national teams: $15,000 for each qualifying player. But the pay equity ends there, according to the complaint.

“The federation’s decision to pay the men and women equal compensation for Olympic play only highlights the unjustified and discriminatory animus underlying its decision to pay women differently than men in nearly all other respects,” the complaint alleged.

“The disparity in wages between male and female U.S. Soccer players likely grew out of legitimate factors other than sex,” said Laura O’Donnell, an attorney with Haynes and Boone in San Antonio. “Through the women’s success, however, it appears that those initial, legitimate factors may have changed or no longer exist. The biggest lesson HR professionals should take from the charge is that, even if a disparity may have initially been justified, those legitimate reasons have likely changed over time.”

World Cup Disparities

WNT standouts Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo allege that they and their teammates were paid almost four times less than players on the U.S. Men’s National Team (MNT) at the World Cup level.

“We have been quite patient over the years with the belief that the federation would do the right thing and compensate us fairly,” Lloyd said in a March 31 statement issued by the WNT attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, with Winston & Strawn in New York City.

“Recently, it has become clear that the federation has no intention of providing us equal pay for equal work,” Rapinoe said.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Solo said. “We are the best in the world, have three World Cup Championships, four Olympic Championships and the MNT get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

“In early January, the Women’s National Team Players Association submitted a reasonable proposal for a new CBA [collective bargaining agreement] that had equal pay for equal work as its guiding principle,” Kessler said. “U.S. Soccer responded by suing the players in an effort to keep in place the discriminatory and unfair treatment they have endured for years, but are now fighting to end on behalf of all female athletes.”

“The pay structure for advancement through the rounds of World Cup was so skewed that, in 2015, the MNT earned $9,000,000 for losing in the round of 16, while the women earned only $2,000,000 for winning the entire tournament,” the complaint stated.

Unequal Bonuses, Per Diems, Sponsor Appearances

Bonuses are a particular bone of contention.

Each WNT player received $72,000 per year to play a minimum of 20 exhibitions (called “friendlies”) during the year. Each women’s team player received a bonus of $1,350 for each friendly that was won, and no additional compensation if the team lost or tied a game. If a player's team lost 20 games, she received $72,000 for the year or $3,600 per game; if her team won 20 games, she received $99,000 for the year or $4,950 per game.

By contrast, the men received a minimum of $5,000 to play each exhibition. The men each received compensation typically ranging from $6,250 to $17,625 per game depending on the level of their opponent and whether the team tied or won the game. “So, if an MNT player loses all 20 friendlies, he will earn $100,000—$27,000 more than similarly situated WNT players and $1,000 more than WNT players who win all of their games,” the complaint noted. If an MNT team won all of its games, a player would likely earn an average of $13,166 per game or $263,320 a year. 

The disparity in pay trickles down to per diems as well. For men, there is a per diem of $62.50 for domestic venues and $75 for international locales. For women, the per diems are $50 and $60 respectively. “The list goes on and on,” the complaint stated.

And this disparity exists despite the great popularity of the women’s game. The July 5, 2015, women’s World Cup victory was viewed by approximately 23 million viewers—the most watched soccer game in American TV history.

The federation’s most recent annual report projected a combined net loss for the national teams of $429,929 for fiscal year 2016. “But thanks almost exclusively to the success of the WNT, the federation now projects a $17.7 million profit in connection with these teams,” the complaint stated. “And for FY [fiscal year] 2017, the federation projects a net profit from the WNT of approximately $5,000,000, while projecting a net loss of nearly $1,000,000 for the MNT.”

All the while, the duties, skill, effort, responsibilities and working conditions of WNT players are substantially the same or greater than those of MNT players, the complaint alleged.

Federation Says It Is ‘Unwavering’ in Support for Women’s Soccer

The federation released a statement asserting, “Our efforts to be advocates for women’s soccer are unwavering.” The federation noted that it was “proud of the long-standing commitment we have made to building women’s soccer in the United States and furthering opportunities in soccer for young women and girls around the world. This includes leading the successful campaign to introduce women’s soccer in the Olympics in 1996, the inclusion of prize money for the Women’s World Cup, and the establishment and support of the National Women’s Soccer League, which is now in its fourth year of play.”

Jonathan Yarbrough, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Asheville, N.C., said U.S. Soccer may have an argument that higher pay is needed to get the men to compete for the U.S. national team during international breaks and World Cup when they could sit out and rest. “There are many more men's leagues than women's professionally and the pay is substantiallly higher,” he remarked. The federation may argue it has  “to entice the male players with more pay to ensure they play since their pay days are significantly higher” with Major League Soccer and the Premier League.

However, Yarbrough said, “From an optics standpoint, I think the women have a decent argument based on the terms of the CBAs. They lose a friendly, no pay. The men lose a friendly, they get paid. If the men win a friendly, they get paid significantly more than the women.”

That said, Rebecca Bernhard, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis, asked, “If the CBA is in force, how does the fact that the female players bargained for their pay affect their argument of discrimination?”

But Tracy Thompson, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine in San Francisco, said, “The EEOC has been at the forefront in aggressively pushing the pay equity agenda, and this complaint, if it goes forward, will provide the agency with a high-profile platform on which to press its cause. Because the players themselves are so well-known and the sport is so widely followed in the United States, the dispute is generating massive press coverage and prompting a national dialogue on the subject, all of which is helpful to the EEOC's agenda.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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