The members of the U.S. women’s national team added to the pressure as they embarked on defending their World Cup championship. In March, they filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing the United States Soccer Federation has discriminated against the women’s team in such areas as pay, medical benefits and training conditions. Thus, prevail at the end of the month-long tournament in France, and they would punctuate their case with an exclamation mark.
They did win on Sunday, 2-0 over the Netherlands in the championship match in Lyon. They did so in a way that showed off the transformation of recent years. Jill Ellis, the coach, has put together a flowing, fun-to-watch style of play that combines with a familiar resilience. This is a system, evident in veterans such as Carli Lloyd (extraordinary performer in the previous World Cup four years ago and now coming off the bench) and new faces such as Rose Lavelle, a Cincinnati native, whose thrilling run, shot and goal secured the final victory.
A three-peat? OK, it’s far too early. Yet one thing that would enhance the prospect is assembling once more a team of such strong character, led most prominently by Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, on and off the field. When critics understandably questioned the extended celebrations of late goals in a 13-0 trouncing of Thailand, the team didn’t turn defensive. Members made their arguments for why, and everyone moved ahead, including to victories over other leading European teams, Sweden, France and England.
The display of confidence and character, as much as the fine play, spurred those in the stadium to chant “equal pay, equal pay” as the team savored its triumph. Does the women’s national team have a winning court argument? Clearly, it appears so, though it can be more complicated than some might expect.
Go back to the years before 2015, and the men’s national team generated far more revenue than the women’s team. Yet as the Washington Post Fact Checker noted this week, much has changed in recent years. From 2016 to 2018, the women’s team produced roughly $900,000 more in match revenue than the men. The Post adds that in 2018, the women’s team outpaced the men in bonuses and salaries -- though to get there, it played nearly twice as many games.
There is a trend for the better in the collective bargaining agreements. In its lawsuit, the women’s team points to a yawning pay gap -- a woman receiving 38 percent of the compensation of a male player. The Post explains that under the latest bargaining agreement, starting in 2017, the women’s team has narrowed the difference significantly. Its members are now near 89 percent.
Why not just seek equality during the next negotiation? Those fans chanting in Lyon knew what they were doing. FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, conducts the World Cup, for which it sets the prize money. The men’s World Cup in 2018 awarded prize money of $400 million, with $38 million going to the winner. The women’s tournament totaled just $30 million in prize money this year, or less than the sum for the winning men’s team.
Here is the biggest problem, the women’s national team receiving $4 million as the winners, or around one-tenth of the men’s prize money. That hardly meets the equality test, especially in view of the women generating impressive, and lucrative, television ratings. The U.S. Soccer Federation may insist it merely follows what FIFA decides. Yet there is something way amiss when the federation finds itself going along with discrimination in violation of what American law seeks to achieve and guarantee.