On equal pay, U.S. Soccer has a chance to right FIFA's wrongs

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Kate Fagan details the wage-discrimination action filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation by five members of the U.S. women's national team seeking fair compensation.

NEXT VIDEO video

When five players -- Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo, on behalf of the World Cup-winning U.S. women's national soccer team -- recently filed a federal complaint charging U.S. Soccer with wage discrimination, it quickly became apparent, for the 10,849th time in my life, that I should have chosen law school after college (or at least paid better attention in accounting classes).

I won't attempt to dissect the legal nuances of the players' Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing, but instead I will get to the heart of the issue, because this is clear: The women deserve more. The question is how much.

I spoke recently with both sides -- U.S. Soccer's chief financial officer Eric Gleason and spokesman Neil Buethe, and the players' legal counsel Jeffrey Kessler and Rich Nichols -- to get their perspectives. If one thing is certain in all of this, the issue is complex. As is how the players are paid.

Since 2005, the women have opted for needed security, with salary, benefits and injury protection. (The men, because their professional club salaries are their primary sources of income, get paid by U.S. Soccer only if they make a roster.) The women's collective bargaining agreement is in its last year and U.S. Soccer reps say that, as in any negotiating process, the numbers should and will increase for the next four-year cycle -- especially since in 2015 the women made money for U.S. Soccer, unlike in 2012 when the current CBA was negotiated.

But as Rapinoe, who has been to all three negotiating sessions for the 2017 contract, told me recently, "The players wanted to know if [U.S. Soccer] is on board with the paradigm shift we think needs to happen. [U.S. Soccer] understands there will be an increase but not like we would want. And they are not all that receptive. After a couple meetings, they released financials, and said that 2015 is a one-off and after this next year the team goes dark."

Nichols added, "They said that 2015 was an aberration. That was insulting. That was the tipping point for us."

Buethe told me the "numbers and the proposal the players' association put in front of them would jeopardize their ability to invest in other important areas to ensure the ability to continue to help grow the game," which is U.S. Soccer's overall mission.

One could argue that the sides are posturing for negotiating reasons. One could also argue on whether posturing is a good or a bad idea, given the tension created by the recent turf debacle. But having sat through many years of negotiating meetings with U.S. Soccer as a player, I can tell you the last thing players want to hear is that a very successful year was an aberration. You get angry. Very angry, because this is something you have been fighting for, for years.

The issue of how much more the women should be paid is a question of how much weight should be given to the revenue argument and how much weight should be given to the fact that U.S. Soccer is the governing body charged with growing the game of soccer in this country.

Where the revenue forces end and mission forces begin depends on who you are talking to and what they advocate. Of course revenue is a factor: U.S. Soccer has market considerations it cannot ignore to stay alive. I get that. But it cannot be the only consideration for a national governing body charged with growing the game.

And here is where I start to go cross-eyed with revenue talk: Revenue, as we know, often correlates with popularity. And the argument to women often becomes, well, you just don't pull in the same money so we will pay you less. Yet, how do we weigh the effect of historical discrimination on the women's market?

Twenty years ago, we had to drag, beg and pull U.S. Soccer into the women's market. U.S. Soccer told us it was not profitable, that there wasn't enough interest. Well then, we said, help us grow the market. And while it didn't happen overnight, the market responded. (The U.S. women winning a lot helped, too.) U.S. Soccer started to put money into the women's market programmatically and financially. And just look at the result.

Rich Lam/Getty Images
 

In fact, I think U.S. Soccer and its president, Sunil Gulati, deserve credit (gasp!) for better supporting the women's side of the game in these past five years, through the development of youth national teams and helping fund the current professional women's soccer league (the newest team in Orlando set a league attendance record for its home opener with more than 23,000 fans).

Is it perfect or enough? No. Did it take too damn long? Yes. Did U.S. Soccer have an obligation as a governing body to build it? Absolutely. And so does FIFA.

You cannot speak about the effect systemic discrimination has on revenue without talking about the global governor of the game. In 2016, FIFA still does so very little to build the global women's market, that it is embarrassing. And that is indefensible as a cash-rich governing body that had more than $1 billion in reserves in 2014. For an entity that took more than 100 years to just put a woman on the executive board (that was in 2013, by the way), I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Many of the arguments U.S. Soccer makes about why the men's team performance bonuses are so much higher than the women is, in large part, that FIFA pays U.S. Soccer millions more for the men -- which U.S. Soccer then passes on in the form of bonuses to the men. (U.S. Soccer also says that the ticket revenue from men's games is greater than from women's games.)

But with the FIFA money, U.S. Soccer argues it can set higher performance bonus numbers for the men because they know that money is essentially "guaranteed" by FIFA's increased payouts. The better the men do, the more money U.S. Soccer and, thus the men, make. U.S. Soccer argues that FIFA does not pay U.S. Soccer the corresponding dollars for the women.

Essentially, when U.S. Soccer says that it pays the men more because FIFA pays them more for the men's side of the game, U.S. Soccer is passing on FIFA's discrimination.
Julie Foudy

That is all true. When the men advanced to the Round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, FIFA paid U.S. Soccer more than $9 million. When the U.S. Women won the World Cup in 2015, FIFA paid U.S. Soccer $2 million. FIFA's rationale is that the men's game brings in most of the revenue (true again) and so the men's teams get paid much more. But similar to where we were with U.S. Soccer 20 years ago, of course the men's game brings in most of the revenue because FIFA doesn't support the women's game.

When FIFA doesn't build the market or equally egregiously, doesn't exercise its considerable power to ensure federations around the world are growing the women's game, of course the market will be smaller. FIFA has the power to change that, just not the will. Add in that its very mission is to grow the game for all and lava starts flowing out of my ears.

So essentially, when U.S. Soccer says that it pays the men more because FIFA pays them more for the men's side of the game, U.S. Soccer is passing on FIFA's discrimination.

U.S. Soccer surely has to assume part of the blame. That money goes into its general funds and can be distributed at U.S. Soccer's discretion. Why shouldn't some of it go to the women, leveling those inequalities?

And, how much value can you assign to winning? How do you quantify winning three World Cups and four Olympics? No one can dispute how much Americans love and embrace winners or how much the women's winning has grown the game for girls, boys, women and men.

When I look at U.S. Soccer's numbers and the fact that the women's total compensation is almost comparable to the men's during a four-year and even an eight-year cycle going back, I think it is fantastic to see how far we have come, but it certainly doesn't seem right that the women have to win just about everything, every single year to even be close to comparable with the men. Because if those women had slipped up in a World Cup or an Olympics, the drop in compensation would have been significant.

It would be easy to paint U.S. Soccer as the villain here, but it would be false. U.S. Soccer has a chance to continue to show the world just what building a market can mean, to continue to show the world what is possible when you give women support, to truly be the model that all women's sports governing bodies emulate.

I have faith U.S. Soccer and Gulati -- who stepped up when the third version of a women's pro league was dead, and who seem to understand the model they're building for women in the United States will have an impact globally -- will do the right thing and compensate USWNT players appropriately, EEOC filing or not. My hope is that other sports' national governing bodies in this country hear the message and open up their books, as well. Because this is not a new fight for female athletes, who must ask the same questions the USWNT has and seek transparency. Rattle the cage and keep on rattling.

And let's hope that FIFA and new president Gianni Infantino have the will to digest the message, as well. Just think of the potential in the women's market if FIFA actually helped build it.

Because women deserve to be celebrated and supported and yep, paid as well.

Related Content