Three months before kickoff for the Women's World Cup, players for the U.S. women's national team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit Friday against the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Of the current USWNT player pool, 28 team members were named as plaintiffs in the case filed in United States District Court in Los Angeles, and they are seeking class-action status over "institutionalized gender discrimination" toward the team. The lawsuit was filed under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
"Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts," the lawsuit said. "This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players -- with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions."
The U.S. women's national team won the World Cup in 2015 and will open defense of the title at the 2019 Women's World Cup, which begins in France on June 7.
"I don't know if there was a tipping point, but the feeling was that this was the next best step for us to put us in the best possible position to continue to fight for what we believe is right and what the law recognizes," midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "And to try to achieve equality under the law, equal working conditions, equal working pay. It goes far beyond equal pay into the working conditions as well."
The players are seeking equitable pay and treatment, in addition to damages including back pay.
"We believe it is our duty to be the role models that we've set out to be and fight to what we know we legally deserve," forward Christen Press told The Associated Press. "And hopefully in that way it inspires women everywhere."
Among complaints about wages, the lawsuit also notes issues with where and how often the women's team played, medical treatment and coaching. The class-action request would allow any players for the team since February 2015 to join the case.
Rapinoe said it was "really important" to have the full team represented in the lawsuit.
"It puts a face and a name to each one of these claims of discrimination," she said. "But it also shows incredible unity and togetherness from our team that is really important in this time. Just that idea of women supporting women and backing each other, creating something together that is much larger and more impactful than they could on their own."
The U.S. Women's National Team Players Association was not party to the lawsuit, but in a statement said it "supports the plaintiffs' goal of eliminating gender-based discrimination by USSF." The U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association, which represents the men's national team players, expressed its full support of the women's players efforts as well.
"Each of us is extremely proud to wear the United States jersey, and we also take seriously the responsibility that comes with that," forward Alex Morgan said in a statement. "We believe that fighting for gender equality in sports is a part of that responsibility. As players, we deserved to be paid equally for our work, regardless of our gender."
The lawsuit claims that from March 2013 through Dec. 31, 2016, when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired, players on the women's team could make a maximum salary of $72,000, plus bonuses for winning non-tournament games as well as World Cup appearances and victories, and for Olympic placement.
"A comparison of the WNT and MNT pay shows that if each team played 20 friendlies in a year and each team won all 20 friendlies, female WNT players would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while similarly situated male MNT players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game against the various levels of competition they would face,'' the lawsuit says.
The U.S. Soccer Federation said it does not comment on pending litigation. The USSF has maintained in the past that any pay disparity between the men's and women's teams results from separate collective bargaining agreements.
The women's team set up its compensation structure, which included a guaranteed salary rather than a pay-for-play model like the men, in the last labor contract. The players also earn salaries -- paid by the federation -- for playing in the National Women's Soccer League.
In 2016, five members of the U.S. women's national soccer team filed a similar complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That filing noted that, despite the women's team generating nearly $20 million more revenue in 2015 than the U.S. men's team, the women are paid about a quarter of what the men earn.
Representing the federation, attorney Kathryn H. Ruemmler wrote in a May 2016 letter to the EEOC that the USSF had invested more than $3.5 million in the National Women's Soccer League in addition to $3.45 million in salaries for women's national team players. She said over the previous four years, women's national team players averaged almost $280,000, a figure $90,000 more than men's national team players. She also said the women receive benefits the men don't, including severance pay, medical insurance, maternity leave, child care and a relocation allowance. Ruemmler also said men's games generated about $144 million from 2008-15, while women's matches generated $53 million, and men's games from 2013-15 were twice the average for women's matches.
Friday's lawsuit effectively ends that EEOC complaint, brought by Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd and former goalkeeper Hope Solo. The players received a right to sue letter from the EEOC last month.
The team took the fight into contract negotiations and struck a collective bargaining agreement in 2017 that runs through 2021.
The players received raises in base pay and bonuses as well as better provisions for travel and accommodations, including increased per diems. It also gave the players some control of certain licensing and marketing rights. Specific details about the deal were not disclosed.
ESPN's Graham Hays and The Associated Press contributed to this report.