USWNT lawsuit in the news, but pay equality a global fight at Women's World Cup

PARIS -- The biggest game of the Women's World Cup happens here Friday night, a mouthwatering quarterfinal between France and the United States. It is the ubertalented hosts against the best team on the planet. It is a showdown, a prizefight, a classic. It is the type of match that, played to its peak, might well define a tournament.

Just not this time.

Not this time, not at this tournament, not at an event where so, so many players from so, so many teams have decided to use this moment, the most significant of their careers, to speak. To raise the volume on the conversation about gender inequality to an intensity it has never reached before.

It is everywhere. You could be forgiven, if you are only just now focusing on this tournament, for thinking the subject was limited to the United States. And the Americans are, to be sure, squarely at the heart of it: The fact that the U.S. players are playing for a world championship while literally suing their own federation for alleged gender bias is an absolutely stunning truth on its own. Taken in context with the vacuum in which most sports and their athletes prefer to live -- the we're-on-to-Cleveland, we-just-take-it-one-game-at-a-time crowd -- it is a reality that is staggering.

"Traditionally, athlete activists have been shut down, fired, discriminated against, all of that," says Nicole LaVoi, who is the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. "What's happening here, though, is working. They're drawing attention to the issue. They're using their collective power."

But that American effort is also only the roots of what has rippled out of this 24-team tournament from the very start. While the Americans have a history of pushing for progress, their willingness to elevate the battle while playing in a World Cup -- not before or after, but squarely when the lights are brightest -- has now been complemented by an unprecedented international chorus.

Ada Hegerberg, the reigning world player of the year, withdrew from playing at all for Norway here because she was dissatisfied with the level of treatment for the national team. Marta, the Brazilian who is typically recognized as the best female player in history, set the all-time World Cup scoring record (for both men and women) and celebrated, with all the cameras on her, by pointing to a pink-and-blue symbol on her shoe and dedicating the goal to "anyone fighting for more equality." Then, when her team was eliminated by France on Monday night, instead of reflecting on her own career, Marta took the opportunity to deliver an emotional, demonstrative soliloquy on television in which she passionately called on young Brazilian girls to keep pushing. "Women's soccer depends on you to survive," she said. "You have to cry at the beginning so you can smile at the end."

It was powerful and meaningful. And the list goes on. Jamaican players, like the star forward Khadija Shaw, spoke out against the latent sexism they saw in their own federation when they were forced to work with a benefactor, Bob Marley's daughter, Cedella, to re-form their team after being disbanded. They then shocked just about everyone by becoming the first team from the Caribbean to make it to a Women's World Cup.

Argentina's players, perhaps the surprise of the group stage, reveled in their first World Cup point by calling out their own federation, too, for an incredible lack of funding that saw their team disappear just a few years ago. And Nigeria's players staged a sit-in at their hotel after being eliminated in the round of 16 because, they said, their federation frequently didn't pay them an appropriate portion of the prize money they had earned.

Australia, led by the sensational Sam Kerr, has fought with its own federation (even boycotting a tour of the United States) but turned its attention toward FIFA at this World Cup, threatening the governing body with a lawsuit over the massive gap in prize money awarded at the women's tournament as compared to the men's.

"Any team that has the courage and initiative to stand up," says Elise Kellond-Knight, a midfielder for Australia. "We support it." England defender Lucy Bronze said the chain-reaction effect of one team being inspired by what it sees from others is real. "It's something we can get behind -- with women empowering other women," she said.

Almost everyone, however, points to the importance of the American players' efforts as the equivalent of the lead car in a caravan. Even as they prepared to try to beat the United States earlier this week, Spain's players acknowledged the global value of what their opponents do. "American soccer is an example in every way," Spain defender Marta Torrejon said. "The media coverage, the impact on society ... [all of] this also helps the rest of us who play soccer."

And yet still, it is not without its difficulty. The fight between the American players and U.S. Soccer is one that has seen many venues and variations going back as far as the 1990s. The latest clash is playing out in federal court after 28 players, including stars like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, sued the federation in March for "intentional gender discrimination" that they say ranges from the type of medical treatment they receive to their salaries to their travel arrangements.

All of it, they claim, is inferior to how the men's national team operates, which has prompted them to use the massive microphone that the World Cup affords them to highlight what they see as unfair. "If we are successful at the World Cup then we've got more eyes on us, more attention," veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn told Reuters. "Obviously, we want to do well for many reasons but we also feel that if we are successful that also will help further our fight."

The federation has denied (and rebutted) all charges of gender bias, saying the players' working conditions were approved by them as part of the collective-bargaining agreement their union representatives agreed to in 2017. The federation also says the men's and women's programs have different demands and structures -- the women receive guaranteed salaries whereas the men are paid only when they actually play, for example -- and adds that some things, such as revenue sharing from major tournaments, are the responsibility of FIFA and not in U.S. Soccer's control.

Trying to make direct comparisons between the men's and women's programs, then, is tricky. And while the women's team and the federation agreed to attempt mediation after the World Cup concludes, it is difficult to predict whether that will help them find common ground, particularly since much of the language used by both sides in making their arguments has been provocative, if not fiery.

The fervor around the lawsuit, though, is why the players' choice to sue just before the World Cup is so remarkable. They could have chosen to concentrate on their preparation for this tournament, worrying only about how they would defend their 2015 title.

Suing now meant adding something more, something serious, to the mental calculus of this tournament, but the players did not hesitate. "In general, employers have the leverage," said Pamela Wheeler, the founding director of the WNBA's players' association, "so when employees can seize it, they have to take the advantage and push it."

Other prominent American athletes have recently done the same, too. Meghan Duggan -- the captain of the U.S. women's hockey team, which threatened a boycott before the 2017 world championships as a way to force USA Hockey to finally address glaring disparities between the treatment of the men's and women's teams -- said she feels particularly inspired by what the women's soccer team has chosen to do as she watches the team play on television.

"This is the biggest stage of their lives and this is just another example of their boldness and their leadership," Duggan said. "There is no time to wait. Someday is today, and that's a powerful statement that they're making."

It is. And however the lawsuit ends up, the trickle-down value of that decision is undeniable.

As Kellond-Knight, the Australian defender said, "One hundred percent, the U.S. team is paving the way for women's football. ... If they can bump the standard higher, it's going to bring everyone up."

That is, of course, the hope. And it is also why the quality of the games at this Women's World Cup, while certainly riveting and entertaining, won't ultimately be what is remembered from here.

The voices will.

Alyssa Roenigk and Tom Hamilton contributed to the reporting.