USWNT, U.S. Soccer settle part of equality suit; equal wages still unresolved

Players for the United States women's national team have agreed to settlement terms for the portion of the lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation relating to claims of unequal working conditions.

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The settlement agreement announced Tuesday averts an impending trial on those claims relating to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act but does not end the lawsuit originally filed in March 2019. The plaintiffs reiterated Tuesday that they intend to appeal on wage discrimination claims under the Equal Pay Act.

A federal district court judge in California granted summary judgment to U.S. Soccer on those claims in May, ruling against Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, acting as class representatives of all players who brought the suit. The working conditions claims involved in Tuesday's settlement alleged discrimination in areas of staffing and travel, specifically differences between the men's and women's national teams in the use of charter flights and hotel accommodations.

Full terms of the settlement were not released, but multiple sources described to ESPN assurances of equality now and going forward into a new collective bargaining agreement.

According to the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by Judge R. Gary Klausner, U.S. Soccer agrees to provide an equal number of charter flights, as well as comparable hotel accommodations.

U.S. Soccer will also enact a new "Senior National Team Professional Support Policy" that seeks to ensure equality of staffing while allowing each national team flexibility for its specific needs. Each team will have between 18 and 21 "professional positions" for staff.

Additionally, under a venue selection policy included as part of the settlement, the federation will "seek to provide equally acceptable venues and field playing surfaces" for the national teams.

Although the wage discrimination claims widely seen as the centerpiece of the lawsuit remain at issue, the settlement on working conditions represents something of a breakthrough. There has rarely been much indication of rapprochement between the two sides. Indicative of the rancor were filings this spring by U.S. Soccer that disparaged women's players as lesser than their male counterparts. The language in those filings sparked objections from both fans and sponsors and led to the resignation of former U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro.

"This is an important and welcomed moment for U.S. Soccer and the Women's National Team players," new U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said of the settlement in a statement. "Earlier this year, I stepped into the role as President, and shortly after we hired Will Wilson as our new CEO. We, and the rest of the leadership team at U.S. Soccer, are focused on taking a new approach at the Federation in handling all matters.

"I believe our approach helped us reach this agreement and demonstrates the commitment of U.S. Soccer's new leadership to find a new way forward with the USWNT. This settlement is good news for everyone and I believe will serve as a springboard for continued progress."

But the players made it clear Tuesday that while a settlement is a positive step, it is mostly positive in their eyes because it allows them to focus on the wage discrimination claims. The plaintiffs were unable to move forward with an appeal relating to those claims until resolution of the working conditions claims through settlement or trial.

"We are pleased that the USWNT Players have fought for -- and achieved -- long overdue equal working conditions," said Molly Levinson, spokesperson for the players. "We now intend to file our appeal to the Court's decision which does not account for the central fact in this case that women players have been paid at lesser rates than men who do the same job.

"We remain as committed as ever to our work to achieve the equal pay that we legally deserve. Our focus is on the future and ensuring we leave the game a better place for the next generation of women who will play for this team and this country."

The settlement on working conditions offers no indication that the two sides are any closer to resolving their long-standing differences on issues of compensation.

In her statement Tuesday, Parlow Cone reiterated the federation's "standing offer to discuss contract options." In a March letter, Cordeiro outlined a proposal that U.S. Soccer contends would pay the men's and women's national teams using the same pay structure.

At issue is FIFA prize money, with women's players arguing that they deserve the same prize money for winning the World Cup, as one example, as men's players would receive for winning that tournament. U.S. Soccer argues that given the differences in the prize money apportioned by FIFA for men's and women's events, doing so would cause the federation financial harm.

An appeal could be a lengthy process, almost certainly stretching beyond both the rescheduled Olympics next summer and the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Women's National Team Players Association. The union representing national team players is not a party in the lawsuit.

France received $38 million for winning the 2018 Men's World Cup. The U.S. received $4 million for winning the 2019 Women's World Cup.

"We all know this isn't possible from a U.S. Soccer standpoint to make that up," Parlow Cone said. "Even pre-COVID, this would be devastating to our budget, to our programming. But given COVID, not to be overly dramatic, but it would likely bankrupt the federation."

A former World Cup winner with the U.S. as a player, Parlow Cone went on to say that she "would love to join forces with the women's team and help push FIFA to equalize not only World Cup prize money but equalizing their investment in the game at all levels."

The men's and women's national teams operate under separate collective bargaining agreements. In ruling in favor of U.S. Soccer on the wage discrimination claims in May, Klausner said that members of the women's team willingly ceded some earning potential in their collective bargaining agreement in exchange for greater security and additional benefits.