USWNT-U.S. Soccer pay dispute settlement: What the decision means, what happens next

For years, the U.S. women's national team has been fighting the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging unequal pay. The dispute was as much a legal saga as it was cultural touchpoint, capturing the zeitgeist and dominating headlines. It was perhaps no clearer than after the USWNT won the Women's World Cup in France in 2019 and the crowd's chants in Lyon morphed from "U-S-A!" to "equal pay!"

But it's over now. On Tuesday, the players and U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone presented a united front to announce that a settlement had been reached and the lawsuit was going to end. It's a moment for the history books: the conclusion of one of the most contentious battles between U.S. Soccer and the USWNT.

How did this lawsuit start, and why does it feel like it's taken years?

The lawsuit that has been settled was filed on March 8, 2019, which happened to fall on International Women's Day and was only about four months before the Women's World Cup in France. In it, the players alleged gender discrimination from U.S. Soccer for both compensation -- including much smaller performance bonuses than the men's team earned -- and working conditions.

While the players' representatives may have ultimately picked International Women's Day intentionally, they did not initially want to file the lawsuit right before playing in their biggest tournament. It was necessitated by steps taken three years earlier when five USWNT players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was the first legal step to settling a discrimination complaint. That 2016 claim got stuck in government bureaucracy amid the changeover from the Obama to Trump administrations.

After sitting with the EEOC for more than two years, the players were eventually granted the right to sue U.S. Soccer outright without going through the EEOC, which had a 90-day deadline. Therefore, they had to file their lawsuit shortly before the 2019 World Cup.

That touched off the long legal process, which eventually got us to this settlement.

How much money is the settlement worth?

U.S. Soccer has agreed to pay the USWNT players a total of $24 million. Of that settlement, $22 million will be distributed to USWNT players who are part of the class action lawsuit. How that will be doled out has yet to be decided: The players will make their proposal, and the district court will need to approve it. Another $2 million will go toward charitable efforts and "post-career goals," with each player allowed to apply to receive up to $50,000 of it.

So, did the USWNT win equal pay?

Although the dollar amount attached to the settlement has unsurprisingly made headlines, the more important part of Tuesday's announcement is probably not the cash payout.

The settlement includes a commitment from U.S. Soccer to provide "an equal rate of pay going forward for the women's and men's national teams in all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup," according to a news release shared by both sides. In other words, the reason the USWNT sued U.S. Soccer in the first place won't be a problem going forward -- and that has much further-reaching implications than a $22 million lump sum.

"This will completely change the landscape of the women's game in the country forever," USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe told ESPN. "And I think our commitment was always to that, and always to leave the game in a better place than we found it."

In the current collective bargaining agreements for both the USWNT and the USMNT -- the subject of the lawsuit -- U.S. Soccer offered bonuses for everything from winning friendlies to making tournament rosters to winning the World Cup. ESPN has already done a full breakdown of everything in the teams' current CBAs, which explains what the pay gap looks like and why the USWNT sued, but in a nutshell: The men earned much larger bonuses than the women across the board. That will change from now on.

But didn't U.S. Soccer say it couldn't pay equal World Cup bonuses?

In the past, the federation has argued that providing the women the same bonuses the men earn would bankrupt the federation -- but that was when the women were asking for the bonuses already promised in the men's CBA. The U.S. men's and women's unions are now apparently on board with finding a way to "equalize" FIFA prize money -- that is, taking the unequal cash prizes offered by FIFA, which hosts World Cups, and finding a way to split them in a way that would be acceptable for both teams.

In the last World Cup cycle, FIFA offered $38 million to the winners of the men's World Cup, but just $4 million to the team that won the women's edition, which happened to be the USWNT. U.S. Soccer clearly based its own bonuses in its contracts with the teams in part on FIFA's prize money -- but sometimes the federation differed significantly in how it chose to award wins for the men and women at the World Cup.

In all, U.S. Soccer was willing to give the men as much as $36 million for success at the World Cup, while the women could only earn about $5 million. As part of this settlement, that will change, regardless of how much money FIFA awards. However, the settlement is contingent on the ratification of a new CBA for the USWNT, and it seems both sides feel they are close. The USWNT's current CBA -- the one that is the subject of the lawsuit -- expires on March 31, but both sides have hinted a deal could be done before then.

"Both sides are meeting multiple times during the week, every week, and there's a lot of energy and positivity," Cone said. The final piece for that CBA is deciding how the World Cup bonuses are "equalized," and that has been the subject of much debate in negotiation sessions in which the men's union leader has also been participating.

How much of a win is this for the players?

They are treating it as a massive win, and it's easy to see why. In May 2020, their lawsuit appeared dead after a judge dismissed it, siding with U.S. Soccer in their accounting that the women were paid more than the men. The women appealed, arguing the women were paid more only because they played more games and won more, but that their rate of pay was lower. We'll never know whether that appeal would have been successful: Oral arguments before the appellate court were scheduled for March.

In their lawsuit, the players had calculated that they were entitled to $67 million in back pay, which makes the total $24 million payout pale in comparison. But sources had indicated to ESPN that U.S. Soccer was offering only about $9 million before the judge dismissed the case.

There's also a larger context of what the equal bonuses mean for the players. In truth, the USWNT has butted heads with U.S. Soccer almost since the beginning when the team started playing in 1985, demanding better compensation and working conditions. This new concession from U.S. Soccer is the latest in a long line of similar ones that often happened behind closed doors and out of public view.

"This is a longstanding fight with the federation that frankly dates back prior to me playing and my generation playing," Rapinoe said. "To be at this point in the life of my career, and to be able to know the next generation will be in such a better place than we were when we started, is incredible. We always had that belief in ourselves."

This settlement and the promise of equal bonuses follows a grand tradition of the USWNT digging its heels in and getting what it wants.

Did the U.S. Soccer presidential election influence the settlement?

Cone denies she felt any extra motivation to get this resolved with an election coming up next week and her opponent, Carlos Cordeiro, criticizing her for not ending the lawsuit. (Cordeiro was the president of U.S. Soccer when the players filed the lawsuit in the first place.)

"If you go back and look at my track record, I had been pushing for this ever since I became president," Cone told ESPN. "So the election had no bearing on the timing. I think the timing push for us and the players is that there was a hearing scheduled on March 7, and we were all pushing to get this done before that."

Becky Sauerbrunn added that USWNT players being together in camp for the SheBelieves Cup allowed them to get on the same page with the proposed settlement as well. But it's notable that, in a Zoom call with ESPN on Monday night before the deal was announced, a USWNT representative arranged for both Rapinoe and Cone to speak to reporters. They were clearly on the same side and coordinating together, with the players' reps taking the lead instead of U.S. Soccer.

Rapinoe credited Cone on Monday with getting the deal done.

"It's probably some sort of poetic justice that the president of a U.S. Soccer, who was so instrumental and getting this deal over the line, Cindy, is a former player," Rapinoe told ESPN. "We were able to do this together, knowing that she went through the same thing, probably worse than what we went through, in her playing career."

While Rapinoe doesn't speak for all of her teammates, on Tuesday she was clear about where she stood, quipping off the cuff that Cordeiro "was certainly not getting my vote, that's for sure."

The real question may be: Will the settlement influence the presidential election? That remains to be seen -- the election is March 5 -- but the players seemed to make it clear who they supported by heaping credit on Cone for getting the deal done.

So what's next?

First things first: The settlement isn't done until a new collective bargaining agreement is done. The players and the federation by all accounts are working hard to make that happen.

There have been 35 negotiation sessions to get the new CBA finished, midfielder Samantha Mewis said. In fact, defender Crystal Dunn couldn't join her teammates for a news conference Tuesday because there was a bargaining session scheduled at the same time and she was there representing the players.

At this point, it appears a new CBA by March 31 is highly likely, and beyond that, U.S. Soccer will certainly start spending less on legal fees. In fiscal 2020, for instance, U.S. Soccer budgeted $15.9 million for "extraordinary legal expenses," and the following year, it spent another $9 million on legal fees. The $24 million settlement isn't cheap, but U.S. Soccer can budget for it and move on.

"Now we can shift our focus to the game," Cone said, "growing the game at all levels and increasing opportunities for millions of players, both boys and girls."

But what about FIFA? Just because the lawsuit is settled, inequality in soccer doesn't just disappear. Both Rapinoe and Cone have suggested that it's time to take the fight to FIFA, which offers unequal prize money for the World Cups, and also has failed to invest in the women's game at the same levels too. But it's easier said than done.

"You have to remember we're one of 211 members of voting at FIFA," Cone said. "So you've got to not only convince the higher ups at FIFA but you need to convince the member associations that investing in the women's game, investing in young girls growing up in this game, is a win for their country."

How much pressure that U.S. Soccer, as a member of FIFA, is willing to apply remains to be seen. In the past, federations have talked about wanting FIFA to offer equal prize money, but there's been little by the way of public-facing action to force the issue. Rapinoe, though, said the time for asking politely has passed.

"I think you need to be loud and relentless and aggressive and nonstop," she said. "These institutions, as we know, don't just change on their own. Until, whether it's public pressure or sponsor pressure or member association pressure, until that particular pressure point is reached and poked incessantly until it's no longer bearable, they're not going to change."

"We don't need to talk about. We're not wondering if the women's game can make money. We're not wondering whether women's soccer would be successful if you put us on TV, or if people are going to come to the World Cup. We're not wondering if there's star power or questioning the quality on the field. It's all there."

Rapinoe added: "FIFA should feel like they're next. With the players and the federation in a place where we'll be working together, I think we're pretty formidable."