Representatives of the United States women's and men's national teams -- flanked by a few members of Congress -- formally signed their new collective bargaining agreements with the U.S. Soccer Federation after the USWNT's 2-1 win over Nigeria at Audi Field.
With bipartisan handshaking, impassioned speeches, ceremonial signatures, Tuesday brought everything one would expect from a big night in Washington, D.C. -- just a couple miles away from the U.S. Capitol -- and was the culmination of a long and sometimes contentious process.
The USWNT agreed to terms in May with U.S. Soccer in collaboration with the United States men's national team, which had also been operating under an expired CBA. The two, separate deals for the U.S. men and women champion equal pay through identical economic terms, including commercial revenue sharing and equal World Cup prize money.
USWNT players first filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2016, claiming unequal pay and treatment. A federal lawsuit followed three years later, ahead of the team's 2019 World Cup triumph, and the relationship between players and federation got worse from there before it got better.
The low point came in March 2020, when players warmed up for a match with their shirts inside-out to hide the U.S. Soccer logo in solidarity, following the public release of sexist legal arguments from the federation, which suggested that women's players were inferior to men.
Then U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro apologized before resigning within the week. Former USWNT player Cindy Parlow Cone stepped in as U.S. Soccer president, and in February 2022 the parties settled a class action lawsuit for $24 million.
An agreement to new CBAs for the men and women, which each run through 2028, followed in May.
"There were so many ups and downs," Parlow Cone told ESPN at halftime of the game Tuesday. "It was like a roller-coaster ride. I [would] think we were getting close to a deal, and then it feels like it's falling apart, then we're getting closer to a deal and it's falling apart."
Tuesday was a celebration. U.S. players cheered for each speech while wrapped in "Equal Pay" scarves licensed by their players association -- rather than the federation -- in another example of how the team has proved its commercial value amid its growing profile.
U.S. secretary of labor Marty Walsh, on hand to represent President Joe Biden, took the microphone to praise the American women while noting that the achievement was "a message to the rest of the country that it's important we respect our workers, we respect our workers' rights, and everyone should be paid equally for doing the same job as a man."
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) followed with a speech about using "the power of this moment" to get national legislation passed for equal pay in sports.
Parlow Cone, who played for the USWNT and won a World Cup and two Olympic gold medals, was part of the players' journey in previous decades before joining the federation in a leadership role (first as vice president). Upon taking over as president, she immediately said she wished to have a more collaborative approach with players to find a solution to their lawsuit.
"For this day to finally be here," Parlow Cone said, "I literally can't put it into words how important this is to me personally, but more important, what it's going to mean to the rest of the world -- not just here in the U.S., not just in sports, but to the rest of the world."
USWNT Players Association president Becky Sauerbrunn, in her second stint as team captain at 37 years old, was one of the players at the forefront of the battle. She was one of five who filed that initial complaint with the EEOC over six years ago. On Tuesday, she took the microphone on behalf of the players.
"I want to thank the players past and present for our persistence and basically never shying away from asking the question, 'Why not?'" Sauerbrunn said to the remaining crowd before thanking them for their support through the years. "I think us players really knew we were on the right track when we started attracting some of the most brilliant minds in their fields to our cause."