In one way, the United States women’s national team’s equal pay case being thrown out on the most consequential points matters a great deal.
Last week’s shocking decision by a federal judge to not even let the unequal pay argument go to trial — although contentions over inequality in travel and accommodations did proceed — was a blow to the women’s bargaining position.
The case was originally slated to go to trial this week, although the coronavirus pandemic had pushed the trial date back by a month. And until it did, the women were in a strong negotiating position, apparently demanding large concessions to even come to the table. They also asked for $67 million in back pay in the suit, and after federation president Carlos Cordeiro was forced to resign over extremely sexist language in U.S. Soccer’s legal filing in the case, a large settlement seemed likely.
Vice president Cindy Parlow Cone, a longtime women’s national teamer, was elevated to serve out a year of Cordeiro’s term, and a new law firm was engaged. It looked like the only remaining play for the governing body was to settle the thing as soon as it possibly could.
Although the national team, litigating under class certification, has vowed to appeal the decision, the chance of a big payday now seems remote. A judge has sided with U.S. Soccer in its argument that, counted up, the women’s bonuses and guaranteed salary amount to as much or more as the men’s pay. He also reasoned that their (unsubstantiated) decision to reject a collective bargaining agreement that was the same as the men’s cannot be undone retroactively now that buyer’s remorse has set in.
This decision will probably cost the women an awful lot of money, with much of their legal leverage billowing up in smoke and blowing swiftly away.
But in another way, the decision doesn’t matter at all.
There were always two courts in which this case would be tried: the actual one, and the much trickier one floating in a distractible public’s opinion.
U.S. Soccer may have pulled off an upset in the first. But it has been losing in the second from the very start.
This notion was only emphasized when presidential nominee Joe Biden quickly threw his support behind the USWNT. He even seemingly threatened to withhold funding from the 2026 World Cup, to be played in the United States, Mexico and Canada, if equal pay wasn’t arranged. Biden thus joined most of the Democratic candidates he defeated in backing the women.
More importantly, the fans are behind the players. So is the mainstream of American culture, largely heedless of the many complexities of the case — that the women are full-time employees with guaranteed salaries and benefits, augmented by small bonuses, whereas the men are paid entirely in much larger bonuses, provided that they make the team — and comprehending only that the women get less than the men. Whether or not they really do depends on when you start counting. In the last few years, yes, the women were better paid but also … just plain better. They have won two World Cups since the USMNT last appeared in one. If you take a longer view, a pay gap emerges between the genders.
But that’s sort of beside the point, because the federation’s sponsors, and the political patrons it needs as an ambitious body presumably interested in organizing more major tournaments, have turned against it. U.S. Soccer also lost the compassion of its sponsors in the wake of that deeply problematic legal argument, which posited that the men’s and women’s national teams couldn’t be doing the same job since women are physiologically inferior to men. Or something to that blithe effect.
The legal argument matters inasmuch as it will determine how much money the women are able to claw back from years past. It matters much less going forward, as any new arrangement struck between the sides will likely make the women, powered by all their popularity and public goodwill and an ever-mounting pressure on the federation, something much closer to the victors.
The legal battle has swung decisively and unexpectedly toward the federation. But in the bigger fight for equal pay, the women still have the weight advantage of an entire nation’s sympathy.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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