The judge overseeing the United States women’s national soccer team’s gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer granted the players class status on Friday, an important victory for the women that appeared to support the claim that they are subjected to unequal working conditions and unequal pay when they played games for their country.
The players had sought class-action status in September by arguing that the working conditions and compensation they were contesting applied not only to the 28 named plaintiffs, but also to any woman who had appeared in a national team camp or game over the multiyear period specified in the suit.
Friday’s ruling by the judge, R. Gary Klausner of United States District Court for the Central District of California, drew no conclusions on whether the players’ allegations against the federation were true, or that U.S. Soccer had acted in violation of federal law; it merely noted that the players had sufficiently met the burden to be treated as a class rather than as individuals.
The players have been making their case for equal pay from U.S. Soccer for several years, as the leading edge in a wider fight by women’s athletes — not just in soccer — for equal treatment. In track and field, the Olympians Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher and Allyson Felix disclosed to The New York Times that they had faced reduced compensation from their shoe sponsors for having children. Their revelations led Nike to adjust some of its policies.
In soccer, the world’s best women’s player, Ada Hegerberg of Norway, skipped last summer’s Women’s World Cup in part to protest what she said was her federation’s lack of support for the women’s program. And just this week, Australia’s men’s and women’s teams reached a landmark deal that guaranteed the teams equal shares of revenue, though not equal compensation over all.
The United States players initially took on U.S. Soccer through a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later in their gender-discrimination lawsuit. Friday’s ruling was received by the players as both clearing an important legal hurdle but also as a validation of their equal-pay campaign, according to Megan Rapinoe, one of the team’s captains and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“Sometimes it’s just nice for someone to say, ‘I believe you and I am validating what you’ve been saying,’” Rapinoe said in a telephone interview. “We have an internal belief in what we’re doing. But to have someone, and in this case someone very important in this case, say, ‘I believe what you’re saying,’ is very important.”
In granting class status, the judge effectively rejected U.S. Soccer’s argument that, because many of the women had earned more than the top-earning men’s players over that period, there could be no discrimination under federal law.
“Defendant cites no case law to support this premise,” Klausner wrote in his decision.
Klausner went even further, though, writing that agreeing with U.S. Soccer’s argument defending the current pay structure could yield an “absurd result” in which a woman could be paid half as much as a man as long as she overcame the disparity by working twice as many hours.
“Nice try,” Rapinoe said acidly of the federation’s argument. “No one bought it.”
U.S. Soccer did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the judge’s decision. It has argued from the beginning, both publicly and in court filings, that any differences in compensation between the men’s and women’s national teams are the result of differing pay structures in the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the players on each team.
One immediate result of Friday’s ruling is that it could push U.S. Soccer and the players to restart efforts to find an out-of-court resolution to the lawsuit. When U.S. Soccer’s president, Carlos Cordeiro, introduced the new coach of the women’s national team at a news conference in New York late last month, he strongly hinted that he would be open to such a resolution.
“I’d say we’re still very committed to resolving this, and in a fair way,” he said, adding, “Give us some more time, but that’s where were hopefully headed, in that direction.”
In August, Klausner had surprised both sides by setting a May 2020 trial date, an accelerated timeline that could see the team’s bid for equal pay become entangled with its preparations for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Rapinoe would not say if the players would be open to a new round of mediation after a first attempt failed in August, but she would not rule it out, either.
‘We’re the only team they can have, they’re the only federation we can have,” she said, “I mean, everybody’s here. If the conversation can move forward, if we get further along in the process, potentially we can get back together. But we’re going to need to see quite a bit more.”
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