On Friday, Helen Worden’s dad sent her the link to an article: A federal judge had dealt the U.S. women’s soccer team a devastating blow in its gender discrimination lawsuit. Worden, an 18-year-old senior at Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., couldn’t bring herself to read the full article for a few days — she was feeling “disappointed” and “pissed off,” she says.
Just six months before, Worden, the co-captain of the women’s varsity soccer team at her high school, had made national headlines for her support of the U.S. women’s national team. At that point, the team was still basking in its World Cup win — its fourth, in addition to its four Olympic gold medals. It’d also been several months since USWNT players filed their gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging lower pay and more dangerous playing conditions than their male counterparts. The team was seeking $67 million in back pay, and girls across the country were rallying behind them. The Burlington High School team wanted to show their support, too.
Worden and her team had the idea to create #EqualPay T-shirts and sell them to fans and the boys’ team, then use the proceeds to broaden girls’ access to sports as well as support organizations fighting for equal pay. They unveiled the shirts at their senior night game on Oct. 19 — a big match against their top rival, the South Burlington Wolves. In the last three minutes of the game, Worden scored a goal and ripped off her jersey, revealing her #EqualPay T-shirt underneath. Three other players joined in, prompting the referee to issue a yellow card. But that didn’t bother the girls. Soon, the whole crowd was chanting, “Equal pay, equal pay.”
Life got busy after that, Worden says: National media outlets started asking for interviews, orders for the #EqualPay shirts came flooding in. According to Jessica Nordhaus, director of strategy and partnerships at Change the Story VT — the initiative that the team partnered with to raise money — younger girls throughout Vermont were inspired by the high-schoolers. “They became ‘sheroes’ for other, younger women out there,” Nordhaus says. “It was really phenomenal.”
Now, the fight for equal pay doesn’t look as bright. Worden read the full article two days after the fact: A federal judge on Friday sided with U.S. Soccer, dismissing the U.S. women’s team’s claim of unequal pay based on gender discrimination. The judge ruled the team’s claims of unequal treatment in terms of travel and training could go forward, but the crux of the case — that the women had been underpaid relative to the U.S. men — had been rejected.
“It obviously is a blow to their team, but it’s kind of a blow to all girls in general,” says Worden. “That definitely is what hit hardest for me.”
In the wake of the latest decision, which came after a series of failed negotiations, U.S. Soccer issued a statement of conciliation. “We look forward to working with the Women’s National Team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game both here at home and around the world,” it read. “U.S. Soccer has long been the world leader for the women’s game on and off the field, and we are committed to continuing that work to ensure our Women’s National Team remains the best in the world and sets the standard for women’s soccer.”
The central issue in the ruling came down to difficult-to-compare differences in the men and women’s pay structure — the women have stable annual salaries, but the men’s pay is more reliant on individual performances, meaning they could vastly out-earn the women if they performed as well as them. An analysis by Yahoo Sports found that if the men’s team qualified for the 2018 World Cup, for example, individual male players would be making far more money than the women.
In other words, the U.S. women’s team is “getting punished for their success,” according to Katherine Franke, a Columbia University law professor and director of the school’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. What’s more, the lawsuit falls into a much longer history of sex-based discrimination in sports, Franke says, in which women’s teams have been forced to bargain “in the shadow of pay-based inequality.”
The federation has in recent months come under fire for its legal arguments justifying such pay differentials. In March, court filings revealed that the federation argued that the women had less “skill” than their male counterparts, as well as that the men had more “responsibility” to the reputation of U.S. Soccer. The revelations led to the resignation of Carlos Cordeiro, the president of the federation at the time, as well as a shift in legal counsel.
Maia Vota, an 18-year-old senior, plays alongside Worden on the Burlington High School varsity team. She says she understood why the federation received so much backlash after those filings came to light. “The underlying message of that is really kind of disrespectful and demeaning to women,” she says.
Experts worry that the push for equality in women’s sports more broadly will now be slowed due to the coronavirus crisis. Things have been slowing down for the Burlington girls’ soccer team, too. Worden and Vota say that they’re still meeting up with teammates on Zoom to discuss the latest news. But their plans for Equal Pay Day on March 31 — members of the team were set to attend an event at the Vermont state capitol — were canceled. For now, the team is still raising money. Since the team’s news-making night in October, they’ve sold about 5,500 #EqualPay shirts.
The U.S. women’s team’s fight is also far from over. Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for the team, said the women would appeal the judge’s latest ruling.
Franke says that it’s “very possible” that the ruling will be overturned on appeal. Given that the Equal Pay Act protects pay parity for men and women, she says, it would “be the right thing to do.”
On Monday, Vota watched a “Good Morning America” interview with USWNT co-captains Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, in which they vowed they’d keep fighting for equal pay. It gave her hope.
“They just have the same mind-set, yeah this is extremely disappointing, but we’re going to keep fighting because we’re going to get there at some point,” she says. “If they’re going to keep going, then I guess we’re going to keep going, too.”