The U.S. women’s soccer team’s decision to sue U.S. Soccer Federation on March 8, International Women’s Day, was no coincidence. Team captain Megan Rapinoe called it “a magic moment of opportunity” — one that followed years of careful deliberation.
Here’s the message that the team hoped to send to girls and women all around the world, according to Rapinoe:
The decision followed years of waiting for the U.S. Soccer Federation to remedy numerous inequities in wages and working conditions, only to be met by more half-measures than meaningful action.
Rapinoe and her teammates discussed at length the pros and cons of launching a legal fight within three months of the start of the 2019 World Cup. The United States, after all, is the tournament’s three-time and defending champion.
By nearly every metric, the U.S. women’s soccer team represents one of the great success stories in women’s sports.
The squad personifies excellence on the pitch, winning the World Cup in 1991, 1999 and 2015 and Olympic gold at the 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.
Throughout its iterations, the team has stood as a testament to the United States’ foresight in enacting Title IX, the federal legislation guaranteeing equal opportunity in education, which has served as a boon for women’s athletics.
So it’s notable, if not jarring, that these decorated and globally celebrated athletes, such as Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Rapinoe, are still struggling for fair treatment.
A ‘long overdue’ lawsuit
In filing suit, the 28 members of the squad effectively give up on the formal wage-discrimination complaint that five players filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 that produced nominal concessions from U.S. Soccer. Significant disparities remain with their counterparts on the U.S. men’s national team, which has never won an Olympic medal or made a significant mark in World Cup competition. The suit cites inequity in wages, competition scheduling, medical treatment, coaching and travel, among other things.
In the view of Andrei Markovits, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Michigan who has written extensively on soccer, the lawsuit is an essential step.
“It’s a must. And it’s long overdue,” said Markovits, author of “Women in American Soccer and European Football: Different Roads to Shared Glory.”
“It’s just really outrageous that the men are getting paid a lot more than the women on a national team in which there should be zero difference. And that’s apart from the fact that the women are insanely successful.”
According to Rapinoe, there was no “tipping point” that led players to file the suit, describing the process as years long, “a journey” that has been both difficult and energizing. In seeking class-action status, the 28 plaintiffs hope to include teammates who preceded them in any financial award of back pay or damages.
To that end, they hope to make proud the U.S. national team members who inspired them and left the game in better shape than they found it. And they hope, in turn, to leave the game in better shape for the next generation.
“The next generation will have its own challenges, for sure,” Rapinoe said.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, sees global resonance in the lawsuit, having interviewed members of women’s national soccer teams in Australia and Afghanistan, as well as in Puerto Rico, about inequitable working conditions.
Worden hailed the lawsuit and its timing on social media as “a kick on goal” by the U.S. women’s team.
She elaborated in a telephone interview, pointing out that FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, adopted policies affirming human rights and opposing discrimination in 2016 yet has not been held accountable for fulfilling those promises.
“This is a question of human rights, also,” Worden said. “Narrowly defining it as pay equality is wrong. It’s very important we look at the entire playing field, the conditions.”
An ongoing battle throughout the sports world
Nearly 50 years after the 1972 passage of Title IX, U.S. women’s soccer players are hardly alone in waging a campaign for equity on the playing field.
Female ski jumpers had to wage a years-long legal battle to earn the right to compete in the Winter Olympics, finally making their debut in 2014 after debunking arguments that not enough women competed in the sport and that the jarring landings might injure their reproductive systems.
The U.S. women’s hockey team had to threaten USA Hockey with a boycott of the 2017 world championships to make gains in its inequitable pay and conditions. It turned to members of the U.S. women’s soccer team for guidance in making its case.
And hundreds of U.S. women’s gymnasts, current and former, continue to demand full disclosure, accountability for those complicit and financial damages from USA Gymnastics for its failure to protect them from Larry Nassar, the team doctor who molested them for years.
For many young women, athletes and non-athletes alike, the U.S. women’s soccer team is a role model — exemplifying power, fearlessness and teamwork. Its success has given the squad an enormous global platform. And whether the topic has been pay equity, gender equality, LGBT rights or racial equality, the team has often used that platform to speak out and, in doing so, to lift others.
“First and foremost, nobody understands better than us the power of winning — the power that we can be as changemakers,” said Rapinoe, 33, a member of the gold medal team at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2015 World Cup champion squad. “The team has always been very willing to use its voice to speak to all women everywhere — to say: ‘We are with you. We’re behind you. We support you, and we’re right there in lockstep.’”