Sports

The U.S. women’s soccer team’s battle for equal pay will resurface ahead of the Tokyo Olympics

When the final whistle blew in the Stade de Lyon in France, the United States women’s soccer team stormed the pitch. After 90 minutes of the biggest match of their lives, the team was ready to lift the 2019 World Cup trophy after defeating the Netherlands, 2-0.

The on-field celebrations that year were much of the same: hugs, tears, cheering. But, in the stands, something was different. Instead of the usual “U-S-A” chants, the crowd yelled “Equal Pay!”

The team’s fight for its fourth World Cup had just ended, but a new battle had just begun.

As the United States Women’s National Team team now readies for its path to Tokyo, where they will vie to be the first team in women’s soccer history to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back, the calls for equal pay for women in sports have reignited.

The dialogue resurfaced with last week’s release of HBO Max’s “LFG” documentary, which follows the team’s fight for equal pay beginning when the team sued its employer, U.S. Soccer, just three months before the 2019 World Cup.

Last week, a group of U.S. senators also re-introduced the Even Playing Field Act, a bill that calls for equal pay, investment and working conditions for all national team athletes, coaches and personnel. The bill was first introduced in July 2019 on the heels of the World Cup.

The national team has been outspoken in its fight for equal pay over the years. The “equal pay” chant is now commonplace in the stands of professional women’s soccer games – somewhat of a rallying cry for the team’s countless supporters. Earlier this year, forward Megan Rapinoe testified virtually during a hearing by the House Oversight Committee that focused on women being underpaid in the workplace.

“What we’ve learned, and what we continue to learn, is that there is no level of status – and there’s no accomplishment or power – that will protect you from the clutches of inequity,” Rapinoe said in her testimony. “One cannot simply outperform inequality or be excellent enough to escape discrimination of any kind.”

Rapinoe also spoke at the White House on Equal Pay Day – which symbolizes how far into the year a woman must work to earn what male peers earned the year prior.

The USWNT’s lawsuit, led by star striker Alex Morgan, was filed on International Women’s Day in 2019. The suit alleged that the team has been subjected to years of unequal treatment and compensation, despite winning several World Cups and Olympic gold.

In April, a federal judge approved a partial settlement in the matter – which paved the way for the team to file an appeal against a rejection by that same judge last year.

Last year, Judge R. Gary Klausner, of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, rejected the players’ most important claims that they were systemically underpaid by U.S. Soccer. In the days following the settlement’s approval, the team asked a federal appeals court to overturn Klausner’s earlier decision.

“For each win, loss and tie that women players secure, they are paid less than men who play the same sport and who do the same work; that is gender discrimination,” players’ spokeswoman Molly Levinson said in a statement at the time. “A pervasive atmosphere of sexism drove this pay discrimination.”

Both parties have been asked to submit briefs over the summer.

Bigger than sports

The women’s national team will likely be a North Star for equal pay for women in sports, and women in the workplace. On a broader scale, achieving equity at the highest level of sport could translate into improvements across the board – including for youth.

Kim Turner, project director and a senior staff attorney at Fair Play for Girls in Sports, said there is a connection between how female athletes at the pro and college levels are treated and how youth female athletes are treated.

“One can easily connect the dots between a middle or high school girl experiencing inferior locker rooms, team rooms, practice and play facilities and a college where pro female athletes are similarly subjugated by the city, the program, the league in comparison to their male counterparts,” Turner said.

Fair Play for Girls in Sports is a project of Legal Aid at Work, a century-old organization that provides free legal services to low-income people. In her role, Turner focuses on seeking institutional equity at the K-12 level through Title IX enforcement by ensuring athletes are provided with equal resources.

“My argument is that Alex Morgan and her ‘equal pay, equal play’ campaign and her lawsuit is happening down the street with the girl who lives two doors down,” Turner said. “She is Alex Morgan having the same inequity battles with her school, her park and rec. There’s a connection between the U.S. Women’s soccer team battle for equity and conditions and pay, and the girls in our own cities and towns and counties that are experiencing absolutely the same gender-based inequity.”

It’s no secret the women’s national soccer team has had an impact on the women’s game in the United States. It was most evident in 1999, when the team won its second World Cup title in a historic match against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

America quickly fell in love with soccer, and the “99ers” – as that year’s squad came to be known – propelled to American royalty after winning the game in a penalty shoot-out.

That game also gave sports the iconic image of Brandi Chastain sliding to her knees in a sports bra with her fists raised. In one hand, she clutched her jersey, while screaming to the 90,000 fans inside the Rose Bowl after scoring the game-winning kick.

Brandi Chastain celebrates by taking off her jersey after scoring the game-winning goal against China during the penalty shootout in the 1999 Women's World Cup final.

Not long after the ’99 win, the women’s national team mobilized – much like how the USWNT did in 2019. Back then, the women were merely fighting for the basic right to play soccer and make reasonable wages while doing it.

In ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast “Back Pass,” former players like Julie Foudy recounted their struggle to get a professional league up and running. They organized and hired a lawyer and fought with U.S. Soccer to invest in a new women’s league so its players could make a living off the beautiful game.

Around that time, U.S. Soccer had invested millions to help Major League Soccer get off the ground, and players felt that the federation saw their proposed league as competition. The women eventually found an investor and formed the Women’s United Soccer Association, which lasted just three seasons.

Today, women’s soccer in the United States is growing, with expansion teams like Angel City FC in Los Angeles and others on deck to debut in the National Women’s Soccer League in coming years. The growth is likely fueled by every international title the USWNT brings home, which might include another with an Olympic gold medal in August.

On July 10, 1999, the national team won its second World Cup. America barely noticed when the team won its first eight years prior. On July 7, 2019, the team won its fourth.

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