Commentary

There will be no winners in current U.S. Soccer labor negotiations

In any mudslinging battle, we reach a point at which everyone ends up dirty.

In this case, that would be the U.S. Soccer Federation, the U.S. women’s national team, and now, the U.S. men’s national team.

The last two of these entities are seemingly mud-proof. They can prey on public sympathy that lets them control the narrative with little fuss and no need to answer difficult questions.

The Federation, on the other hand, rarely earns any sympathy. They’re not the ones raising a World Cup trophy or vying for spots on a men’s team anxious to erase the disaster of 2017. They’re the ones with a history of pettiness in labor negotiations, and though they’re in the midst of a five-year plan to build up U.S. soccer from the grassroots to the national team, they haven’t really articulated that vision beyond a bunch of buzzwords.



In this era of debating by Twitter, “Serve the Athlete” and “Grow the fan base” don’t play as well as an “equal pay” slogan, and questioning the players’ rhetoric is a sure way to be accused of the ever-unpopular stance of favoring management over labor, though the reality is much more complex than that.

The men’s national team’s players association (USNSTPA) plays on that sentiment in a statement released Wednesday that expressed solidarity with the women’s national team while pointing out that they’ve been playing without a collective bargaining agreement for 13 months.

No one can blame them for being tired of waiting. But the big stumbling block is that big elephant in the room -- the women’s suit against the Federation. It’s difficult to imagine the men receiving a new CBA while the women are still pursuing a legal complaint.

So the USNSTPA’s statement is curiously timed. They explain what prompted the statement as follows:

“It is our view that despite the best efforts of USWNT players and their representatives, the Federation has had some success in convincing people of the Federation’s false narrative. By coming forward to explain the situation, the USNSTPA hopes to create a better understanding and perhaps help bring about a resolution.”

But they don’t specify who’s buying into this false narrative. Their reps did not respond to requests to answer this question and several others.

Perhaps something has happened behind the scenes to prompt the USNSTPA to throw a ton of fuel onto this fire. Or perhaps it was timed to get attention while everyone was flying into Nashville for this weekend’s Annual General Meeting, the gathering of people who have literal boots on the ground in an effort to make U.S. soccer (lowercase “s”) better.

At some point in U.S. soccer labor history, when we look into the details of what players want, we’re no longer talking about “punching down” on behalf of a wealthy employer keeping down its oppressed employees. We’re talking about players who make comfortable salaries looking at a nonprofit organization’s pile of assets and demanding that money for themselves.  

We’re not just talking about an incremental increase here with some modicum of pay equity. Consider this from the USNSTPA statement:

“The equal pay dispute, filed by members of the women’s National Team and set for trial in the spring, compares the women’s 2017-2021 deal with the expired men’s CBA negotiated in 2011. The correct comparison should be between what the women got with their 2017-2021 deal and triple what the Federation agreed to pay the men in 2011 or whatever the men negotiate in their new CBA that will be retroactive to January 1, 2019.”

Triple.

That number is predicated on the idea that U.S. Soccer assets and certain revenues have tripled since 2011. Bear in mind, though, that the national team revenue here is gross, not net. Unless it’s a particularly big year, the Fed tends to report a small loss on national team games.

Also, the PA doesn’t mention the Copa Centenario, which accounts for about a third of that pile of assets.



The marketing money accounts for somewhere between one-third to one-half of Federation revenue in any given year, and while some of that is designated to help U.S. Soccer on more of a grassroots level, it’s safe to say the national team players generated the lion’s share of it.

The Federation has plans for much of that money in the aforementioned five-year plan. Specifics, though, are skimpy. Through the AGM books, we can see that the Fed’s annual spending on coaching education has jumped from roughly $1.3 million in FY 2012 to well north of $7 million. Development spending has doubled to more than $30 million, with $8 million of that going to the Development Academy. Other line items, such as a new $3 million line item for “various,” offer less insight.

All told, the Federation is projected, after accounting for about $8 million in unexpected legal fees, to spend that surplus down from $168 million to $42 million.



So that nest egg can be wiped out in a hurry. And the idea that the women’s compensation (and, by extension, the men’s) should be seen in the light of a tripling of revenue and assets overlooks both the Copa Centenario and the Federation’s understandable interest in building better programs.

None of which is to say the Federation’s five-year plan charts the best path.

None of which is to say the Federation has treated the national teams fairly in the past, though the USNSTPA’s citation of the negotiations of the 1990s rings a little hollow. You can’t even pin that decade on Sunil Gulati, let alone Dan Flynn or Jay Berhalter. They’re all out of the picture, anyway.

None of which is to say the Federation can’t do a better job on pay equity.

But the players haven’t shown that they’re underpaid compared with their counterparts in other countries. We’ve had that conversation before, and it was inconclusive at best. It’s not surprising. In the old days, the Federation had to assume the bulk of supporting its players, who didn’t have steady club employment at the time.

And the players haven’t given any indication that they’re on board with the Federation’s attempts to build up everything from referee programs to beach soccer. Australia’s players, on the other hand, demonstrated a willingness to think of the future with a deal that sends 5 percent of player-generated revenue back to youth national teams. If the U.S. players are seeking a similar clause, they’ve yet to say so, though neither side of the negotiation has given any details of what’s on the table.

The Federation isn’t the NBA, which has had to hand over a high percentage of its revenue to its athletes through decades of labor talks, or the UFC, which hasn’t. The Federation is a nonprofit organization tasked not only with fielding two national teams but with growing the game at every level.

Consider the original football association, England’s Football Association. Their annual report has a breakdown of £127.5 million spent on county associations, competition prize funds, facilities and other programs in 2018. That’s $166.5 million, a chunk of money U.S. Soccer doesn’t have to throw around every year..

And let’s be clear -- recent athletes are represented in the Federation. The Athletes Council has been accused of being too deferential to the pro leagues and other powerful stakeholders, but in the 2018 elections, they stopped Soccer United Marketing executive Kathy Carter from taking the presidency. You may think Carlos Cordeiro wasn’t a much better choice, but you can’t say the athletes have squandered their federally mandated 20 percent of voting power.

The players also have the leverage of a strike threat. Or the courts, where the Federation is currently fending off six lawyers representing the women’s national team and 14 representing the NASL. (Two of them overlap, so it’s 18 total, not counting the lawyers for Hope Solo, Relevent Sports and the U.S. Soccer Foundation.)  

But the USNSTPA’s statement suggests a new type of leverage, and it’s terrifying:

“What can you do? Tell the Federation’s sponsors you will not support them until the Federation starts doing the right thing and gives the women a new CBA that pays a fair share of the gate receipts and that television and sponsorship revenue to the players. Write to your Congressional representatives and tell them it is time to reform the Federation.”

Let’s unpack this …

Sponsors make Federation programs possible. The national team games, as shown above, aren’t big profit centers except in big years when they do really well. They’re more likely to do really well in the future if those Federation programs are made possible.

And Congress? That’s where one lawmaker, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, has introduced legislation to “prohibit the use of funds for the 2026 World Cup unless the United States Soccer Federation provides equitable pay to the members of the United States Women's National Team and the United States Men's National Team,” an act that is either pointless because the Federation isn’t relying on federal funds to stage the World Cup or a means to hinder the Federation’s quest to have another money-making event akin to the Copa Centenario.

Congress frequently makes a mess of Olympic sports already. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act uses a definition of “amateur” (anyone who meets a national governing body’s criteria) that no one else in the world uses. Their response to horrid sexual abuse scandals is to get behind the Center for SafeSport and fix its funding problems not with federal funds, the lifeblood of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, but with funds taken from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Hope you’re not attached to USOPC support for smaller sports.

Again, let’s not absolve the Federation of any blame. The last women’s collective bargaining agreement could have solved a lot of the equal pay problems, at least for now. Instead, the women’s CBA makes it impossible to justify giving the men an overdue new deal. It’s as if Sunil Gulati tossed Carlos Cordeiro the keys to a burning car.

The Federation’s public image has suffered a lot of black eyes, and a lot of them are self-inflicted. But these “negotiations” are compounding the problem.

And all we can say now is that there will be no winners. Sure, some people -- players, lawyers and perhaps the executives who are brought in to clean up this mess -- may get paid. But if they’re not careful, they’ll do so at the expense of expanding the game and developing future generations of U.S. soccer.
26 comments about "There will be no winners in current U.S. Soccer labor negotiations".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 14, 2020 at 2:05 a.m.

    The athletes council (members of USSF, not USSF board members) does not satisfy the federal statutory requirement that at least 20 percent of the voting members of the USSF board be amateur athletes.

  2. Beau Dure replied, February 15, 2020 at 5:05 p.m.

    Bob, the Act is clear. Silly, but clear. USSF is in compliance, as is everyone else. 


    Not sure why you have the idea I'd oppose more athletes on the board. They actually have another now in Cindy Cone. 


    Also not sure why you persist in arguing when I've demonstrated several times why you're mistaken. 

  3. Beau Dure, February 14, 2020 at 8:16 a.m.

    The Athletes Council puts forward three members (currently Chris Ahrens, Lori Lindsey and Carlos Bocanegra) to sit on a board that maxes out at 15 people.

    If your point here is that an "amateur athlete" must be someone who's still active, that's an interesting point. The Ted Stevens Act definition: "amateur athlete" means an athlete who meets the eligibility standards established by the national governing body or paralympic sports organization for the sport in which the athlete competes.

    So I've checked other boards and found the following: 

    USA Track and Field: At least three of the four athletes on the board are retired or semi-retired. (It's track and field, so you can always decide, "Hey, I think I'll run that 10k.") 

    USA Basketball: I'm wondering if that page is out of date -- only two of the 11 voting members listed are athletes. They're both retired. 


    USA Biathlon: Two of three are retired. 


    USA Swimming: Natalie Coughlin Hall may still be swimming when she's 60, but one of the three is definitely retired. 


    USA Ski and Snowboard: Five of six are inactive. 

    So is there another reason why the statutory requirement isn't met?

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2020 at 10:49 a.m.

    Last I checked, the board member must be a current amateur athlete or someone that has represented the US in amateur international competition within the past 10 years. When I looked at the voting board members at the time, I saw only one that might have qualified by representing the US 9 years earlier in amateur international competition. Most of the althletes were former pros. (Under USSF regulations, pros are not amateurs.) 

    If the USSF has significantly changed its regulations or if Congress amended the statute, I am not aware of it.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2020 at 10:54 a.m.

    PS: If Ahrens, Lindsey, and Bocanegra are playing amateur soccer, I am not aware of it, but Klinsmann reportedly played amateur soccer under an assumed name in the summer of 2003. So it happens. 

  6. Beau Dure replied, February 14, 2020 at 2:14 p.m.

    Bob - Again, check the definition of "amateur athlete" in the Ted Stevens Act. That's the federal law.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2020 at 3:09 p.m.

    Sec. 220504. "Required Provisions for Representation.—In its constitution and bylaws, the corporation shall establish and maintain provisions with respect to its governance and the conduct of its affairs for reasonable representation of—

    (1) amateur sports organizations recognized as national governing bodies and paralympic sports organizations in accordance with section 220521 of this title, including through provisions which establish and maintain a National Governing Bodies' Council composed of representatives of the national governing bodies and any paralympic sports organizations and selected by their boards of directors or such other governing boards to ensure effective communication between the corporation and such national governing bodies and paralympic sports organizations;

    (2) amateur athletes who are actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in international amateur athletic competition within the preceding 10 years, including through provisions which—

    (A) establish and maintain an Athletes' Advisory Council composed of, and elected by, such amateur athletes to ensure communication between the corporation and such amateur athletes; and

    (B) ensure that the membership and voting power held by such amateur athletes is not less than 20 percent of the membership and voting power held in the board of directors of the corporation and in the committees and entities of the corporation...."

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2020 at 3:16 p.m.

    Sec. 220504. "Required Provisions for Representation.—In its constitution and bylaws, the corporation shall establish and maintain provisions with respect to its governance and the conduct of its affairs for reasonable representation of—

    (1) amateur sports organizations recognized as national governing bodies and paralympic sports organizations in accordance with section 220521 of this title, including through provisions which establish and maintain a National Governing Bodies' Council composed of representatives of the national governing bodies and any paralympic sports organizations and selected by their boards of directors or such other governing boards to ensure effective communication between the corporation and such national governing bodies and paralympic sports organizations;

    (2) amateur athletes who are actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in international amateur athletic competition within the preceding 10 years, including through provisions which—

    (A) establish and maintain an Athletes' Advisory Council composed of, and elected by, such amateur athletes to ensure communication between the corporation and such amateur athletes; and

    (B) ensure that the membership and voting power held by such amateur athletes is not less than 20 percent of the membership and voting power held in the board of directors of the corporation and in the committees and entities of the corporation...."

  9. Beau Dure replied, February 14, 2020 at 4:26 p.m.

    Again, the Ted Stevens Act definition: "amateur athlete" means an athlete who meets the eligibility standards established by the national governing body or paralympic sports organization for the sport in which the athlete competes.

    It's not the way soccer people think of "amateur." It's poorly worded, as I said in the story: "Congress frequently makes a mess of Olympic sports already. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act uses a definition of “amateur” (anyone who meets a national governing body’s criteria) that no one else in the world uses." 


    The athletes on the other boards I mentioned are professionals. 

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2020 at 5:47 p.m.

    I just quoted to you the section of that act that pertains to membership of boards and committees.

  11. Beau Dure replied, February 14, 2020 at 11:50 p.m.

    And I've quoted to you the definition of "amateur athlete," a definition that absolutely applies to Ahrens, Bocanegra and Lindsey. 


    And I've pointed to other boards under the Stevens Act that also have recently retired pros. 

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2020 at 1:36 a.m.

    Beau, as a professional writer you must understand the significance of words of limitation (i.e., "who are actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in international amateur athletic competition within the preceding 10 years").

  13. Beau Dure replied, February 15, 2020 at 7:19 a.m.

    Under the Stevens Act, the World Cup is an international amateur event. 


    I'm not sure how else to explain this to you. I've explained the law. I've demonstrated how the law is applied in other US federations. 


    The Stevens Act defines "amateur" differently than anyone else in the world would. It's a vestige of the days when the Olympics were amateur. They re-wrote it a bit when the Olympics went full-blown professional, but for reasons known only to a few lawmakers, they kept the word "amateur" and redefined.

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2020 at 1:18 p.m.

    Actually the Act refers to the national organization's definition. In their bylaws and policies, USSF has for many years had a very clear definition of professional athlete as someone under contract or receiving pay for playing. Pros are registered as pros so there should not be any question of who is a pro under USSF policy. Amateurs are defined as everyone else and allowed only to receive reimbursement of actual expenses only.

    I only speak to what the statute states and that USSF apparently is not in compliance with the Act. I accept your representation that nobody else complies either. By the way, 3 athletes on the USSF board are not enough. I expect you won't care for this opinion either. The minimum requirement of 20% applies to both votes AND membership. The USSF board includes non voting members, which you did not count.

  15. Beau Dure replied, February 16, 2020 at 7:55 p.m.

    (This response went to wrong thread.) 


    Bob, the Act is clear. Silly, but clear. USSF is in compliance, as is everyone else. 


    Not sure why you have the idea I'd oppose more athletes on the board. They actually have another now in Cindy Cone. 


    Also not sure why you persist in arguing when I've demonstrated several times why you're mistaken. 


     

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, February 16, 2020 at 9:26 p.m.

    Who is your source, Beau?

  17. Beau Dure replied, February 18, 2020 at 8:06 p.m.

    My sources have been posted here in the thread. They are: 

    1. The Act. 

    2. The boards for other NGBs showing that they all have professional athletes as well. 

  18. Mike Lynch, February 14, 2020 at 10:21 a.m.

    Beau,

    Another excellent review of what is not said or misrepresented in most news outlets. I saw the men's player union comments last week and thought, "hmmm." Now I go, "I understand both sides are part of the problem and solution." Thanks for putting down your thoughts for all to see.

  19. R2 Dad, February 14, 2020 at 5:13 p.m.

    We'll know the final proposal is a good one if all the parties complain equally. There is no free lunch here, people. If USSF has to pay x3 to the women, who is going to pay to support the money-losing NWSL? Twice the answer has been No One--is the 3rd time a charm or a curse?

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, February 14, 2020 at 5:55 p.m.

    I am tired of excuses for gender discrimination. In the past USSF explained that it couldn't afford a girls DA because they needed the money for the boys. Wanting to give the money or the opportunity to males is perhaps the most common explanation for gender discrimination. Try giving that excuse to a federal judge.

  21. Beau Dure replied, February 14, 2020 at 11:52 p.m.

    That was the reason they gave for not having a girls' DA? I would've figured it was that the ECNL was already doing that job. (And to a substantial degree still is.)

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2020 at 1:09 p.m.

    That was the reason given to Tony DiCicco and Anson Dorrance according to a SA interview of Tony by Mike published on Feb. 6, 2015. 

    SA: On the boys side, there’s the U.S. Soccer Development Academy whereas U.S. Club Soccer’s ECNL plays the role for the elite on the girls side. Should U.S. Soccer launch a Development Academy on the girls side?

    TONY DICICCO: Before April Heinrichs became Technical Director, Anson Dorrance and I were on a committee. And they asked, “What's our next step for girls youth development?”


    We said Academy, and they balked on it. We said Academy again. They admitted to us we have stretched our human resources and it has cost us so much to build a boys Academy that we're just not ready to do it. So let's go with the ECNL.


    At that time I thought the ECNL was doing a very good job. They were monitoring what the boys Academy was doing with not all the resources. I'm not as close as I was a few years ago, but I think the ECNL does a pretty good job.


    But I said we need full-time coaches on the girls side. If not an academy, we need more scouts. We need an infrastructure.


    I think our men's challenges are more acute. Do I think we should go to a girls academy now? I'm not sure. I'm not close enough. That's a question for April Heinrichs and April Kater, because they know what the money is.

  23. Ben Myers, February 15, 2020 at 12:46 a.m.

    Beau, That asks the question once again.  Why have any USSF DA, either gender, when there is already ECNL?

  24. Beau Dure replied, February 15, 2020 at 7:20 a.m.

    Mike Woitalla wrote a good piece on that. 

  25. Beau Dure replied, February 15, 2020 at 9:01 a.m.

    Here's Mike's story: https://www.socceramerica.com/publications/article/84726/us-soccer-should-retreat-from-youth-soccer.html 

  26. Octavio Zambrano, February 16, 2020 at 9:57 a.m.

    Great piece Beau, what is the position of Latin American coaches..? I mean US Citizens of Latin American descent.  The departure of Tab Ramos marks a before and after, and the Federation's feeble answer to documented acts of blatant bias against Latino participation in their proceses leaves a great constituency still un represented. Would appreciate your comments on the matter. Thanks

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