“OK,” says the U.S. Soccer Federation. “Prove it.”
Forget the self-serving amicus brief that recaps the 1990s, far before the scope of the players’ lawsuit and more relevant to Cindy Parlow Cone the player than Cindy Parlow Cone the federation president, while griping that the district court’s comparison of MNT to WNT pay “overlooked the growth of U.S. Soccer in the interim” while studiously avoiding mention of FIFA’s wildly unequal prize money. It also cites a story on comparative TV ratings that specifies “English-language,” forgetting the rather substantial Spanish-speaking audience that is just now starting to pay more attention to the women’s game but isn’t there yet. (See Paul Kennedy’s Spanish-language viewerships drive huge gap between recent U.S. national team audiences.)
U.S. Soccer’s proclamation that it is offering the same deal to men and women can be taken with a grain of skepticism. Equaling pay for friendlies is simple enough. But how do you compare a win in the SheBelieves Cup before an adoring crowd with a win in World Cup qualifying before a crowd of hostile Hondurans? How do you account for the Olympics, in which any winner’s bonus is basically up to how much a federation can afford? (USA Wrestling is especially generous, but they’re paying individuals, not a team.)
But the big issue, of course, is how to account for World Cup bonuses when FIFA is planning to shell out, per ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, $440 million for the men in 2022 and $60 million for the women in 2023 -- and that’s an improvement. It doesn’t take a lot of accounting to figure out that the lionesses’ share of the $67 million the U.S. women argue they’re lacking is attributed to World Cup bonuses.
So the message from the federation to the MNT is simple. Put your money where your brief is.
We’ve been through the background of the pay dispute so many times. The “equal pay” deals in Australia and Norway give equal percentages of World Cup bonuses, something the women would surely never accept. The women are asking for more money than U.S. Soccer projects to have in reserve in coming years, though it wasn’t quite as bad as initially projected before the stock market rallied and the federation found itself going without expenses such as “playing actual soccer games.” The legal case is very difficult to win. Etc. Etc.
While all of these facts are somewhat persuasive in the court of law, U.S. Soccer has always been in rough shape in the court of public opinion. At least, publicly -- the people who see the issues in the case sometimes keep a low profile.
The federation’s latest public gambit might at least prompt a handful of people to take a closer look at what’s going on here. In particular, the U.S. men will have some tough questions to answer if they’re not interested in sitting down with the women and the federation to figure out how to address the prize money issue.
Which leads to this comment from women’s association executive director Becca Roux to the media: “We are interested in negotiating in good faith to get a fair deal for our players and will not let them use our fight for equality to create a divide between the women and men.”
“Create a divide?” Really? The constant bashing of the men’s national team from all quarters isn’t “creating a divide” but asking the men and women to negotiate together is?
Granted, a lot of the “divide” has been exacerbated by lawyers, reported and assorted hangers-on whose interests are not necessarily the interests of soccer, men’s or women’s. Nor do they take much time to understand soccer. Tell an advocate that the core women’s players earn a base salary of $100,000 a year, and they’ll ask how much the men make. Then they’re befuddled when you tell them the answer is $0 in U.S. Soccer salary and you try to explain the different pay structures along with all the things mentioned above.
To wit: A 50-page amicus brief from a team of lawyers and advocacy groups -- “the National Women’s Law Center, Women’s Sports Foundation and 63 additional organizations” -- only mentions the word “soccer” eight times, mostly in reference to the federation or the “women’s soccer team.” While the men’s amicus brief at least cites a bunch of soccer journalists’ pieces, the brief from the non-soccer entities hardly notes the existence of the sport. It’s as if the organizations and their battalion of lawyers simply copied a template and replaced “accounting firm” or “software company” with “soccer team.”
And that ignorance undercuts their arguments, such as the head-scratching point that the WNT might not have needed salaries if the federation paid bonus money equal to the MNT’s, neglecting to mention that the bonuses are only available to those who make the big-tournament rosters and that the women themselves opted for stability rather than bet their non-NWSL incomes on a World Cup game.
They’re certainly not alone in their attempts to use the women’s soccer players as political pawns. To much fanfare, several lawmakers in both houses of Congress introduced legislation threatening to withhold aid it’s not really giving in the first place if USSF didn’t offer undefined “equal pay.” Surprise, surprise -- those bills haven’t taken a single step beyond the press releases. The bill in the old Schoolhouse Rock cartoons wouldn’t even be out on the Capitol Steps -- it would be sitting in Joe Manchin’s filing cabinet.
If we’re talking about labor law, let’s put all this in perspective.
Earlier this month, I was the substitute teacher in a third-grade class on the day they learned about the true meaning of Labor Day. They saw a video on horrors of the past -- 12-hour workdays, seven-day workweeks, no job security whatsoever -- and gasped at what their great-grandparents had gone through. The workers fought for change themselves, often suffering physical violence among other intimidation tactics.
In this case, we’re talking about what the New York Times' Andrew Das (and I) believe to be, upon all we’ve found, the highest-compensated national teams in global soccer.
Frankly, that should probably change. These deals are vestiges of a time in which players had scant prospects for income, and they’ve been ratcheted upward as the unions argue that U.S. Soccer owes them more because the federation has grown. At some point, we may need to have the argument of why American soccer teams still need start-up pay or whether that money is best redirected toward other teams (beach, futsal, Paralympic disciplines), coaching education, youth national teams, referees, grassroots grants and everything else under the purview of any good federation. We also need to find ways to steer more sponsors, including those who make a big show of supporting those at the very top of the women’s soccer development pyramid, toward the NWSL and youth academies.
But the teams’ lofty status in the global compensation standings surely won’t change, even if the men end up giving up some of their pie-in-the-sky bonus prospects to pool prize money with the women.
So what were we arguing about again?One thing that has changed during the eon in which this fight has been going on is U.S. Soccer leadership. Sunil Gulati, Carlos Cordeiro, Dan Flynn, Lydia Wahlke and members of the Seyfarth Shaw law firm are all gone. But the association leaders and lawyers are still in place.
Maybe it’s time to start fresh, settle the suit before it drains the wallets of all involved, pressure FIFA’s sponsors to pressure FIFA to even out the prize money, and try to make Americans at least as good at soccer as they are at law and PR?