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Playing Fair: The Battle Between US Soccer and the USWNT

The US Women's National Team makes a case that it should be paid the same as the men. There are a lot of reasons why they're right.

Megan, along with Carli, Hope, Becky, and Alex, cry foul.
Megan, along with Carli, Hope, Becky, and Alex, cry foul.
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This morning members of the US Women's National Team filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, contending that US Soccer is guilty of clear wage discrimination. In the complaint, the USWNT members, Morgan, Rapinoe, Lloyd, Sauerbrunn, and Solo contend that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) pay the members of the Women's team around 40% the amount they pay the men's team. The NY Times has all the details here.

I have a pretty simple take: pay ‘em, USSF. There are four reasons why.

The Ethical Reason

Fundamentally, a woman should be paid the same amount to do the same job as a male counterpart. To do anything other than this is to declare clearly that a woman is less valuable than a man, as a person. A woman earns 64% of what a man makes in the US today.

Those numbers are so extreme partially because they reflect the discrepancy between women often doing different work- construction vs. home health care, for example, or the massive lack of women in high-level corporate executive positions.

But on the soccer field? If a woman plays the same position as a man, for the same minutes, they should be paid the same as the men; with one caveat. The money has to be there.

The Business Reason

As the USWNT laid out in their case, the money is there. In 2015, the USMNT earned $27.8 million and the USWNT earned only $5.3 million; it was a World Cup year for the men, and not for the women. In 2016, the USMNT earned $21.0 million and the USWNT earned $26.8 million; much of that revenue is from the 2015 Women's World Cup.

The Women's team is profitable- in fact, it's very profitable. It generated a ton of money for USSF last year. As reigning World Cup Champions, it will continue to generate more and more money. TV revenues for soccer are up. TV revenues for Women's soccer will too. The sport is growing, and the success of the US Women are a big reason why.

When you run a profitable business, in which the labor (the soccer player) and the product (the soccer) are one in the same thing, the worst possible thing you could do is tick off the players. Because they are the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. The USWNT isn't asking to make soccer unprofitable for USSF; they're asking to get the same share of the massive profits that the men make. In fact, from a labor perspective, it makes sense for the USMNT and the USWNT to band together here. In the long term, the two together could force USSF to share the wealth better with players. But from USSF's business end, it's a dangerous gambit to fight this aggressively, because if it results in a strike, it'll cost USSF millions while many of the top USWNT players already make most of their money in endorsements or playing for a club team. The players have little to lose, and the USSF has a lot to lose.

The Legal Reason

I'm not going to dwell on this idea, because I'm not an attorney. But, on the face of things, the USWNT has laid out a pretty strong case for the EEOC. The numbers are all there in court documents: the women make a lot less than the men do, to do the same job. If the case goes all the way to court, USSF will have the chance to argue why there might be a compelling reason for that to be the case. Still, the facts are going to be tough to avoid, because things overall look pretty... illegal.

The Practical Reason

The USWNT players are the most successful players US Soccer has. They are global stars. More Americans - 22.9 million - tuned in to watch the US Women beat Japan in 2015 than any other soccer game in US history.

They are tremendously popular. And successful. That new crest that US Soccer unveiled? It's ok. It looks a lot cooler when the women wear it with three stars, though.

Meanwhile, US Soccer is only recently removed from the Chuck Blazer - CONCACAF - FIFA bribery cesspool era. Although US Soccer isn't all that bad themselves by comparison to, say, the Brazilian Federation or Sepp Blatter himself, there's guilt by association. They certainly aren't capable of holding themselves up as paragons of moral virtue. Their refusal to pay solidarity payments to youth clubs and their stubborn resistance to conversations about promotion and relegation don't help much either.

For sorta-slimy-by-association US Soccer to take on the Heroic US National Women's Team is going to look bad. It's Snidely Whiplash versus Superman, apple pie, and Elvis Presley. On no planet does a long, drawn out lawsuit look good for US Soccer. Even if they win in court (they won't), the PR damage isn't worth it. There are times, like the 2004-05 NHL lockout, where both the management and players look greedy. This isn't that. In this one, US Soccer is going to come out looking terrible.

The USWNT have already started winning this fight. They dropped their suit simultaneously with going on The Today Show and getting the story released by the New York Times. They basically caught US Soccer flat-footed on attack, and I don't think any kind of Sunil Gulati defending is gonna save this match.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for US Soccer to not fight the suit, and instead to enter into negotiations with the USWNT is this: nothing stops the USWNT. Not the Japanese or German national teams. Not crappy artificial turf. They've proven the past that they take on all comers and win. The USWNT has an astonishing 45 wins, 8 draws, and 5 losses on their record going back to the beginning of 2014. The USSF should negotiate, because they can't hang with the USWNT. Their only hope is to bunker and pray.