Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Female athletes continue to face opponents on the field and off, constantly told they aren’t good enough or strong enough, are dull to watch, celebrate too much when they win, and cry too much when they lose. But a $24 million settlement between the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the US Soccer Federation (USSF), announced in a court filing Tuesday, is a reminder that the bottom line continues to be clear: empower women’s sports to get results, but don’t wait for results to invest in women’s sports.
Across the time that the USWNT has been at odds over equal pay with the USSF (its own governing body), players have endured slights both big and small, from being asked to play on injury-risking artificial turf to enduring vitriol at the hands of a sitting US president.
In March 2019, when 28 USWNT players signed onto a gender discrimination lawsuit filed under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, citing inequalities in pay as well as in working conditions, they likely had no idea how big of a year it would be for their team. They demolished – to much (unfounded) condemnation and critique for purported lack of sportsmanship – Thailand 13-0 in the opening rounds of the women’s World Cup that summer, the largest margin of victory in World Cup history.
Their victory over the Netherlands in the finals, 2-0, with stunning goals from Megan Rapinoe on a penalty and Rose Lavelle on a strong solo run, further validated the surging direction the women’s side of the world’s most popular sport had taken. (It’s worth noting that the runners-up, the Dutch, whose women’s team became European champions just 10 years after launching a professional league, had already put into place an equal pay scale that will enable equity in salaries for men’s and women’s teams by next year.)
With victory secured, and American fans in the stands in France chanting “equal pay” during the trophy ceremony, the USWNT had not only defended its 2015 crown, it also owned fully half of all Women’s World Cup titles.
Still, the American women returned home to their lawsuit, which hit a major roadblock when federal judge Gary Klausner ruled that because of the number of games the women played per year, they actually made more money than their male counterparts. In July, 2021, the USWNT appealed that decision, claiming Klausner’s take “defies reality” and ignored the fact that the women had to win more games than the men to collect their bonus pay.
It also ignored the hard numbers generated by the USWNT, such as the 1.12 billion viewers that FIFA claimed watched the final (despite the fact that FIFA scheduled play at the same time as the Gold Cup and COPA America) and the number of shirts Nike sold, making the USWNT home kit the bestselling soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, for a single season in the company’s history.
Now, a groundbreaking settlement – plus bonuses – finally lays the foundation for the women to be on equal footing with their male counterparts. While the amount falls short of the $66 million the players asked for in their lawsuit, the breakdown of the deal splits some $22 million among the players, along with a $2 million fund that will support players after retirement as well as help grow the women’s side of the sport.
World Cup bonuses for men and women will be equal, as will the rate of pay. The two sides released a joint statement in which they announced they would “proudly stand together in a shared commitment to advancing equality in soccer.”
Rather than rehash the past, the deal looks to the future, ensuring that “the justice,” as stated by vocal team leader Megan Rapinoe, “comes in the next generation never having to go through what we went through,” a familiar refrain of grandmothers, from suffragettes to those who campaigned for the ERA.
That said, it is difficult to forget the language of the USSF across the case, particularly when a legal filing that claimed the women “do not perform equal work requiring skill [and] effort” and their overall ability was marred by “the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength,” was made public in March 2020. After the filing was made public, USSF president Carlos Cordeiro resigned and was replaced by former player Cindy Parlow Cone (a member of the legendary “99ers” who won the 1999 Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl).
While the overwhelming legacy of success of the USWNT can be seen in its towering scores, its high television ratings, its revenue generation, and its legendary record, the reason to create equal treatment between men’s and women’s teams should be that it is the right thing to do. Merchandise sales and television ratings are important, to be sure, but they should not be drivers of equality.
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Leaders in women’s sport have proven to be some of the most visible advocates for issues that women face in society. Athletes such as Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and – most recently – Mikaela Shiffrin have spoken openly and honestly about mental, not just physical, wellness. Soccer’s Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly (with support from high-profile stars like Alex Morgan) bravely talked about their allegations of sexual misconduct against coach Paul Riley (who denied them but was fired from his post). And the seeming entirety of American gymnasts, including Biles, not only brought justice to the victims of sexual predator Larry Nassar, but testified before Congress to ensure that those who enabled the abuse to continue were brought to light.
In this vein, this case, launched by 28 soccer players who wanted to fight decades of discrimination at the hands of those they report to, should be seen as much more than a win on the pitch or an attempt to change policy. Rather, it’s a move to change the culture that surrounds not just women’s sport, but women writ large.