The World Cup Is Over, But The Labor Fight Continues

There’s no reason for the U.S. women’s soccer team not to receive equal pay…

“We break down the inequities. We tell them: This is why we are choosing to take this stance, for these reasons. We try to show specifically how it affects each individual player, but then also the team as a whole.”

—Megan Rapinoe to the New York Times Magazine, June 2019

If you’ve heard one recent quote from Megan Rapinoe, it’s probably “I’m not going to the fucking White House,” or possibly the one where she called herself a “walking protest” against the Trump Administration. But her statement to the New York Times Magazine above and the activities the quote alludes to have mostly been lost in the cacophony of hot takes about the behavior of Rapinoe and the USWNT (U.S. Women’s National Team) as they surged to an unprecedented fourth World Cup victory. The team’s defiant swagger was the primary source of all the pearl-clutching: from Rapinoe’s fiery political statements, to Alex Morgan sipping an imaginary cup of tea after she scored against England, to the team’s collective refusal to apologize for anything they did or said during the tournament. It’s in the same spirit as a greater fight that the team has been waging since its inception, because in addition to being ridiculously good at soccer, this U.S. team has a long, frustrating, and glorious history of organizing itself to take on its oldest and most formidable foe: their bosses.

Broadly speaking, the most active battleground in this labor fight has been the issue of equal pay. The USWNT, or rather its union, the USWNTPA (U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association), filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF or U.S. Soccer) on International Women’s Day of this year, just a few months before the start of the World Cup. The suit alleges that U.S. Soccer has violated the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act, discriminating against the women’s team by paying them less than their male counterparts. Figures vary year by year and player by player, and many of the pertinent numbers are not readily available to the public, but when salary and bonuses are taken into consideration, it’s clear that women stand to make substantially less than men per game, per season, and over the course of a career with the U.S. national teams.  

Management has never disputed that it pays women less than men. Instead, the USSF defends the pay gap with an argument that boils down to something like this:

  1. “Market realities” determine compensation, and those “realities” differ greatly between the women’s game and the men’s.
  2. Partially because of those realities, the USWNT and the USMNT constitute “functionally separate organizations.” As such, the requirement that men and women within the same organization receive the same compensation doesn’t apply.
  3. By signing a collective bargaining agreement that was different from the one the men negotiated, the USWNT has acknowledged that the two teams are separate and agreed to a pay structure that does not compensate them equally.

Let’s take those points in order. Firstly, claiming that “market realities” justify discrimination is…suspect at best. But even if we choose to play devil’s advocate and accept this premise, let’s examine what those “market realities” actually entail. Say we take a generous interpretation of the Equal Pay Act’s exception in the context of “a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production.” Are the women producing less than the men are for the USSF, or is their production of less quality?

It’s true that the U.S. women’s professional club league, the National Women’s Soccer League, is far less profitable than Major League Soccer, leading to a prevailing attitude among Soccer People that women’s soccer is inherently “less profitable.” But if we look at the money USSF makes from the men’s and women’s national teams when they play on the international stage, we see a very different picture. In 2015, U.S. Soccer reported a $6.6 million profit from the World Cup-winning women’s side, compared with a profit of less than 2 million from the men. Over the next three years, the women continued to surpass the men in overall revenue and ticket sales. With the women having just won another World Cup, signs point to the trend continuing in 2019—we won’t know all the numbers for a while, but the World Cup was closely followed in the U.S., with the final match drawing 20 percent more U.S. viewers than last year’s Men’s World Cup final between France and Croatia. It hasn’t always been this way, but in recent years it’s become clear that the USWNT’s profits are certainly in the same ballpark as the USMNT’s, if not consistently out-performing them.

Oh, and another relevant “market reality:” The ostensibly-not-for-profit USSF announced two years ago that it had a surplus of over $100 million, more than enough to bring the women’s compensation up to the same level as the men’s. There was no indication that such a move was ever considered.

As for “quality of production,” well…

It’s so obvious to anyone who knows soccer—or, really, anyone who can count—that the U.S. women consistently out-perform the men on the field that I really don’t need to go into detail here. Suffice it to say that the women just won their fourth World Cup, the fourth of only eight ever played, while the men’s team, founded 100 years before the women’s, has never finished higher than their third-place showing in 1930. The men failed to qualify for the most recent World Cup in dramatic and embarrassing fashion, losing 2-1 to the tiny island nation of Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of qualifying when all they needed was a draw.

So much for reality. But how about point two: Are the men’s and women’s teams doing the same work? Well, the women are doing a much better job of it—and in most years, they play more matches than the men—but otherwise, yes. U.S. Soccer argues they are separate organizations—a claim slightly undermined by the teams’ joint motto, “One nation, one team”—but it shoves them together whenever necessary. The teams’ schedules are decided separately, and they train separately, but their bosses bundle the broadcasting rights to their games together, selling them as part of a single U.S. Soccer package. Does the same hold true when it comes to striking a merchandising deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars with Nike? You better believe it does. Though it’s possible to differentiate the two teams in some ways, by counting ticket sales or advertising deals that only involve one team or the other, U.S. Soccer clearly considers both the men and the women to be in the same business: playing soccer and furthering U.S. Soccer’s brand in the process.

That brings us to the final gotcha: If you ladies like equal pay so much, why did you sign a CBA that doesn’t pay you equally? Well, yes, they did sign the CBA—that’s what you do when you reach an agreement through collective bargaining. To suggest that doing so means the players are satisfied with what they’re getting, however, would be to grossly misunderstand the USWNT and its history.

Basically, as Bridget Gordon recently elucidated for SB Nation, the reason for the discrepancy in pay structure between the men’s and the women’s team comes down to differences in wages at the players’ other job: club soccer. Major League Soccer players make a minimum of $56,250 a year, with no upper limit on how much they can earn. Meanwhile, the minimum salary in the National Women’s Soccer League is a paltry $16,538 per year while its maximum salary is $46,200. 

You read that right: The maximum wage in women’s club soccer is $10,000 lower than the minimum wage in the men’s game. 

While any man playing MLS can live comfortably off of his salary, participation in the women’s national team can literally make the difference between playing full-time and needing to find a second source of income, so naturally the women’s priorities are different when it comes to labor negotiations. (Note that Americans are not restricted to only playing in American leagues. Still, enough members of the USWNT play in the NWSL that league salaries are explicitly factored into national team salary talks. The USMNT usually features several athletes who play for English or German clubs, but their overseas salaries are practically guaranteed to be higher than what they would make in MLS).

The current women’s CBA reflects those priorities as well as the long uphill battle the USWNT has been fighting since its foundation in 1985. In the early days of the USWNT, players flew commercial, stayed in budget hotels, received as little as $10 per diem during national team service, and were even sometimes outfitted with baggy, hand-me-down kits from a men’s team. The men didn’t always get star treatment, either, but equal pay was a fantasy. After winning the first-ever Women’s World Cup—or, to use its proper corporate title, the FIFA Women’s World Championship for the M&M’s Cup—players received bonus checks for $500 from the federation. Despite being a world champion, legendary midfielder Julie Foudy claims that she was only able to continue pursuing a soccer career because Reebok offered her an endorsement deal

Nevertheless, the women were gaining leverage. When they learned in 1995 that the men’s team would get bonuses for finishing first, second, or third at the next year’s Olympics while the women’s team would only get a bonus for gold, nine USWNT players unilaterally struck out the offending clauses from their contracts. The executive director of U.S. Soccer initially refused to budge, locking them out of training camp and saying “We cannot reward mediocrity” (despite towering piles of evidence to the contrary). As the Olympics drew closer, however, U.S. Soccer caved. In the 1996 games, the women won gold anyway. (The men didn’t even make it past the first round.)

In early 2000, having just won their second World Cup trophy and with the Olympics again looming, the entire USWNT went on strike. U.S. Soccer sent a team composed of younger players to a scheduled tournament in Australia, but the team’s veteran leaders—a list which included the likes of Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Brandi Chastain—persuaded the younger players not to compete until a deal had been struck. Once again, solidarity paid off, and the team secured a minimum salary of $5,000 a month for the period leading up to the Olympics. This was a dramatic increase from the old contract, which paid a maximum of $3,150.

The women also forced U.S. Soccer to address demands that don’t tend to come up when the men negotiate. For the first time, they won paid pregnancy leave, and childcare for players with young children. Before that, getting pregnant had essentially been the same as sustaining an injury in the eyes of the USSF.

As their status and their confidence in dealing with their bosses grew, the USWNT still faced discriminatory treatment from the media. Coverage was scant compared to that of the men’s team, and the attention they got was often laced with sexism. Avid supporter David Letterman, for example, had USWNT players on his show both before and after the 1999 World Cup, but regularly referred to them as “soccer mamas” or “babe city.” In the same tournament, Chastain drew criticism for removing her shirt and revealing her sports bra after scoring the World Cup-winning penalty kick. (It’s worth noting that most everyone now agrees the critics were silly and the image was inspiring). If you followed this year’s installment of the World Cup and Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping gesture, you know that the goal-celebration double-standard Chastain was held to still lingers today.

It hasn’t just been the media—U.S. Soccer still displays signs of bias against its female players besides the pay dispute. The 2015 World Cup Victory Tour, a series of games scheduled by USSF as a celebration of the previous summer’s championship, was marred by poor field conditions. At one point, Rapinoe tore her ACL practicing on what her teammates called “a subpar training field.” The team refused to take the field for the subsequent game at Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium, citing the abominable state of the stadium’s artificial turf. It’s widely known that players prefer to play on real grass, and U.S. Soccer has not made the USMNT play on turf for years, going as far as trucking in grass to cover turf fields ahead of men’s games. The women’s CBA does not guarantee that U.S. Soccer will avoid scheduling games on turf, but it does stipulate that the “health and safety of the players” must be considered in the selection of venues, and that “the federation prefers to play games on natural grass.” The USWNTPA argues that this constitutes an agreement to avoid turf whenever possible, and that avoiding turf for the men but not the women constitutes an illegal disparity in working conditions. 

Obviously, the current CBA leaves plenty to be desired, but it is the best yet for the USWNT. In addition to guarantees of support for players who are pregnant or adopting a child, it finally mandates that women receive the same per diem as the men while on international duty. The women also won control over the rights to their likenesses—a potentially huge victory now that the FIFA video games regularly include women’s teams—and the right to arrange sponsorships in categories where U.S. Soccer doesn’t already have a deal in place. 

Tellingly, the CBA also guarantees that USWNT players make $60,869 each from any potential World Cup victory tours. Meanwhile, the men’s CBA makes no mention of such tours because, to put it bluntly, there’s no way in hell the men are going on one any time soon. Still, the women will only receive a maximum of $260,869 per player in World Cup bonus money, less than a quarter of what the men would hypothetically receive for the same feat.

The struggle for equal pay in women’s soccer is a global one, with the average female professional player still earning a paltry $600 per month. England, the birthplace of professional soccer, has only seen serious investment in the women’s game in the last few years, and even soccer-mad nations like Argentina appear incapable of treating their female players fairly (or paying them on time). In 2015, the Matildas—Australia’s national women’s team—revealed that they were being paid below minimum wage. Even in Norway, where the men’s team took a pay cut in order to ensure that the women’s team would be paid equally, a star player has walked away from the national team over her grievances with the federation.

As the Americans celebrated their trophy and prepared to get absolutely trashed on champagne and Bud Heavy, fans chanted “equal pay” in the stands at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais and booed FIFA President Gianni Infantino for his organization’s refusal to offer the same reward money for men’s and women’s World Cups. Rapinoe, whose criticism of U.S. Soccer and Trump have defined the last month, piled on Infantino, saying, “A little public shame never hurt anybody…I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step. I think we’re done with, ‘Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same?’”

Rapinoe’s criticism of the power structure that governs her country and her sport has left windbags across America (and at least one in England) red in the face. Surely, she expected nothing less, given what happened when she became the only non-NFL pro athlete in the U.S. to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in 2016. In response to her protest, the USSF quickly rushed through a new rule mandating that players “stand respectfully” for the national anthem. In 2016 and now, Rapinoe and her fellow travelers have laid out a simple moral argument in an attempt to address injustice and have been met not only with contempt from frothing reactionaries, but also resistance from the bosses at U.S. Soccer. 

In the wake of their victory, Rapinoe, Morgan, and their teammates are bigger stars than ever. They went to France ready to back up their brash, politically charged, unapologetically feminist, unapologetically gay, unapologetically pro-equal-pay behavior by winning a trophy, and they did. As we celebrate, we should also ask ourselves if that’s really the standard they should be held to. Yes, they’re better than their male counterparts by a score of roughly four World Cups to none, but should it take four world championships for their bosses to obey the Equal Pay Act? The USWNT are national heroes, and deservedly so, but the struggle for equal pay also has villains. U.S. Soccer has the means and the moral imperative to institute equal pay tomorrow if it wants to. It’s past time that they drop the “market realities” bullshit, correct decades of injustice, and give their female workers the equality for which generations of women have been fighting.

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Image provided by Getty Images.

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