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U.S. Women's Soccer Gender Discrimination Lawsuit


The U.S. women's national soccer team is ranked number one in the world. The team won the women's World Cup three times, and the U.S. women are four-time Olympic champions. The U.S. men's soccer team - not so much. They've never won World Cup or the Olympics. They didn't even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But the women players are paid less than the men. And that's why the U.S. women's national team filed suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in federal court on Friday - Women's Day - charging gender discrimination. USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan has been following the story, and she's with us now.

Christine Brennan, thank you so much for talking to us.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, Michel, my pleasure. Always good to talk with you - especially about a topic like this.

MARTIN: Well, the lawsuit points out that for their success in winning the 2015 Women's World Cup, the U.S. women were paid less than a third of what the U.S. men were paid for losing in the round of '16. And I think a lot of people might look at that and say, how is that possible? So how is that possible?

BRENNAN: Well, soccer is - has an old boys' network to the max, Michel. And actually, the U.S. Soccer Federation is doing a better job than most federations around the world. It truly - the sexism and the anti-women feelings are incredibly strong in the sport of soccer worldwide. And so what we're seeing here is the U.S. women's national team - I believe it's the most famous women's team on the planet in any sport, and certainly role models for so many other women's sports and charging away, leading the charge, so to speak, on these kinds of issues. They've just said enough is enough.

And here we are, three months away from the next Women's World Cup, which is coming up in France in June. And they have just - with the confidence that they've been given from years of playing sports in our country, Title IX now 46, almost 47 years old - they just are not going to deal with this anymore. And that's why they did this now. And it really is quite a statement about where women are, not just in sports, but in our culture in 2019.

MARTIN: Tell me about the history of this suit. As I understand it, this started with a complaint that the women filed to the EEOC back in 2016. Is that right?

BRENNAN: That is correct. And they didn't - that hasn't gotten anywhere - and five players back then, including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and a couple of others. But frankly, there have been skirmishes, Michel, going all the way back to the year 2000, when the players actually struck and missed a - one tournament going into the Sydney Olympics.

And it's interesting because I'm sure many of your listeners remember where they were when they watched Brandi Chastain kick that penalty kick almost 20 years ago now - July 10, 1999. So 1999 was really a watershed moment because they saw the huge stadiums, they saw the popularity, the only story in history, as far as I know, to ever be on the covers of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated the same week. That was the U.S. women's soccer team - the nation falling in love with what it's created with Title IX.

And so with that, I think that gave them the boost to know they needed to do more. And that has been in their DNA in terms of fighting for equal rights for women and, as I said, leading the charge for all kinds of female athletes around the globe, not just in the U.S. So from '99 onward, there have been these skirmishes about equal pay. This is really just dropping the mike.

MARTIN: Well, OK. Let me just dig in a little bit deeper. Can direct comparisons of the compensation between the men and women - can those direct comparisons be made? I mean, the New York Times reports that each team has its own collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer and that the men - they say that the men receive higher bonuses when they play for the United States, but they're paid only when they make the team whereas the women receive guaranteed salaries supplemented by smaller matched bonuses. So...

BRENNAN: You're right. You're bringing up a great point. And there is an apples to oranges kind of quality to this. Why is that? Because the men's teams are - men's - members the men's team are employed by professional clubs around the world, and they receive compensation that way because the men's game is so much more advanced than the women's game, aside from - especially maybe entirely the United States. The women, the top female players, are under contract with U.S. Soccer, not individual teams.

So that is a little bit of why the comparison is - can be difficult. But the differences in bonuses for the two teams - 2014 World Cup, the men's World Cup, U.S. Soccer, they lost in the round of '16, the U.S. men did. They were paid - the bonuses were paid out of a total of 5.375 million - OK, 5.375 million for the men who lost in the round of '16. A year later, 2015, in, Canada the U.S. women win the World Cup, and they're paid out of a pool of 1.725 million.

MARTIN: Who makes that decision? I mean, who decides how much bonus money and how it's divided?

BRENNAN: That's U.S. Soccer. And you bring up a very interesting point because these are the national governing bodies for the sport. All these sports that you see in the Olympics have a national governing body. They are - they're not for profit. And their goal simply is to promote the game, the athletes and the sport. So, for example, U.S. Figure Skating years ago decided to pay the men equal to the women on things like bonuses. It's a little different because it's not a team, it's individual athletes. But figure skating made sure to pay the men equally because they wanted to hold that carrot out there to boys and men to become figure skaters because the women are the stars in figure skating. Same with swimming - Katie Ledecky gets the exact same amount of money and a bonus that Michael Phelps did. So those are the comparisons, and that's why U.S. Soccer doesn't look obviously so good.

MARTIN: Except that you're telling us that, say, in figure skating, the governing body figured out that - without having to be sued - that they should pay the male athletes the same even though the women are the stars. What I think I hear you saying is that U.S. Soccer could have done the same and has chosen not to.

BRENNAN: Absolutely. U.S. Soccer could have headed this off at the pass. They have known since the year of 1999, since that World Cup, that things were changing. That was a watershed moment. And when those football stadiums were full for women's soccer, literally packed to capacity, the Rose Bowl, Soldier Field in Chicago, all around the country these things were happening that summer, that they - someone should have said this is a sea change and we need to start noticing it. They think they did OK by raising them when prodded or when having these disputes. They did do more, they didn't do enough.

MARTIN: That was sports columnist Christine Brennan of USA Today. Christine, thank you so much for talking with us.

BRENNAN: Michel, my pleasure. Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.