Smashing the Glass Ceiling in Cleats

By: Danielle Adams

Four World Cup titles[1], four Olympic gold medals[2], eight CONCACAF championships[3], two SheBelieves Cup trophies[4], and 10 Algarve Cup titles[5]. Somehow, all the accolades in the world do not amount to receiving a level playing field for the U.S. Women’s National Team (“WNT”). Following the money and the news to the source of the disparity reveals, unsurprisingly, discrimination on the basis of sex.

Despite fighting a class action suit claiming discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, the rhetoric of the initial counsel for the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) reflects an attitude of indifference and nearly justification for discrimination on the basis of sex. USSF’s court filings state that the “job performed by players on the women’s team requires less skill, effort and responsibility than the one performed by players on the men’s team.”[6]

The crux of the complaint, filed by the WNT, under the Equal Pay Act stems from the collective bargaining agreements (“CBA”) for each team.[7] The WNT demonstrates in its pleadings that—under the collective bargaining agreement which expired in December 2016—if both the men and women’s teams won 20 consecutive games, the women would make 38% less than the men.[8] The same scenario applied to the new CBA revealed that a female player would make $28,333 less than her male counterpart.[9] Judge Klausner justified his ruling by comparing the CBA of the WNT and the Men’s National Team (“MNT”), both of which the respective unions and organizations negotiated. He stated that “merely comparing what WNT players received under their own CBA with what they would have received under the MNT CBA discounts the value that the team placed on guaranteed benefits they receive under their agreement, which they opted for at the expense of higher performance-based bonuses.”[10]

The obvious question becomes: why would the WNT negotiate to earn less than its male counterpart? Unlike the MNT, the WNT negotiated to have base compensation which guaranteed that players would be paid regardless of whether they played.[11] Among other reasons, a major concern is likely that the WNT plays on artificial turf more often than the MNT,[12] which is proven to increase the likelihood of an athlete sustaining an injury by 58% in comparison to natural grass.[13] When facing unsafe playing conditions, it is logical to press for a base salary in preparation for an inevitable injury to ensure financial security. Furthermore, the MNT did not need a guaranteed base salary from the USSF because they were well paid by clubs in a long-established professional marketplace.[14] The WNT is not afforded the same luxury.

The atmosphere in which the WNT union negotiated its CBA made it even more difficult to achieve equality. The CBA was negotiated within the context of a society with a history of gender inequality.[15] Men have greater success in achieving economically favorable results in negotiation than women when it comes to salary.[16] Furthermore, studies have shown that evaluators penalize women more than men for attempting to negotiate for higher compensation.[17] Furthermore, it has been proven that women receive lower offers than males, despite the fact that the women requested to receive the same salary during negotiations.[18]

In the case of the WNT, at the time of the WNT’s negotiation of its CBA with the USSF President, the popular belief was that men’s soccer was harder than women’s soccer: this misguided belief was clearly stated in the now-rescinded pleadings submitted to the Court by USSF. This mentality was displayed when, during negotiations for the CBA, the WNT proposal was described as being “the MNT CBA, plus, plus, plus” because the women’s team was requesting benefits in addition to the pay-to-play structure.[19] According to USSF financial statements, the WNT out-earned the MNT in regard to revenue every year from 2016 to 2018.[20] For a wildly more successful all female team that generates more revenue than its male counterparts, what is the problem with wanting the MNT CBA “plus, plus, plus”?

The problem is an unwillingness to rock a boat that is unjust, and whose gender inequity is deep-rooted in history.


[1] David Larimer, The USWNT’s World Cup History: Eight Tournaments, four titles, Washington Post (July 7, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/sports/soccer/usa-women-world-cup-history/.

[2] John D. Halloran, The Rise and Rise of the United States Women’s National Team, Bleacher Report (Apr. 23, 2013), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1614739-the-rise-and-rise-of-the-united-states-womens-national-team.

[3] Victor Mather, U.S. Women Begin World Cup Qualifying Tournament With 6-0 Win, New York Times (Oct. 4, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/sports/soccer/uswnt-womens-world-cup.html?auth=login-facebook.

[4] SheBelives Cup History, US Soccer, https://www.ussoccer.com/shebelieves/cup/shebelieves-history.

[5] Four Years Later, The U.S. WNT Is Back in the Algarve (Jan. 10, 2019), https://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2019/01/four-years-later-the-us-wnt-is-back-in-the-algarve.

[6] Lauren M. Johnson, US Soccer Claims It Won’t Pay Women Equally Because Being a Male Player Requires More Skill, CNN (Mar. 12, 2020, 5:52 AM), https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/11/us/us-soccer-federation-court-document-trnd/index.html.

[7] Order Re: Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment; Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment at 1-32, Alex Morgan et al. v. United States Soccer Federation, Inc., No. 2:19-CV-01717-RGK-AGR (C.D. Cal. May 1, 2020).

[8] Mahita Gajanan, The USWNT Seeks Nearly $67 Million in Damages in Equal Pay Lawsuit Against U.S. Soccer, Time (Feb. 21, 2020 10:56 AM), https://time.com/5653250/uswnt-equal-pay-lawsuit/.

[9] Id.

[10] Order, supra note vii, at 19.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 25.

[13] James E. Voos, Artificial Turf Versus Natural Grass, University Hospitals (Aug. 26, 2019), https://www.uhhospitals.org/for-clinicians/articles-and-news/articles/2019/08/artificial-turf-versus-natural-grass#:~:text=They%20found%20athletes%20were%2058,boys%20soccer%2C%20and%20rugby%20athletes.

[14] USWNT Lawsuit Versus U.S. Soccer Explained: Defining the Pay Gaps, What’s at Stake for Both Side, ESPN (June 3, 2020), https://www.espn.com/soccer/united-states-usaw/story/4071258/uswnt-lawsuit-versus-us-soccer-explained-defining-the-pay-gapswhats-at-stake-for-both-sides.

[15] Id.

[16] Katie Shonk, Women and Negotiation: Narrowing the Gender Gap in Negotiation, Harv. L. Sch.: Daily blog (July 23, 2020), https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/business-negotiations/women-and-negotiation-narrowing-the-gender-gap/.

[17] Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock & Lei Lai, Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask, 103 Organizational Behav. and Hum. Decision Processes 84, 99 (2007), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749597806000884?via%3Dihub.

[18] Jenny Säve-Söderbergh, Gender gaps in salary negotiations: Salary requests and starting salaries in the field, 161 J. of Econ. Behav. & Org. 35, 39 (2017), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167268119300290.

[19] Order, supra note vii, at 9.

[20] Rachel Bachman, U.S. Women’s Soccer Games Outearned Men’s Games, Wall St. J (June 17, 2019, 6:00 AM), https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-womens-soccer-games-out-earned-mens-games-11560765600.