U.S. Soccer has defended itself vigorously against the charges in the gender discrimination complaint its women's national team's filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Thursday morning.
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Hours after the players' filing, which claimed the women are compensated unfairly relative to the men's national team and included comparative figures that seemed to support their case, the federation asserted essentially that the wage inequality complaint has no merit. The women, it argued, signed a collective bargaining agreement stipulating terms and receive non-monetary benefits the men's national team doesn't get. It added that, counter to the women's claim, the men drive revenue that's "almost twice" as high as that of the women's team.
Russell Sauer, the federation's outside legal counsel from the Latham & Watkins firm, responded to the players' request for an investigation on a conference call with reporters. He argued that the players willingly agreed to the terms on a collective bargaining agreement and had prioritized the security of a fixed baseline salary over a riskier but more lucrative all-bonus structure, such as the men's.
"It quite frankly seems odd, from a legal perspective, that the players are complaining about a compensation system that they insisted upon, including the very economic terms they're now complaining about," Sauer said. "This is a model of compensation structure that the Players' Association negotiated specifically for in prior negotiations.
"The Players' Association asked for and received a structure of guaranteed salary and benefits, rather than pursue their compensation on a pay-to-play basis like the men. That whole process involves tradeoffs."
In addition to salary, Sauer pointed out, the women get benefits the men don't receive, like severance pay when they are cut from the team, health insurance, vision, dental, pregnancy leave – with 50 percent pay – and a guaranteed salary when they are injured.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati admitted that the filing caught him by surprise, but he strongly refuted several of the claims made by the women.
Federation spokesman Neil Buethe said the men's revenue outpaced the women's almost two to one, in spite of what the women claimed in their filing.
"During the last four years, the men's national team revenues have been significantly higher than the women's national team's," Buethe said. "The numbers provided in the complaint are at times inaccurate, misleading or even both."
The federation reiterated its belief that it's been a global leader in its investment in women's soccer, pointing out that the federation spends $3.5 million annually to keep the National Women's Soccer League in business. On the eve of the league's fourth season, U.S. Soccer says it has invested approximately $10 million.
"We are well beyond any compensation that anyone else in the world pays in this situation," Gulati said. "And while the ratings and the attendance is starting to rise, we've been that way for a long period of time."
According to U.S. Soccer, the men's TV ratings are a multiple of women's and its average attendance much higher. Sponsorship is bundled, it said, and therefore can't be defined by each team. It didn't argue with the women's claim that they have been the more successful team on the field – with three World Cup and four Olympic titles to the men's zero, there is no arguing that, after all – but said the notion that the women bring in more money and therefore deserve more compensation rests on a fallacy.
"Do you think revenue should matter at all in the determination of compensation in a market economy?" Gulati asked rhetorically. "If you look at the track record of the team, a lot of things go into the compensation of the players. Part of it is based on revenues; part of it is based on incentives and the expected performance of the teams. All of that goes into it.
"We think very highly of our women's national team. We're going to compensate them fairly and we'll sit down and work through that with them when all of this settles down."
Prior to the complaint, filed by five leading members of the women's team with the support of the entire squad, U.S. Soccer had sued the Players' Association for a pre-emptive breach of contract, whereupon the players countersued. The current CBA was negotiated in 2006, but when it expired in 2012, it was replaced by a memorandum of understanding with some updated terms. The federation argues that this serves as a full-fledged CBA, therefore barring the players from striking while a new CBA is hashed out for 2017. The players claim that a work stoppage is within their rights.
As such, a strike cannot be ruled out some four months ahead of the Olympics.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.