Equal pay mediation talks break down between USWNT players, U.S. Soccer

Hopes for a settlement between the U.S. women's national team and their boss, U.S. Soccer, were dashed Wednesday when mediation talks broke down without any resolution.

The mediation sessions were framed by both sides as a chance to find common ground and avoid a battle in federal court – but it took just days for the players to announce the negotiations were over.

“We entered this week’s mediation with representatives of [U.S. Soccer] full of hope,” said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the USWNT in their lawsuit. “Today we must conclude these meetings sorely disappointed in the Federation’s determination to perpetuate fundamentally discriminatory workplace conditions and behavior.”

A spokesman for U.S. Soccer, Neil Buethe, responded to Yahoo Sports by pushing back and saying it was the players’ side that was unwilling to work toward a resolution.

“We have said numerous times that our goal is to find a resolution, and during mediation we had hoped we would be able to address the issues in a respectful manner and reach an agreement,” his statement said. “Unfortunately, instead of allowing mediation to proceed in a considerate manner, plaintiffs’ counsel took an aggressive and ultimately unproductive approach that follows months of presenting misleading information to the public in an effort to perpetuate confusion.”

In March, 28 players in the USWNT sued the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging “systemic gender-based pay discrimination” targeting players of the women's national team and said the federation had “utterly failed to promote gender equality.” They cited lower bonuses they receive compared to the men's team, as well as inferior travel accommodations and facilities.

PASADENA, CA - AUGUST 03: USA forward Megan Rapinoe (15) and USA forward Alex Morgan (13) wave to the crowd after the USA Victory Tour match between the United States of America and the Republic of Ireland on August 3, 2019 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT players pulled out of mediation talks on Wednesday. (Getty)

U.S. Soccer has denied the differences are the result of discrimination, citing higher revenue for the men – which is disputed by the federation's own financial audits – as well as higher prize money for the men provided by FIFA. The federation has already addressed some of the complaints in the lawsuit, such as the women having to play a significant portion of their games on artificial turf, which is considered inferior to natural grass.

The negotiation sessions, which took place over two days in New York City, included players, representatives from U.S. Soccer and attorneys for both sides, according to a source with knowledge of the sessions.

Although each side said coming into mediation that they wanted to resolve this dispute directly, it's not exactly surprising to see discussions take another acrimonious turn.

After the USWNT won the World Cup and “equal pay!” became a rallying cry to celebrate the team's victory, the federation quickly found itself under heightened scrutiny, which included members of Congress introducing a law targeting the federation's alleged gender discrimination. Officials from U.S. Soccer, including president Carlos Cordeiro, went on the offensive two weeks ago by claiming the women were paid more than the men, and hired Washington D.C. lobbyists.

But the lobbying efforts used some misleading arguments to try to convince lawmakers to stay out of the dispute – a move that only seemed to anger the players, who argued the federation should use the money spent on lobbyists to settle the lawsuit instead.

In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, the players and Cordeiro tried to meet face to face to informally settle the dispute then, but the exchange eventually turned tense as Cordeiro insisted all 28 players who filed the lawsuit be present, and the players insisted they needed to prepare for the World Cup. The meeting never happened.

Now, it appears this dispute will move ahead to a trial where the arguments will continue. Levinson, the representative for the players, said they welcome it.

"We want all of our fans, sponsors, peers around the world, and women everywhere to know we are undaunted and will eagerly look forward to a jury trial,” her statement said.

Buethe responded that U.S. Soccer is “undaunted in our efforts to continue discussions in good faith.”

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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