U.S. Soccer still doesn’t get it as it prepares to fight against equal pay

Leander Schaerlaeckens
United States' Alex Morgan is draped in the U.S. flag as she celebrates with teammates after the U.S. beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday, July 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A month before the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off in France, the United States Soccer Federation responded to a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by 28 players on the defending champion U.S. women's national team. (AP)

On Monday, soccer’s national ruling body doubled down on its argument that its women’s national team is not, in fact, entitled to equal pay with the men’s national team in spite of quite clearly doing the same work for the same employer for less money. The United States Soccer Federation filed its answers and affirmative defenses to the women’s wage discrimination lawsuit from March, the latest escalation in a long-running equal-pay fight.

Back then, the women, with every member of the team a signatory to the suit served in California, alleged “institutionalized gender discrimination” and laid out a case of systemic inequality between the senior team programs, both monetary and in playing and travel conditions.

U.S. Soccer pushed back against the many allegations in the complaint. To which the women responded, in a statement through a spokeswoman to Yahoo Sports contributor Caitlin Murray, “We look forward to a trial next year.”

The federation’s persistence with this self-inflicted public relations nightmare is baffling. It willingly frames itself as the penny-pinching overlord pitted against one of the nation’s most popular teams, just months before it begins its World Cup title defense in France.

U.S. Soccer’s lesser-used argument that the reason for the disparity in pay in most years is a function of different pay structures — the women are essentially full-time employees with benefits, while the men are paid entirely in bonuses — isn’t without merit. And the federation can also point to the collective-bargaining agreement, paying them less than the men, that the women willingly and knowingly signed just over two years ago, well after this standoff began.

Instead, U.S. Soccer continues to focus on revenue. And that’s where its argument falls flat.

As a non-profit, the federation has no standing to reduce a moral quandary to money. The point of non-profits is that, exempt from income taxes and fiduciary obligations to shareholders, they can do the work that needs to be done, rather than pursue profit.

So while pointing to a discrepancy in revenue between the men’s and women’s programs — if you accept that it exists — is, at face value, not entirely unreasonable, it rings hollow in a non-profit setting. It is, besides, far outweighed by the overwhelming and broadly held sense that paying the men and women the same, however that redounds to the bottom line, is simply the right thing to do. Even if they don’t bring in the same amount of money, which remains disputed.

That’s what non-profits exist for: to serve the greater good.

It would take only a few million dollars a year to bridge the pay gap between men and women. To make things right. That’s easily covered by the surpluses the federation is running, undermining any case that the money somehow isn’t there.

In missing the point of equality, which is to be treated the same regardless of external factors, the federation also chips away at its own justification for being exempt from taxes — namely, its task of serving the sport’s best interests. If the USSF is going to argue that it can discriminate on the basis of allegedly unequal revenue, perhaps the argument that it isn’t a business no longer holds up. Maybe U.S. Soccer should start paying taxes on its operating profits — almost $11 million in 2017 and more than $46 million in 2016, according to the federation’s most recent Form 990 — or indeed the nine-figure reserves and investments it reportedly sits on.

And this is a corner U.S. Soccer has backed itself into by forcing the team into a debate on revenue, rather than just equality. Because this is a losing issue.

In its defense filed on Monday, the federation essentially argued that the women’s team isn’t entitled to equal pay because it isn’t doing equal work. It reckons this is true because the teams exist in separate frameworks.

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The document calls the two programs “physically and functionally separate organizations that perform services for U.S. Soccer in physically separate spaces and compete in different competitions, venues and countries at different times; have different coaches, staff and leadership; have separate collective bargaining agreements; and have separate budgets that take into account the different revenue that the teams generate.”

There’s that revenue argument again. Which is a thin defense when you consider that sponsorship and broadcast rights, the largest sources of income by far, are bundled with the men’s national team — and in the case of the TV rights even with Major League Soccer. So who is to say, exactly, how much the women’s share is even worth?

But then U.S. Soccer somehow also alleges that the pay gap has nothing to do with gender, according to Miki Turner, a Washington lawyer who broke down the defense on Twitter.

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Yet there’s also a line of reasoning in there that the genders really can’t be compared because they are, well, not the same team: “The USWNT and USMNT face different quantities and qualities of international competition, and no comparison can be made between their respective performance and compensation is such vastly different spheres.”

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This not only contradicts the idea that revenues must be compared — while competition, performance and compensation somehow can’t — but also denigrates the women’s game, and indeed the USA’s decades-long dominance of it. Read one way, it implies that the Americans are only dominating because the women’s game is weaker. Read another, the World Cup-winning women’s enormous success doesn’t count as heavily as success from the World Cup-missing men might.

Perhaps that’s an unfair interpretation of the legalese, but then that’s the sort of criticism the federation exposed itself to. By fighting this unjustifiable fight, all U.S. Soccer does is raise questions about why, exactly, it remains hell-bent on denying its best team the equality it is morally, and perhaps legally, entitled to.

The federation prides itself on being a pioneer in its investment in the women’s program, and rightly so. Guaranteed equal pay is the natural extension of that. But instead of taking another victory lap for its success in a promising Women’s World Cup year, U.S. Soccer prepares to face the stars and media darlings it created in a courtroom, in spite of the desperately bad optics.

And all in the service of an argument that misses the point.

This was never about revenue. It’s about doing the right thing.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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