Why U.S. Soccer's response to the USWNT lawsuit signals a shift in soccer climate

President Carlos Cordeiro and U.S. Soccer have issued a formal response to the USWNT's discrimination lawsuit, and it's interesting on several levels. (Getty)
President Carlos Cordeiro and U.S. Soccer have issued a formal response to the USWNT's discrimination lawsuit, and it's interesting on several levels. (Getty)

After a week of silence, the United States Soccer Federation and its president have finally issued a public response to the gender discrimination lawsuit filed by players of the women’s national team on International Women’s Day.

No one would’ve been surprised if U.S. Soccer had spent that week gathering ammo to fire back and undermine the lawsuit – after all, that is how such disagreements between the federation and the women’s team have gone in the past. But instead, in an open letter sent to media on Friday, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro struck a collaborative tone, focusing on how the two sides could find common ground and reach a resolution.

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“As we continue to review the lawsuit, we thought it was imperative to reach out to team leaders to better understand their thoughts and concerns. While we believe the current agreement is fair and equitable, we are committed to working with our USWNT players and understanding specifically where they believe improvement is needed,” Cordeiro writes in the letter. “To that end, on Wednesday I spoke with some of the veteran players to better understand their thoughts and concerns. Our initial conversation was open, cordial and professional, and we will continue to work to resolve this matter.”

That initial phone call on Wednesday is what Cordeiro says will be a first step in setting up additional meetings to better understand the USWNT’s grievances. Though U.S. Soccer has yet to file a legal response and its forthcoming legal strategy is unclear, Cordeiro's letter – along with comments he made earlier this year about ending U.S. Soccer’s many legal fights – suggests the federation would like to settle this matter out of court.

While there is time for this issue to devolve into another bitter litigation, U.S. Soccer’s initial response to the lawsuit shows a remarkable shift in tone.

It was only in 2016 that five USWNT players filed a very similar gender discrimination claim and U.S. Soccer, then led by Sunil Gulati, went all out in trying to discredit the allegations. As forceful as the response was, it was just as swift, coming within hours of the filing.

In a quickly arranged a phone call with reporters, the federation cited data that showed the men’s national team brought in more revenue over a four-year or eight-year cycle, in part driven by larger attendance for the men’s team. An attorney for U.S. Soccer expressed befuddlement that the women would have an issue with a contract they agreed to after collective bargaining negotiations. Gulati argued that revenue should be a factor for “compensation in a market economy.”

U.S. Soccer seems more willing than it has in the past to work with the women's national team and resolve their disagreements. (Getty)
U.S. Soccer seems more willing than it has in the past to work with the women's national team and resolve their disagreements. (Getty)

That dispute was never settled and has now been rolled into this latest lawsuit. But this time around, the federation is taking a more measured approach. The federation is resisting direct comparisons to the men’s team, even as U.S. Soccer cedes some of the public relations battle to the USWNT. In the week it has taken U.S. Soccer to respond in the media, Cordeiro has been reaching out directly to the players – the audience that ultimately matters most.

“We are looking forward to additional meetings with the players in the near future so we may learn more about their objectives while they, in turn, can hear from us,” Cordeiro writes. “Our mutual goal is a dialogue that will serve the best interests of the USWNT and U.S. Soccer, so that our collective focus is where it should be – winning the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup at a time when our team and soccer in the U.S. has so much to gain and celebrate.”

On one hand, that shift in tone may be a product of how the landscape had changed for the two U.S. national teams. The men’s team didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup and, as a result, the women’s team has brought in more revenue than the men’s team over the last three financial years. It would be especially hard these days to argue the men are more valuable to the federation.

But Cordeiro was also never going to be able to respond to this lawsuit the same way Gulati did. When Cordeiro ran for the U.S. Soccer presidency in 2017, he said he supported equal pay for the women, and would be willing to make changes without having to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements.

To some extent, Cordeiro has made some of the progress he promised. The USWNT’s current CBA was negotiated before Cordeiro was elected but the federation has stopped scheduling games on artificial turf for the women, which was one of the most indefensible discrepancies in how U.S. Soccer treated the men’s and women’s teams. The women have also been flown on charter flights that in the past had only been reserved for the men’s team.

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Because of the progress under Cordeiro – as slow as it may have been – the newest lawsuit took the federation and many outsiders by surprise. The relationship between the two sides had been improving and players felt they were being heard more, especially once the federation stopped scheduling their games on artificial turf.

The main issue, it seems, still comes down to compensation – and that will be much harder for Cordeiro to address. The women are paid via salaries with small bonuses while the men are paid entirely via larger bonuses – and no one wants to change that basic compensation structure. What equal pay would look like is not a straightforward question.

Cordeiro himself expressed support for making the bonuses between the men’s and women’s teams the same. But the women agreed to a contract in 2017 that affords them bonuses not equal to the men. What the players and Cordeiro need to figure out is if there is a way to rectify the issue without ripping their current contract up and starting a whole new round of contract negotiations. Renegotiating a new contract wouldn’t cut down on the legal squabbles that Cordeiro wants to avoid.

“I want to assure everyone in our soccer family that U.S. Soccer and its Women’s National Team players remain partners with shared goals and aspirations,” Cordeiro writes. “For that reason, we are very optimistic as to what is possible, and our commitment to reaching a common ground is absolute.”

Only time will tell if this shift in tone and its inherent optimism pays off, not just for U.S. Soccer but for the players of the USWNT.

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, will be released April 2019. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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