For decades now, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team has made less money for better work. The players don't just deserve equal pay. They deserve back pay — about 25 years' worth. That's how long they've been fighting the U.S. Soccer Federation over their inferior treatment. Finally, they filed a federal discrimination complaint. You know what drove them to it? The USSF called them "irrational" for asking for a raise.
Since 1991, players from Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy to Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo have combined for three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. Last year the women's team commanded a record-breaking TV audience of 25.4 million in the World Cup final, and they brought in significantly more domestic revenue than their male counterparts, who have been to just one quarterfinal in the past 50 years and have a hard time beating Jamaica. Yet the women earned just a fraction on the dollar. When they objected to this, it must have been a hormonal response.
On Thursday, their hired-gun labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler filed a wage-discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Now we'll see just how much they let their emotions run away with them.
"The USSF literally said, when the women asked for pay increases, that they were irrational," Kessler said. "They have given this issue the back of their hand. These women have felt disrespected."
The EEOC complaint feels like a turning point. Pay discrimination against such a decorated team, which has given the American public so much joy and so many iconic figures from Abby Wambach to Alex Morgan, may do that. What this team's chronic struggle for decent pay shows is that gender bias is so baked into our culture the discrepancy can't be corrected by evolution or negotiation. They've tried that. A shock to the system — the legal system — was required.
Women in this country make 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, and it's worse for women of color. The pay gap persists across all races, education levels, geography, and occupations. The wage gap is one of the most stubborn facts in American life.
"They are very aware, given their public pulpit, that they really have the ability to change the dialogue, not only in their sport but in other sports, and the workplace in general," Kessler says. "They would like to see if they can do something about it, and exercise the responsibility that comes with their notoriety."
There is a long tradition of activism on this issue on the women's soccer team. They first began fighting it in 1996. That year, the U.S. federation promised the American men a bonus for every game they won in the Olympics. It told the women, starring Hamm, they wouldn't get a bonus unless they won the gold medal.
"We were getting paid essentially about $10 a day," remembered Foudy. "We were traveling so you couldn't have a second job. The equation didn't work; you couldn't pay your rent."
When they pushed for more bonuses to support the cost of living, an official told them not to be "greedy."
"Their argument was, 'Come on, sweetie, you should be happy you get to wear a USA jersey,' " Foudy said.
In 1999, the women were the adored World Cup champions, victors over China at the Rose Bowl in that now-legendary game, yet they made waitress pay, about $15,000. Entering the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they had to go on strike to negotiate a raise. When they proposed a two-month contract for $18,000, the federation's counter-offer was $3,150 a month. Less than $800 a week.
"We said, 'Hey, you signed a $120 million contract with Nike, and we think we had a little to do with it,' " Foudy recalled.
They not only wanted better salaries for themselves, but better living conditions. They were tired of motels. There were times the federation didn't even give them transportation: They had to take a Holiday Inn Express shuttle bus to one match. Finally, they threatened to sit out the Olympics.
By 2006, they had negotiated a contract that paid their players-in-residence decent annual salaries of $70,000. It seemed like a fortune.
The attitude of USSF is that it has done its part to foster women's soccer over the past 30 years, and has increased pay steadily, and that's true enough. The women on the national team are now well-compensated, by their old standards: Their base pay is $72,000 for a slate of 20 exhibition games, and they can make $75,000 or more in World Cup and other victory bonuses. There are also provisions for maternity leave and day care.
Yet what would have happened if they hadn't demanded it?
Pay is not a stand-alone issue. The issue is what they are paid in comparison with men for identical work. And all you need to know about that can be summed up with one small fact: The women still fly coach; the men fly business class.
The 2015 women's World Cup final was the most-watched soccer game ever, men's or women's, on a U.S. network. More Americans watched that game than the NBA Finals. The USSF enjoyed a $20 million increase in revenue in 2015, thanks to the women's victory and a triumphant tour. Their own figures show they expect the women will bring in more revenue than the men this year and in 2017.
Yet Abby Wambach gets paid a fraction for winning gold than what Clint Dempsey gets paid for losing in a first round. The USSF's official response to the complaint was that it was "disappointed" in the team. Disappointed.
Well, guess what? The women are disappointed in the federation.
"I think they are saying, 'I'm tired of this argument,' " Foudy said.
We all are.