The veteran leaders of the U.S. women’s soccer team gathered in a room after practice late Sunday afternoon, March 3, for one final conference call with their lawyers and advisers about the bombshell they planned to drop at week’s end.
The tone was serious as stars such as Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and a handful of teammates reviewed the stakes one more time. They acknowledged that the burden would be great. So, too, was the risk, just 93 days from their opening match in the World Cup.
But that was largely the point.
So, when the news broke the following Friday, on International Women's Day, that all 28 members of the squad had filed a class action, gender discrimination lawsuit against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, it was the timing - as much as the substance of their grievances - that shocked.
Rather than wait until after the global quadrennial, the defending World Cup champions chose the run-up to the tournament to pick up a megaphone and shout, via a 25-page legal complaint, that they are being treated unfairly because of their gender. Despite doing essentially the same job as the U.S. men's national team, the suit states, they are receiving inferior wages, working conditions and investment in their game from U.S. Soccer. And it isn't fair to them, isn't fair to the women who preceded them on the U.S. national team and isn't fair to the girls who will follow them.
This isn't what champion athletes normally do - launch a public fight with their boss at the most critical stage of their athletic preparation, when their focus is on shutting out distractions, rather than actively creating them.
But increasingly, it's what female athletes are doing - fighting one battle on the field of play, whether soccer pitch, ice hockey rink, wrestling mat or boxing ring, while taking on another battle off it to make their sport better, fairer and more equitable.
It's what Rapinoe, 33, who helped the U.S. women to the 2012 Olympic gold medal and 2015 World Cup championship, calls "the double-earn."
"I have to do everything I have to do on the field. Then, I have to do everything else to prove to you that that's enough," she says. "I have to somehow justify myself or convince you that what I just did was amazing. And I already just did it."
Nonetheless, the months and years spent wrangling with U.S. Soccer have given Rapinoe and her teammates a crash course in negotiating skills, legal tactics and marketing strategy. In it, she has found a silver lining.
"It's wild, but I now have so many more skills than a lot of these male athletes, because they don't have to think about anything, and they don't think about anything!" said Rapinoe, a co-captain of the U.S. team. "From age 14 or 15, these guys are not thinking about, nor do they have to think about, anything other than being an amazing soccer player. That's their job; that's their sole focus."
In many ways, the women's soccer team's "double-earn" mirrors the multiple roles and responsibilities that women shoulder in so many aspects of life as employees, managers, mothers and caregivers. So, it's no surprise that Rapinoe uses familiar rhetoric to describe the juggling act she and her teammates are performing.
Well before the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in all federally funded education programs, and in the near half century since, it has rarely been enough for female athletes to succeed at their sport. Many have also had to demand the right to play, campaign for decent equipment and quality coaching and often push back against physical, sexual or emotional abuse while competing.
Billie Jean King was the pioneer among them, threatened with being banned from Grand Slam events and stripped of her ranking by the all-male tennis establishment for launching a women's circuit in the early 1970s, in concert with eight other female touring pros, to ensure they had a place to compete.
There is a direct line from King's advocacy to that of Venus Williams, who took up the mantle of equal pay and convinced Wimbledon, the most prestigious of the sport's four majors, to pay its male and female champions the same in 2007. There is a direct line, in turn, to the women's soccer team's decades-long fight for better pay and working conditions.
And it extends like a strand of DNA to Australia's women's soccer team, whose leaders have sought the Americans' advice in seeking better pay, as well as the 200 female hockey players who announced May 2 that they would boycott all North American league play until teams provide sustainable wages. Three weeks later, they formed a players' union to bolster their push for a viable North American pro league.
It's not a popularity contest; it's about doing the right thing," King wrote in an email exchange, asked how she weighed the risk-vs.-reward of so forcefully advocating change during her prime playing years. "You have to have a vision. And you have to understand that the role of your generation is to be the pioneer. . . . In the end, you are just trying to make the world a better place for your sport."
Kendall Coyne Schofield, a member of the United States' 2018 Olympic gold medal-winning ice hockey team, said the national team and its Canadian rivals alike have drawn inspiration from King and gleaned tactical advice from the U.S. women's soccer team.
"They gave us hope that we can do this too," said Coyne Schofield, 27, who was a leader in the U.S. women's hockey team's 2017 faceoff with USA Hockey. After threatening to boycott that year's world championship unless salaries and support improved, the women won concessions, the world title and Olympic gold, toppling Canada in what proved the most thrilling team competition of the 2018 Winter Games.
"It's time-consuming, and it's stressful and scary," Coyne Schofield said of the struggle to make competing for her country and professional team economically viable. "It's very hard to train at your highest level with all these emotions inside of you. You just want to go to your training session and come out and know everything is going to be OK and not have to continue the fight and talk about what we need more or what wasn't available after practice.
"There has to come a time when women's sports is not an afterthought; it is a thought alongside men's sport," Coyne Schofield said. "When are we done being pioneers?"
Since the U.S. women's national soccer team was founded in 1985, its mantra - in addition to winning - has been to leave the game in a better place for the next generation.
It was an expression of how much champions such as Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy respected the game and cherished the chance to play. They craved every opportunity to get better, treating every practice as if a World Cup were at stake.
They loved the game so much, they would have played for free. The thrill of playing alongside girls and women just like them, who reveled in the sweat and hard knocks of an all-out training session, was enough. The privilege of representing their college and country was its own reward.
In a business sense, they were penalized for that passion.
They were just kids, many of them, when they joined the fledgling U.S. women's national squad. Hamm was just 15 when she made her national team debut in 1987; Lilly was 16. They thought the $10 per diem they received on road trips was great. They didn't even mind competing in hand-me-down uniforms from the U.S. men's under-20 squad, which looked okay after a few nips and tucks, even if they had to launder them themselves.
"In a sense, we were happy, and we were grateful, which were two things [U.S. Soccer] kept telling us - that we should be happy and grateful," Lilly said.
That is how institutionalized gender discrimination begins. And no amount of incremental increases in salary and per diem - particularly when the salary is zero - will ever make it right. Not even after 33 years, the threat of a boycott and a periodic cycle of contentious contract talks and partial appeasements.
"How many days do you have?" Foudy quipped when asked for examples of inequities, small and large, between the U.S. women's teams she played on from 1987 to 2004 and the men's. "It was constant. We had come on the team as youngsters, and $10 seems great as a college kid. Then you get into the real world and have to make a living and pay rent, and you realize, 'This isn't working! I have to pay rent! And why are we sitting in middle coach seats on every flight and staying in roach motels? And why are the men getting more?'"
The economics of representing the United States were so strained for Foudy, who helped lead the team to two World Cup championships and two Olympic golds during her 17-year tenure, that the Stanford graduate couldn't have afforded to continue after the inaugural World Cup for women in 1991 if Reebok hadn't come forward, out of the blue, and offered her $30,000 to wear its shoes.
"That was huge for me," recalled Foudy, 48, now an analyst for ESPN. "I wasn't making any money from other sources."
FIFA, the sport's governing international body, was so tepid about that inaugural women's World Cup that it didn't confer its World Cup brand on the event, naming it instead the 1991 World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup. The United States defeated Norway, 2-1, in the final and flew home from China triumphant, only to be met at the airport by a smattering of relatives and handful of reporters. Few knew of their achievement because the scant TV coverage was limited to pre-dawn snippets on cable outlets. So, one week later, Adidas took out a full-page congratulating the American women, since their victory had escaped notice of all but a handful of major newspapers.
It wasn't until 1995, in the run-up to the Olympic debut for women's soccer at the 1996 Atlanta Games, that Lilly recalls realizing that she and her teammates had the right to get paid and to sign individual sponsorship deals.
That's when their battle to narrow the wage gap with the men started in earnest. It took a threatened boycott of the 1996 Olympics to force U.S. Soccer to award the women bonuses for a gold or silver medal. The organization's initial plan had been to give the women a bonus only if they won gold, while giving the men's team bonuses for each victory in the tournament.
"I don't want to say we were naive," Lilly said. "We just didn't know."
Every iteration of the U.S. women's soccer team since has continued the push for equity.
But for all its success on the pitch - four Olympic gold medals, three World Cup championships and the No. 1 ranking entering this year's tournament, which gets underway Friday in France - the women's decades-long campaign to be treated fairly by U.S. Soccer continues.
The lawsuit filed in March outlines their case against "ongoing, institutionalized gender discrimination," starting with pay, but extending to training, travel, marketing and promotion, medical personnel and support staff. Under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it seeks corrective action as well as financial and punitive damages.
It's difficult to compare the salaries of the U.S. men's and women's soccer teams because the men are paid for individual performances, while the women have negotiated year-round salaries via a collective bargaining agreement.
Yet, while direct comparisons are difficult, the suit provides snapshots to illustrate ways in which the women earn considerably less than the men, who have never won an Olympic medal or advanced past the quarterfinals of a World Cup.
A women's player earns a base of $3,600 per game while a men's player earns $5,000. In a hypothetical season of 20 friendlies where each U.S. team went undefeated, a women's base salary is already over $30,000 less than her male counterpart.
The maximum bonus for a women's player is $1,350 per game. Male players can earn a maximum bonus of $12,625 per game depending on the level of their opponent, and the average bonus is $8,166. On average, the men would each earn $263,320 apiece. The women, by contrast, would earn $99,000 - or 38 percent of the men's income.
The differences in pay start when the roster is decided and carry through the end of the season. Men earned $55,000 for making the roster of the U.S. World Cup team in 2014. Women, by contrast, earned $15,000 for making the roster of the 2015 U.S. World Cup team.
U.S. Soccer awarded the men's team a $5.375 million performance bonus for losing in the round of 16 of the 2014 World Cup. It awarded the women $1.725 million for winning the 2015 World Cup.
U.S. Soccer has defended the inequity in World Cup bonuses by pointing to FIFA, which makes far more money from men's World Cups than women's. That imbalance is reflected in the lump sums FIFA gives participating nations based on their tournament performance.
Heading into the 2019 Women's World Cup, the maker of Luna nutrition bars announced it would cover the shortfall and pay the 23 women who made the squad $31,250 each - the difference between U.S. Soccer's roster bonuses for men and women.
"Equality can't wait for someday," the company said in its announcement.
In the view of many current and former women's team members, it was one more example of U.S. Soccer's inertia on equity issues - opting to pass on systemic wage discrimination rather than make them whole, as a corporate sponsor chose to.
It's similarly difficult to compare the revenue each team brings to the federation.
While the men's team historically generates more revenue for U.S. Soccer, the women eclipsed them in the fiscal year encompassing their rout of Japan in the 2015 Women's World Cup final, which was watched on television by 25.4 million in the United States, a U.S. record for any soccer match, men's or women's.
The women's triumph and the 10-game victory tour that followed helped transform U.S. Soccer's projected net loss of $429,929 that year to a $17.7 million profit, according to the organization's own financial documents.
U.S. Soccer has dismissed that data point as cherry-picking and not reflective of the overall picture.
As for the lawsuit, U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro said he was "surprised" by it. He noted that the governing body had increased its investment in the women's team, as well as youth programs for girls, and reiterated the organization's commitment to equity.
Regardless of the data set, any comparison of revenue is flawed unless the two products --men's and women's soccer - are marketed and promoted with the same effort and expense. That has never been the case.
Notes Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center: "You can't just say, 'The market doesn't want to pay women as much without asking, 'How much are the women being supported? Publicity is a part of their claim."
According to veteran U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn, the players filed the suit after concluding the federal wage complaint she and four others filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 wasn't producing results as quickly as they'd hoped.
"We have been inspired by Billie Jean King, Venus Williams and those who came before us and fought for equal prize money," said Sauerbrunn, 33. "We keep building off each other, and we're just hoping that it becomes something that people and companies and federations can't ignore."
Chaudhry believes the players have a strong legal case. Many of their complaints - the inferior playing fields, lack of charter flights, insufficient promotion and publicity compared with their male counterparts - echo the recurring discrimination Chaudhry has litigated at every level of education for girls.
"As somebody who has worked on Title IX my whole career, sadly, this is nothing new," she said. "Yet I think we're seeing more and more female athletes stepping up and talking about these issues at the professional level. . . . I really don't see how the federation justifies this blatant discrimination."
In Chaudhry's experience, the decision to file a lawsuit is typically the last resort, when all other options have been exhausted,
"Fighting for equality is work," Chaudhry said. "It is work that is uncompensated, on top of the unequal pay that you're getting. And it is emotional labor. That's something that doesn't get talked about a lot. These women deserve our gratitude for taking a stand."
At a recent event in New York, second-class treatment proved fodder for nostalgia - even a few jokes - when several members of the 1999 World Cup championship gathered to help promote a women's tournament in Cary, North Carolina. The International Champions Cup will pit the Carolina Courage of the National Women's Soccer League against three elite European clubs, a two-day event that reflects the global growth of women's soccer.
During their panel discussion, "Mavericks: How the '99 Women Inspired a Nation," former defender Kate Sobrero Markgraf said she still delights in telling her three children, when they ask what was her biggest injury, "You!," cackling with laughter. That's because for years, U.S. Soccer treated pregnancy as a career-ending injury and didn't develop a maternity-leave policy, under pressure from players, until contentious contract talks in 1999.
Nonetheless, after giving birth to twins in 2009 Markgraf was initially informed her contract wasn't being renewed and had to fight the governing body for the right to prove she could regain her fitness.
Swapping memories afterward, former goalkeeper Briana Scurry recalled a U.S. Soccer official explaining to her that the reason the men's per diem was invariably $20 or $30 more than the women's was because "men eat more."
Brandi Chastain, whose penalty kick clinched the 1999 World Cup victory following 120 scoreless minutes against China, remembers how thrilled she had been eight years prior, when she received a thank-you note from U.S. Soccer with a check for $500 for her part in winning the 1991 championship. It seemed like a fortune.
Now 50, Chastain also lamented the lingering gender discrimination she routinely confronts as a youth coach, pushing to ensure the girls' teams aren't always assigned to the patchy fields and the least convenient practice times.
In that vein, she and her former teammates voiced unqualified support for the current U.S. women's team in its fight against U.S. Soccer.
"It's unfortunate they had to file a lawsuit," Scurry said. "But sometimes that's the only way you can get somebody to pay attention."
Foudy, in a telephone interview, voiced awe and admiration.
"This is a huge thing to take on right before a World Cup," Foudy said. "I'm not sure we would have done it; we wouldn't have had the courage to take it on. We would have thought it was too much of a distraction."
For the 2019 U.S. women’s squad, the timing is perfect. So they headed to France to defend their World Cup title, while the legal process unfolds at home.
A victory on the pitch would deliver the U.S. women's fourth World Cup championship.
A victory in court would deliver something more profound. A new era. Or, the start of a new era, at least, in which the country's best female soccer players have only one job. And being great at that job is justification enough for a fair wage and equitable support.
Said Morgan, 29, the team’s biggest star and most dynamic offensive playmaker: “My hope is that we have equality within football in my career, but I think ultimately it would be good in my lifetime. Even if I don’t reap the benefits, my hope is that the next generation’s sole focus is what it’s meant to be: And that is to play football.”