The timing of Friday’s bombshell women’s soccer news surely wasn’t an accident. In choosing International Women’s Day to file a gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation, the 28 members of the national team named as plaintiffs inescapably put their actions in the larger context of the ongoing fight for workplace equality.
Yet the timing that makes this move so fascinating looks ahead, not back. The Women’s World Cup tournament is just three months away, and in taking on this battle in such a public manner, in risking the distraction that comes with this public discussion, the players have made it clear that they consider the issue bigger than their current circumstances.
To which I say, bravo. Because if not now, when? When else could this vitally important topic get as much attention as it will draw across a summer slate of international games?
“My first reaction was like, ‘Wow, now? Now?’ ” Julie Foudy said from an airport in California, where she was departing to cover the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. One career ago, the ESPN commentator and newest podcast launcher (“Laughter Permitted,” available on all platforms) was a cornerstone of the US women’s national team, which she helped win two World Cup titles and one Olympic gold medal.
“Because it’s bold,” Foudy said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of distraction, and having lived it, it’s constant.
“Now your employer, who you’ve sued, is the one you’re going to the World Cup with. They do everything for you, flights, everything. Not that they wouldn’t do it, but it’s a contentious battle.
“But my second reaction is how bold and brave. It would have been very easy to say, as we probably would have, ‘Let’s just wait, let’s wait three months, put the marker down after the World Cup and come out strong there.’ ”
Yet, in understanding their position as some of the best-known, most recognizable, and in many cases best-compensated female team athletes in the world, they want to use that status for female athletes everywhere. As much as they believe fiercely in the specific merits of their own case, looking for support from the USSF for everything from salaries to bonuses to facilities equivalent to the support provided the men’s national team, building this narrative around one of the two most prominent women’s tournaments of the year matters.
“We’re kind of a visible team — people watch us play and know our names,” Becky Sauerbrunn told ESPNW at the end of the recent SheBelieves Cup. “So I think it’s important that we kind of take that on, and we show that we are empowered women and that we will fight for things that we believe in, like pay equity.
“It’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s one that we gladly take on. And it’s something we’re going to keep trying to push and push and push until we feel that everything is equal. That’s far away from here, but that’s what we’re fighting toward.”
As to the merits of their case, there are some who will never see the women’s side, who fall immediately back on the notion that their male counterparts, and the men’s game in general, raises more revenue, and thus deserves more payout.
But why is that true? In part because so much more money and effort has been put into marketing the men’s game, into promoting the men’s game, and into broadcasting the men’s game. The fact that FIFA, the international governing body with an indisputable history of mismanagement and misogyny that influences US salary structure because of how it passes down revenue streams, sets ticket prices for women’s World Cup games lower than men’s is but one small indication of how that happens.
“I think what happened is that as a player you get to a point where — US Soccer has made some great strides, go back 20 years we were fighting publicly and viciously with them, they have made some great strides — but this team, what I like about them, is that it’s not enough to make a stride and not go the whole distance,” said Foudy.
“That’s where they ended up, where they said the [previous] EEOC complaint is going nowhere, it’s stagnating, we can either do nothing about it or we can press on and be precedent-setting not just for other female athletes in this country but globally.
“A lot of other soccer nations around the world have taken their cue from this women’s team. I think they take that responsibility to heart, knowing that they have a chance to do something that a lot of others haven’t.”
The message has been underscored in some notably important corners. A statement from the men’s national team’s players’ association, said it “fully supports the efforts of the US Women’s National Team Players to achieve equal pay. Specifically, we are committed to the concept of a revenue-sharing model to address the US Soccer Federation’s ‘market realities’ and find a way towards fair compensation.”
Tennis star Serena Williams, asked about it during a recent tournament in California, voiced support as well.
“I think at some point, in every sport, you have to have those pioneers, and maybe it’s the time for soccer,” she said. “I’m playing because someone else stood up, and so what they are doing right now is hopefully for the future of women’s soccer.”
The woman most famous for standing up for the likes of Williams, trail blazer Billie Jean King, took to Twitter to make her opinion known.
“Sports are a microcosm of society,” she wrote. “What is happening with the @USWNT is happening in the workplace. The time has come to give these athletes what they deserve: equality.”
No better time to have this discussion.