LOS ANGELES (CN) — The U.S. Women’s soccer team’s gender discrimination lawsuit deflated Friday when a federal judge in Los Angeles granted U.S. Soccer Federation summary judgment, finding women earned more in cumulative pay and rejecting claims women would have earned more under the men's team's pay structure.
The ruling — issued on International Workers Day — strikes a blow to the Women’s World Cup-holders’ fight for equal pay, which appeared to have the wind at its back after a shakeup of leadership at U.S. Soccer and a string of demonstrations by fans who chanted “Equal Pay” at live games.
Fan disappointment rained down on U.S. Soccer last month after it argued playing for the women’s national team required less skill, responsibility and ability than playing for the men’s national team.
The players — including team stars Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe — say in their lawsuit the federation has only paid lip service to stated goals of gender equity, for example by not paying women the same game bonuses men’s national team players receive.
The federation fired back in court papers, saying both national teams operate under separate and distinct collective bargaining agreements and that many women’s contracts are supplemented by their salaries in the National Women’s Soccer League.
The women ignore the full scope of their compensation, which include signing bonuses, health insurance, salaries for national team play and payments to their union for licensing rights, the federation claimed.
The federation also argued World Cup organizer FIFA — soccer’s global governing body — shares the blame for vastly smaller cash prizes for women national teams who clinch the coveted trophy.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA awarded $38 million to the French men’s national soccer team but awarded only $4 million a year later to the U.S. women’s team when they took home first place in the tournament.
The women’s team said in their own summary judgment motion an award of $67 million in damages would provide fair compensation for years of unequal pay.
But U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner found in favor of the federation, saying in a 32-page order Friday that women play under the contract for which they collectively bargained.
"The history of negotiations between the parties demonstrates that the WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT, and the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players,” the order states.
"Accordingly, plaintiffs cannot now retroactively deem their [collective bargaining agreement] worse than the MNT CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the MNT's pay-to-play terms structure when they themselves rejected such a structure."
Klausner accepted the federation’s argument that the women’s team’s Equal Pay Act claims fail since they’ve not proven U.S. Soccer paid women less than men who played in a similar capacity on the national level.
During the class period, the women’s team made $24.5 million for 111 games played while the men’s team earned $18.5 million for 87 games played — meaning the women earned more per game.
The U.S women’s team said in court papers the fact they had to play important games on artificial grass, or turf, represented a form of gender discrimination.
But Klausner rejected that argument also.
“Based on the evidence submitted by plaintiffs, a reasonable trier of fact could not conclude by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant intentionally discriminated against the WNT by subjecting them to turf surfaces more frequently than the MNT,” the order states.
Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for the USWNT, said in a statement the players were shocked by the ruling.
"We are confident in our case and steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that girls and women who play this sport will not be valued as lesser just because of their gender," Levinson said. “We have learned that there are tremendous obstacles to change; we know that it takes bravery and courage and perseverance to stand up to them.”
Levinson said the players plan to appeal the ruling.
A representative for the women’s union, the Women’s National Player Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Left remaining for trial — scheduled for June 16 in Los Angeles — is a claim that the federation discriminated against the women's team through unequal travel conditions and medical attention.
The women say U.S. Soccer spent vastly more on charter flights and expensive hotel rooms for men.
“The most common explanation provided by defendant for the charter-flight disparity is rooted in the MNT’s “competitive need.” To be sure, this is a legitimate nondiscriminatory explanation for the disparity,” the order states. “However, this explanation is “so weak” and “implausible” that a ‘reasonable fact finder could conclude that it was not an honestly held belief but rather was subterfuge for discrimination.’”
U.S. Soccer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The federation’s “equal skill” argument in court proceedings drew heavy criticism from current and former U.S. Women’s National Team players.
During a match in early March, the women’s national team players wore their jerseys inside out — to hide the U.S. Soccer crest — in protest.
The federation’s former president Carlos Cordeiro resigned from his post shortly after.
The women’s national team has won three World Cup tournaments, four Olympic gold medals and is currently ranked No. 1 in the world by soccer’s international governing body.
Meanwhile, the men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia and have never won the international competition.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.