Photo by Brent Flanders
Sports / Soccer

Twenty Years of Success and Inequity: The USWNT’s Fight for Gender Equality Continues

In just three months the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) hopes to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of its infamous 1999 World Cup win by capturing a fourth World Cup title at the 2019 edition of the tournament. As players and fans reflect back on the legacy of the 99ers, they see a group of women whose accomplishments catalyzed the expansion of the game in America and whose demeanor revolutionized the way the world views female soccer players, and female athletes in general.

Since its inception in 1991, the women’s national team has battled, on and off the field, to garner the same resources and recognition that the men had. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta marked the first time in history that women’s soccer would be a part of the games. The players selected to the Olympic squad saw this as an opportunity to grow the game in the States. But an opportunity to represent their country on home soil, with the world watching, also meant that they were in possession of an unprecedented platform—a platform that they could use to call attention to the inequities their employer, the US Soccer Federation, had forced them to accept in the program’s early stages.

The players had one simple demand. They wanted the same contracts that the United States Men’s National Team (MNT) players were receiving—bonuses for any medal won. Following the guidance of Billie Jean King, former Tennis World No. 1 and American champion for gender equality, the players entered a contract dispute, threatening to sit out if their demands weren’t met. Nine players, including team captain, Julie Foudy, would make the bold decision not participate in training camp, but would eventually join the team after reaching a compromise with US Soccer—bonuses for a gold or a silver.

The team would go on to attract record crowds for soccer matches in America, going unbeaten to capture the gold in front of 78,000 fans. To the disappointment of the players, those 78,000 were pretty much all that saw the gold medal match. The global platform they had hoped to take advantage of was diminished by an almost complete absence of live television coverage. Nonetheless, the team’s performance created a sense of national unity around women’s athletics, something that had never really been done before in the US or anywhere for that matter. This national enthusiasm didn’t falter in the three years leading up to the next major tournament, hosted again by the US.

At the 1999 Women’s World Cup, attendance numbers shattered the records that had been set previously. This time, no one, especially not the news outlets, were foolish enough to turn away from the revolution that was happening before America’s eyes. The opening game in Giant’s Stadium drew a bigger crowd than the Giants themselves were drawing at the time. The team went undefeated through group stages and garnered presidential recognition when the Clintons appeared in the locker room to congratulate them after defeating Germany in the quarterfinals. The semi final win over Brazil drew 73,000 spectators to Stanford stadium, and on July 10th, 1999, over 90,000 fans packed into the Rose Bowl stadium to watch the final between the US and China.

Those that weren’t in the stadium had their eyes glued to television coverage of the event. Ahead of the match, Wendy Gebauer, a member of the inaugural 1991 team, told the cameras, “This is more than a game. This is a defining moment in women’s sports history.” She was right.

After 120 minutes and an infamous round of penalty kicks, the 99ers had done much more than capture America’s second World Cup title. They captured the hearts and minds of the entire nation and gained a level of stardom rarely obtained by female athletes. With that, came an enormous amount of pressure from which they never—not once—wavered.  Like all professional athletes, their place in the spotlight, and thus the breadth of their platform, was highly contingent on their success on the field. In order to keep gender equality at the forefront of national discourse, and continue to be an inspirational force for women and girls all over the world, winning was imperative. That was, and is, the reality of the USWNT. And no team to date, including this 2019 World Cup selection, has shown consternation in the face of it.

This past week, as the 2019 World Cup squad continued its final preparations in Los Angeles, members of the 1999 team, and forty other national team alumni, were in attendance for a celebration of the past and future of United States women’s soccer. Current players, most of whom have already carved their own names in soccer history, found themselves anxious knowing that these legends were amongst the onlookers. The 99ers were honored at halftime of the match against Belgium. It was an expression of gratitude for a group of incredible women who redefined what it meant to be a member of the USWNT and who made pivotal strides in the fight for gender equality.

Today, that fight is still going on, and the women who dawn the stars and stripes are still at the forefront of it. Twenty-eight members of the USWNT—all of whom were selected to head coach Jill Ellis’ January camp pool—filed a discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation in the United States District Court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit, filed on International Women’s Day and two days after the SheBelieves Cup, significantly escalates the conflict that took root during the 1996 Olympics and signals a high level of unity amongst the players.

The faces of the lawsuit are four of US Soccer’s biggest names. Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on March 30, 2016. On February 5, 2019, the EEOC issued them Notice of Right to Sue.

The arguments being made in the lawsuit echo those made in most gender discrimination and Title IX cases. What sets this case apart, however, is the drastic disparity in success between the women and their male counterparts, even when measured by revenue generation. The premise of the lawsuit reads:

…Despite the fact that the these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts. This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players—with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions.

The portfolio of evidence that the WNT has put forth in the suit appears convincing. The banal points of defense that the Federation has historically employed to justify its discriminatory actions are directly addressed in the suit. The fan engagement, revenue generation, sponsorships, and trophies all speak for themselves. The Federation, instead, might cling to the different pay structures between the women and men—sanctioned by the teams’ respective collective bargaining agreements—as their primary defense. The men operate on a pay-for-play system, while the players on the regular WNT roster receive base salaries, modest game bonuses, severance pay for players cut from the roster and half-pay for those who take maternity leave.

On the whole, the data published by the US Soccer Federation and analyzed by the New York Times show that the pay gap between the men and the women is shrinking. But this has little to do with the Federation’s modest compromises. It has more to do with the women’s consistent success—three World Cups bringing them frequent bonuses—bonuses that still don’t mount up to the money “earned” by MNT players that weren’t eligible for bonuses in 2018, given they did not qualify for their World Cup.

The WNT will look to add another World Cup trophy to the body of evidence they have presented in their lawsuit. But the players don’t want to reduce their campaign in France to solely that. With their performance and their dispute against the Federation, they want to spread the same message that they received from the 99ers when they were young athletes with national team dreams. That message according to two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup Champion, Megan Rapinoe is that, “you should fight for what you believe in. You should fight for what you earn and never give up.”

Before the team heads abroad to defend their title as World Cup Champions, they are set to play three more matches on home soil as a part of their “Send-Off Series.” They will deliver that message to the young players and fans that travel to see them in Santa Clara, St. Louis, and New Jersey. And come this summer, they will look to deliver it to the rest of the world each time they put on the USA kit in France.