Despite their recent 3-1 win against Japan at the SheBelieves Cup, the US Women’s National Team’s victory was overshadowed by its ongoing dispute with the US Soccer Federation over equal pay. What has already been a fairly acrimonious legal battle stepped up a level when the USSF’s legal defence was filed earlier this month.
The defence, filed by the USSF’s lawyers, set out that "The job of a [men’s national team player] carries more responsibility within US Soccer than the job of a [women’s national team] player.” It also argued that there was “indisputable science” that women players should receive less than their male counterparts because the men’s game “requires a higher level of skill”.
Before you check, yes we are in 2020.
Unsurprisingly, USWNT players blasted the USSF’s legal defence as “misogynistic”.
"We've sort of felt that those are some of the undercurrent feelings that they've had for a long time," star player Megan Rapinoe said referring to USSF’s legal defence. "But to see that as the argument, as blatant misogyny and sexism as the argument against us, is really disappointing.”
In a statement released by USSF President, Carlos Cordeiro, following his resignation, he said “As US Soccer moves ahead with its defence against the lawsuit by the team, I hope that our remarkable women’s players are always treated with the dignity, respect and admiration they truly deserve.”
These comments will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows, given the archaic and quite frankly offensive nature of the arguments in the USSF’s defence. Cordeiro insists he did not have a chance to properly review the defence before it was filed and that, if he had done so, he would have objected to the points raised. However, it’s all a little too late.
It isn’t just fans and commentators who have expressed dismay at the USSF’s legal strategy. Unsurprisingly, sponsors of US Soccer including, Coke, Budweiser and Visa, were quick to condemn the USSF’s defence. Coca Cola said that the comments were “unacceptable and offensive”. They said the company was “firm in its commitment to gender equality, fairness and women’s empowerment in the United States and around the world and we expect the same from our partners” – clearly a far cry from the views set out in the USSF’s defence.
None of these organisations have withdrawn their sponsorship of US Soccer yet, but relationships are likely to be tense. Sponsorship agreements often include clauses enabling brands to withdraw their sponsorship if the sponsored party does anything to bring the brand into disrepute. Whether these comments would trigger this right would depend on the wording of the contract. However, withdrawing from the sponsorship could, of course, also be interpreted as a lack for support for the women’s game rather than a protest against the organisation’s approach to this issue. Sponsors will therefore likely use their position to influence change, rather than abandon the sponsorship altogether.
Lawyers can learn a serious lesson from this case. “Win at all costs” is rarely the right attitude when it comes to litigation. With many key sponsors expressing their disapproval of USSF’s comments, USSF will now likely be wary of how it proceeds. Following the outcry over the recent defence filed, sponsors, fans, consumers and players around the world will be paying close attention to how the USSF seeks to defend the claim when it comes to trial (due on 5 May). In the circumstances it wouldn’t be surprising if they looked for settlement. USSF’s aggressive and ill-thought through defence of this case may well have undermined their position.
According to the court filing, US Soccer said it is not “a sexist stereotype” to “recognise the different levels of speed and strength required for the two jobs,” as the WNT argued, but rather, “indisputable science"