Players for the U.S. women's national soccer team have filed a federal gender discrimination lawsuit seeking pay that is equitable to that of their male counterparts.
The action comes just three months before the team will defend its title at the Women's World Cup in France.
The players allege that they have been subject to ongoing "institutionalized gender discrimination," including unequal pay, despite having the same job responsibilities as players on the men's national team. The 28 members of the current national team player pool joined in the class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, which was filed Friday in federal court in Los Angeles under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The players are seeking equitable pay and treatment, in addition to damages including back pay.
"We believe it is our duty to be the role models that we've set out to be and fight to what we know we legally deserve," forward Christen Press told The Associated Press. "And hopefully in that way it inspires women everywhere."
The U.S. Women's National Team Players Association was not party to the lawsuit, but in a statement said it "supports the plaintiffs' goal of eliminating gender-based discrimination by USSF."
The U.S. Soccer Federation didn't have an immediate comment.
Pay differences are particularly apparent on the international level, namely in World Cup prize money. France, the winner in Russia last year, was awarded $38 million, while the team that wins the women's tournament in France later this year will share less than a quarter of that, just $4 million. The men's tournament generates far more revenue than the women's tournament.
The last time the U.S. men made the World Cup field, ahead of the 2014 event in Brazil, male players who were named to the roster received a $55,000 bonus, while the women received $15,000 each for making the roster in Canada, according to figures cited in past court documents. Additionally, the men shared a $2 million bonus for qualifying, while the women shared $300,000.
The USSF has maintained in the past that much of the pay disparity between the men's and women's teams results from separate collective bargaining agreements.
The women's team set up its compensation structure, which included a guaranteed salary rather than a pay-for-play model like the men, in the last labor contract. The players also earn salaries — paid by the federation — for playing in the National Women's Soccer League.
While star players on the national team, like Morgan, can make as much as their male counterparts because of endorsement deals, the disparity becomes greater for players who are not as high profile.
Terms of the collective bargaining agreements are not made public.
This is not the first time the players have sought equitable compensation and conditions.
A group of players filed a complaint in 2016 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged wage discrimination by the federation. The players maintained that players for the men's team earned far more than they did, in many cases despite comparable work.
Kathryn H. Ruemmler, a Lathan & Watkins lawyer representing the federation, wrote in a May 2016 letter to the EEOC that the USSF had invested more than $3.5 million in the National Women's Soccer League in addition to $3.45 million in salaries for women's national team players.
She said over the previous four years, women's national team players averaged almost $280,000, a figure $90,000 more than men's national team players. She also said the women receive benefits the men don't, including severance pay, medical insurance, maternity leave, child care and a relocation allowance.
Ruemmler also said men's games generated about $144 million from 2008-15, while women's matches generated $53 million, and men's games from 2013-15 were twice the average for women's matches.
Friday's lawsuit effectively ends that EEOC complaint, brought by Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd and former goalkeeper Hope Solo. The players received a right to sue letter from the EEOC last month.
The team took the fight for equality into contract negotiations and struck a collective bargaining agreement in 2017 that runs through 2021.
The players received raises in base pay and bonuses as well as better provisions for travel and accommodations, including increased per diems. It also gave the players some control of certain licensing and marketing rights. Specific details about the deal were not disclosed.
"This lawsuit is an effort by the plaintiffs to address those serious issues through the exercise of their individual rights. For its part, the USWNTPA will continue to seek improvements in pay and working conditions through the labor-management and collective bargaining processes," the players' union said.
The lawsuit filed Friday seeks "an adjustment of the wage rates and benefits for Plaintiffs Morgan, Lloyd, Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn and the class to the level these Plaintiffs and the class would be enjoying but for the USSF's discriminatory practices."
"At the heart of this whole issue we believe that it's the right thing. We believe that there has been discrimination against us," midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "And while we have fought very hard and for a long time, whether that be through our CBA or through our players association, putting ourselves in the best possible position that we can to get the best deal that we can, we still feel that we don't have what we're trying to achieve, which is equality in the workplace."
By ANNE M. PETERSON, AP Sports Writer
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