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Sport: Jane McManus: U.S. women's national soccer team loses in a court of law, but not in the court of public opinion

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The disappointment was palpable. After inspiring packed French stadiums into chants of “Equal Pay!” last summer, a U.S. women’s national team so used to winning faced a stinging defeat. As much as this team has done to prove its case — from World Cups titles to Olympic gold medals to pulling in international support — it had not convinced Judge R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California that it was being compensated unfairly.

Megan Rapinoe, Allie Long standing in front of a crowd: Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates with the FIFA Women's World Cup Trophy following her team's victory in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between The United States of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France. © Maja Hitij/Getty Images North America/TNS Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates with the FIFA Women's World Cup Trophy following her team's victory in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between The United States of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France.

Friday, Judge Klausner, 78, handed the U.S. Soccer Federation a partial win when he agreed that the women had been paid more relative to the men, and that the women’s complaint stemmed from their own unwillingness to accept a deal that paid them more per game, a deal like the men had.

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“We are shocked and disappointed with today’s decision, but we will not give up our hard work for equal pay,” said USWNT spokesperson Molly Levinson, echoing tweets from players like Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press.

And they shouldn’t. Klausner has bought U.S. Soccer time it didn’t deserve, because he appears to be impervious to the way the market for women’s sports has changed so dramatically in recent years, and the structural forces that have kept women from being able to demand the value of their work in professional sports.

David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University, urged us to reframe this issue.

“Imagine the story is reversed,” Berri said. “The men’s team is dominating the international scene and ask then what kind of deal the men should be able to negotiate. Would you say, ‘One that’s as good as the women’s?’ ”

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For a winning men’s team, to ask for compensation equal to a mediocre women’s? What an insult!

Lindsey Darvin, a PhD associate professor of sports management and gender equity researcher at SUNY Cortland noted that the only reason the women had earned as much as the men was sheer excellence. They literally had to work twice as hard to earn as much, (although the Judge specifically rejected that claim based on number of games played rather than World Cup victories attained.)

“The issue here is that women are undervalued and have been undervalued and undervalue themselves,” Darvin said.

We will get more into that last part later.

U.S. Soccer said in a statement: “We look forward to working with the women’s national team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game both here at home and around the world. US Soccer has long been the world leader for the women’s game on and off the field, and we are committed to continuing that work to ensure our women’s national team remains the best in the world and sets the standard for women’s soccer.”

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Indulge me this analogy: In 1997, Scottie Pippen was the 122nd highest-paid player in the league and sixth highest-paid player on the Bulls roster. Everybody knew Pippen was worth well more than that. But Pippen had signed a seven-year deal for $18 million and was tied to it.

So why did he sign that deal? ESPN’s “The Last Dance” shows Pippen’s childhood home in Arkansas, where he was one of 12 kids, and tells the story of his father’s stroke and a brother’s injury, leaving both in a wheelchair.

In the documentary, which is as close to an actual sport as most of us will get these days, Pippen said he took the deal because he couldn’t risk an injury that would leave his family unprotected. And maybe because he didn’t understand his own value at the time he signed. Certainly through the way he played and all the titles the Bulls won, Pippen brought far more value to the franchise than he took from it in salary.

Legally, Pippen was locked in.

And, according to Judge Klausner, so are the women who represent the United States on the soccer field. He wrote:

“The WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT and that the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for other benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players. Accordingly, Plaintiffs cannot now retroactively deem their CBA worse than the MNT CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the MNT’s pay-to-play structure when they themselves rejected such a structure.”

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What this ignores is the unequal environment under which women have always tried to prove their value. Part of the judge’s reasoning in the decision was how the women have historically bargained with the USSF, which placed a premium on salary over the risk of bonus-based pay.

To overlook the historic disadvantage of women in sports from a bargaining position relative to men is to ignore a reality many women face in contract negotiation.

“I don’t think the women were being treated the same as men in terms of negotiation,” Berri said.

And, in those earlier collective bargaining negotiations, it’s doubtful that the women at the table envisioned a time when there would be back-to-back ticker-tape parades up Manhattan’s famed Canyon of Heroes, with youth players in team jerseys lining the route. Instead, the risk of losing a salary without a stable professional league like MLS or the Premier League means the USSF was the only option for a career.

“It’s been so heavily implicit for so long, the idea that we can give them less because they expect less,” Darvin said. “That’s how we’ve been socialized.”

The argument that the women also deserve less was a legal argument that USSF also essentially attempted, which forced the resignation of president Carlos Cordeiro in March when the filing was made.

This kind of antiquated thinking can still be found in law offices. And, depending on how it is packaged, can still prevail in court. But the tide has turned, and there is an inevitability to the strength of the USWNT’s argument of its own value.

Yes, it’s a disappointing court decision, but it’s important to realize this isn’t the last word. Like Pippen, the women who play soccer have proven their case to millions of fans, and proven the concept of women’s team sports.

Here’s to future wins, on the soccer field and at the negotiating table.

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Fist bumps and masks: Dortmund hits 4 on Bundesliga return .
BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s Bundesliga soccer season resumed Saturday after a two-month break caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Borussia Dortmund defeated Schalke 4-0 in the first Ruhr derby to be played in an empty stadium. All the games began amid strict hygiene measures. Calls and shouts from coaching staff and players, and the thud of the ball being kicked, reverberated around the mainly deserted stands. Erling Haaland scored the league’s first goal since the enforced break. The 19-year-old celebrated with a restrained dance while his teammates stayed well away.

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