Why U.S. Soccer loses its equal pay case against the USWNT either way

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The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Victory Parade and City Hall CeremonyPhoto by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

U.S. Soccer might have a strong legal case in the equal pay lawsuit, but the benefits of having the USWNT as its happiest employees outweighs any costs.

U.S. Soccer and the United States women’s national team do not look like they’ll be settling their pay dispute anytime soon. Both sides walked out of mediation on Wednesday, and each side released statements accusing the other of not negotiating seriously. A 2020 trial to settle the players’ lawsuit looks increasingly likely.

The players’ representative accused the federation of “determination to perpetuate fundamentally discriminatory workplace conditions and behavior.”

USSF responded by accusing the players’ representatives of “presenting misleading information to the public in an effort to perpetuate confusion.”

Basically, they’re getting nowhere. We probably should have seen this coming. From players trolling Carlos Cordeiro at the victory parade, to Cordeiro’s “fact sheet” and the players’ response, to Politico revealing that U.S. Soccer hired lobbyists to argue they’re paying the women fairly, it’s been pretty clear over the last month that neither side is interested in a negotiation. The players and federation both think they’re right and want the other side to cave on their fundamental beliefs.

Both sides seem pretty confident that they have the better legal case and they’ll be proven correct at trial. Speculating about which side actually has a better legal case is pointless until discovery is complete and all of the evidence is available. But the question I continue to have for U.S. Soccer about this case is: Why?

We don’t have to ask that question of the players, who are in a no-lose situation and have no reason to give up. Even if they lose in federal court, they have more tools than the federation to win in the court of public opinion — “Today” and its viewers are a lot more interested in hearing from the players than the federation. Additionally, the worst case financial scenario for the players is that things stay the same. On the other hand, U.S. Soccer stands to lose a lot more than money for wages on this case, and it’s not really clear why they’re taking the stance they are.

U.S. Soccer is a non-profit organization, not a business, so it ostensibly does not need to focus on maximizing profits. It does need to control its budget to keep finances in order and continue funding grassroots programs, but it also does not have executives who will get big bonus payouts for keeping wage spending low, nor does it have a fiduciary duty to shareholders.

At the same time, the women’s national team players are its most popular and most public-facing employees, and they’re doing more to drive interest in the sport than anyone else. They are directly responsible for thousands of girls deciding to pick up the sport and parents deciding to become coaches and referees, creating stronger clubs and state associations. Their success creates long-term benefits for U.S. Soccer that cannot be quantified.

Cordeiro says that U.S. Soccer’s primary goal is to make soccer the preeminent sport in the United States. The USWNT players — more than brands, broadcasters, or MLS — are U.S. Soccer’s greatest asset. Making them happy employees who evangelize the sport and U.S. Soccer’s programs, rather than antagonists, would aid the federation significantly in achieving its stated goal. U.S. Soccer seems to be preoccupied with the strength of its legal case without considering if winning said case is even a good thing for it in the long term.

It’s weird that U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to negotiate, even if it thinks the players’ council is being rude and misleading. The benefits of having the USWNT as its happiest and most loyal employees far outweigh the benefits of winning a legal argument that allows you to pay them a couple million dollars per year less than they’re asking for.

U.S. Soccer might be legally in the right — we’ll find out more as we approach trial — but who cares? Pay the players anyway.

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