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In stunning lawsuit, U.S. women’s soccer team challenges pay, working conditions

The U.S. women's soccer team hopes to defend its World Cup title this year. But on Friday, International Women’s Day, all 28 team members filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, arguing they suffered years of institutionalized gender discrimination--and lower pay. Elizabeth Mitchell of the New York Daily News and soccer star Julie Foudy join Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In just about three months, the U.S. women's national soccer team is scheduled to defend its world championship, when the women's World Cup kicks off in France.

    But, today, in a stunning move on International Women's Day, all 28 members of the team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.

    As Amna Nawaz tells us, the lawsuit is by far the most ambitious move by this team yet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In their filing, the players said there had been years of institutionalized gender discrimination. That meant far lower pay, they said.

    Players such as Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd also said in the lawsuit, their working conditions training, facilities, medical treatment and more were all affected by this alleged discrimination.

    Elizabeth Mitchell covers this for The New York Daily News, and she joins me now from Austin, Texas.

    Elizabeth, thanks for being with us.

    Let's start with how we got here. There was a complaint filed with the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a few years ago. How did that lead to this lawsuit?

  • Elizabeth Mitchell:

    Really, it led directly because what happened, was when the EEOC started looking into it, they needed documents from U.S. Soccer, and — stating the women's revenue, and they were unable to get them.

    And so this is really trying to force discovery of those documents to figure out exactly what the women's revenue has been, not only now, but how much it has been in the past.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, there are some numbers they include in the lawsuit. As you mentioned, it's not just about the disparity in pay, but a lot of it is about the pay disparity.

  • Elizabeth Mitchell:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to read you part of what they said in the lawsuit. They said: "The pay structure was so skewed in 2015, the men's national team earned $9 million for losing in the round of 16. The women earned only $2 million for wining the entire tournament."

    Is it really that bad? Do we know why the pay disparity is as big as it is?

  • Elizabeth Mitchell:

    Oh, yes, it's terrible.

    And, really, it starts at the top. There's an international federation called FIFA, which you might have seen in the news because there was a lot of investigation of corruption within FIFA.

    But it is essentially a boy's — I mean, it is a boy's club. It's had a lot of sexism in it going back. And they never broke out how much the women were making there. And that — FIFA hands money down to U.S. Soccer. And so some of that discriminatory also gets handed down.

    But, yes, those numbers are accurate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, help us understand now what is it the women want to see happen as a result of the lawsuit? And is there a chance they could be successful?

  • Elizabeth Mitchell:

    Oh, yes, I think actually this is this best chance for success.

    The main thing they want to know is, what do we make? I mean, it is a very weird situation, because they don't get to see their economics. It goes through this private company called Soccer United Marketing. And that entity has all the information about how much revenue comes in through sponsorships and all the rest, but they have never broken it out for the women.

    And so the women want to say, OK, let us be paid equally. If we make less, let's get paid less, but let us look what we're bring into the Federation. And one thing, let's make sure all of our work conditions, our training, all the rest, there, we have equality, because that's the way to build the sport going forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth mentioning this isn't the first time they have been fighting to equalize the pay and other conditions.

    Very briefly, Elizabeth, have they made any progress over the many years?

  • Elizabeth Mitchell:

    Oh, yes.

    I mean, there has been some progress, particularly when they renegotiated their contract. And that was under a threat of lawsuit as well. But they were able to get some boost in their compensation for some of their public appearances. They were able to get a little increase on the prize money, a little increase on some of the benefits of the training facilities, but not enough.

    And it is the only league as well, the only U.S. federation, that has this commercial arm that is taking in the profits, and then telling the women and men what they make.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This lawsuit was filed today, so we will see where it leads.

    Elizabeth Mitchell of The New York Daily News, thanks very much.

  • Elizabeth Mitchell:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And let's get some reaction from Julie Foudy, the former captain of the U.S. women's national team. She is a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist. She's now a soccer commentator and reporter for ESPN and hosts a podcast called "Laughter Permitted," which focuses on women pioneers in sports.

    She joins us now on the phone.

    Julie, thank you so much for being with us.

    Let's just start with your reaction. What did you think when you first heard about the lawsuit today?

  • Julie Foudy:

    I thought, interesting timing, right before the World Cup, of course.

    And it's bold and brave, which is pretty much trademarks of this team for so long. And what I love about this current group is, they understand that their role in so many ways is to pioneer, in a sense, for the other female athletes out there, whether it be the USA hockey team, or — I mean, you go down the list of national governing bodies that aren't doing enough, I think, for their women's teams, and they recognize that they have an opportunity to set the path for these other teams. And they're going to do just that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth noting, back in 1999, you and your teammates won the World Cup. Just a few months later, you go on strike for equal pay.

    Did you think this was a conversation you were still going to be having 20 years later?

  • Julie Foudy:

    No. No.

    And this is actually a conversation, when we do have it now 20 years later with the current team, I say, oh, my gosh, are we still fighting these same fights? And I think that's what it's about.

    Obviously, pay equity is one piece of it, but the thing that the players, that really rattle them, is little things that are low-hanging fruit that they had to fight for even more recently in terms of equal per diem on a daily basis to the men's team.

    And, as we know, this is a team that's winning, that is making money, that's celebrated in so many different ways, and has so many positives around it. We have an opportunity to be bold and brave here and do something that could be precedent-setting for the rest of female athletes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Julie Foudy, thank you so much for making the time to talk to us.

  • Julie Foudy:

    My pleasure.

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