U.S. Soccer: Sexist legal strategy was an 'error' in USWNT equal pay lawsuit

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The USWNT poses together before a SheBelieves Cup game against Japan wearing their warmup tops inside out to obscure the U.S. Soccer logo. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
The USWNT poses together before a SheBelieves Cup game against Japan wearing their warmup tops inside out to obscure the U.S. Soccer logo. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

After accusations of sexism and the abrupt resignation of president Carlos Cordeiro, U.S. Soccer is changing course.

In the latest back-and-forth round in the ongoing discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. women’s national team, U.S. Soccer has backed off its previous legal strategy, which was widely criticized as sexist.

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The federation, which previously argued that women are inherently inferior to men, eliminated that defense from its new documents filed Monday. References to the female players performing less-than-equal work because they have less “ability” or “skill” than male players, which U.S. Soccer argued last week, have been removed entirely.

U.S. Soccer still argued that the women’s team and the men’s team are separate from one another, but only because they have different managers, separate budgets and play in different locations — not because the women aren’t doing equal work.

“Last week’s legal filing was an error,” said acting U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone in a statement Monday. “It resulted from a fundamental breakdown in our internal process that led to offensive assertions made by the federation that do not represent our core values.”

Parlow Cone, who was promoted from the vice president role after Cordeiro resigned, said the federation had switched law firms, something Cordeiro promised in a last-ditch effort to quell criticism before he resigned. But she went a step further Monday, vowing “a comprehensive review of our internal process.”

“It is our obligation to move quickly to repair the damage that has been done,” said Parlow Cone, a former USWNT midfielder. “I am committed to addressing this issue in an honest, transparent and forthright manner.”

Cindy Parlow Cone, shown during the 2019 Women's World Cup draw, was named acting president of U.S. Soccer after Carlos Cordeiro resigned. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Cindy Parlow Cone, shown during the 2019 Women's World Cup draw, was named acting president of U.S. Soccer after Carlos Cordeiro resigned. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

USWNT responds to new filings

U.S. Soccer continued to use its other past legal arguments in a kitchen sink approach of trying every possible argument that might work, which is common in a lawsuit like this. Among them, the federation has argued that the women collective bargained for the compensation they received, although the players say they wanted equal pay during negotiations and it was rejected.

Women’s national team spokeswoman Molly Levinson hit back, saying in a statement that “USSF should stop trying to change the conversation and just change.”

“These latest filings demonstrate that USSF has jettisoned its primary legal arguments after losing sponsor and fan support for their blatant misogyny,” Levinson said. 

The federation, she added, “is instead now trying to return to the argument which the court has already rejected as ‘absurd’ — the claim that women players were paid more.”

She’s referring to months ago when a judge rejected U.S. Soccer’s argument the women were paid more and thus didn’t qualify for class certification. The judge said it was “absurd” because it failed to take into account that the rate of pay could be lower and the women could’ve worked more.

U.S. Soccer’s previous legal strategy was widely criticized

U.S. Soccer’s previous round of public legal filings, filed one week ago, ignited a firestorm of criticism as the federation argued that the USWNT did not deserve equal pay because, essentially, they are not equal to their male counterparts.

The federation argued that women have less “ability” than men because they have a lower “level of certain physical attributes, such as speed and strength.” U.S. Soccer’s attorneys, apparently realizing that they were attempting to use misogyny to win a lawsuit, preemptively argued that it wasn’t a “sexist stereotype” but “indisputable science.”

The argument itself wasn’t exactly new. After all, U.S. Soccer’s attorneys had been grilling USWNT players in depositions for months about whether they could beat men on the soccer field, excerpts of which had come out previously. But last week’s filing put the unsavory strategy in the bluntest and most blatantly sexist terms yet.

Unsurprisingly, men and women from all corners of American soccer criticized the federation’s stance. 

Former USWNT star Heather O’Reilly called U.S. Soccer’s stance “disgusting and disturbing” and called on Cordeiro to resign, as did Abby Wambach. Former USMNT player Dax McCarty called U.S. Soccer’s argument “horrifying,” while DaMarcus Beasley called it “terrible.”

Even Parlow Cone, before Cordeiro resigned, tweeted that she was “hurt and sadden by the brief USSF filed” and she disavowed “the troubling statements.”

But the final straw appeared to be the increasing number of U.S. Soccer sponsors who criticized the federation’s language and vowed to raise concerns directly. First it was Coca-Cola, who said U.S. Soccer’s comments were “unacceptable and offensive.” Soon, Deloitte, Visa, Budweiser and Volkswagen followed.

Cindy Parlow Cone wants settlement with USWNT

In the lawsuit, which was filed one year ago on International Women’s Day, the USWNT accuses U.S. Soccer of long-standing discrimination. The allegations include that the federation paid the women less and gave them worse travel accommodations than the men’s team.

Attorneys for the USWNT have proposed U.S. Soccer should pay more than $66 million in retroactive pay. But Cordeiro had argued that the federation had offered the same contract to the USWNT as the USMNT has, which representatives for the women dispute.

Notably, Cordeiro also said last week that the federation was trying to meet with USWNT players to discuss a possible settlement. As motivated as U.S. Soccer may have been to settle before, it appears the latest debacle should nudge the federation even further as the court of public opinion turns increasingly in the USWNT’s favor.

In her first substantive statement as U.S. Soccer’s president, Parlow Cone reiterated that the federation’s goal is to reach an agreement with the USWNT.

“As it relates to the lawsuit filed by the women, I offer the perspective of a former player,” she said. “I know how important it is for both the federation and the players to move beyond this and keep working together on what unites us. We only have one federation and one senior women’s national team. We have to work together and move forward in a positive manner toward what I know are mutual goals, growing the game and winning.

“We are still hopeful we can find a positive resolution for both sides. I look forward to working with the WNT and all parts of our soccer community to continue to grow the sport and bring us all together.”

Monday’s round of filings was the last one until a trial begins to be set into motion. Although a trial is set for May 5, postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic means it will likely be delayed.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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