A Soccer Decision Scores a Goal for Women’s Choice

United States midfielder Julie Ertz (8) in action during the game between the US and Japan in the 2020 She Believes Cup soccer series at Toyota Stadium. Frisco, Texas, Mar 11, 2020. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Los Angeles federal judge R. Gary Klauser did two things that don’t happen often in public arguments about gender and wages: He looked at the evidence, and he took women’s choices seriously. The result was a defeat for a class-action lawsuit filed by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team against the U.S. Soccer Federation, but a victory for women’s priorities in the workplace.

USSF is the governing body for both men’s and women’s soccer, and it collectively bargains contracts separately with the unions for the men’s and women’s teams. The chief claim in the women’s-team lawsuit was that the players on the women’s team made less money than they would have if they had been paid under the men’s-team contract. That makes for a nice sound bite, but it dissolves on contact with three very important facts.

First, the women made more money than the men — a lot more. The lowest-paid member of the women’s team made more money than the highest-paid member of the men’s team. Even when computed on a per-game basis, the women made more per game than the men. This is not a lawsuit for equal pay, it is a lawsuit for more-unequal pay.

Second, yes, the women would have made more money under the men’s contract. But, as Judge Klauser’s decision noted, the men would also have made more money under the women’s contract. Under the women’s team’s legal theory, the USSF would be guilty of giving unequal pay to both teams. Maybe it’s the USSF’s labor negotiators who should be asking for more money.

Third, and most important, the women’s team made less money because they were offered the chance to play under the men’s contract terms and turned them down. This is where the case tells inconvenient truths about the labor market. The men’s team played under a “pay-to-play” contract, in which all the economic risk was borne by the players in exchange for more upside if the players made the team and the team was successful. The men’s team was not successful, so they made less money. Now, with no games being played, they are making no money at all, while the women are still getting paid.

The women’s team turned down that deal, because they valued different things: guaranteed contracts, injury protection; health, dental, and vision insurance; child-care assistance; severance pay; guaranteed rest time. In short: more security and more benefits. True, they asked for the men’s deal plus those things, on the theory that they had a legal right to both. The USSF negotiator told them, “Your proposal is basically for all of the upside plus the elimination of risk.” But that’s negotiation; what the women’s team unanimously accepted was a tradeoff of less opportunity in exchange for less risk and more benefits.

As Judge Klauser noted, both benefits and economic security have economic value, and the women’s team’s position “ignores the reality that the [men’s and women’s teams] bargained for different agreements which reflect different preferences, and that the [women’s team] explicitly rejected the terms they now seek to retroactively impose on themselves.” This is often true of the wider labor market, in which women tend – not always, but on average – to prefer jobs with more benefits and security, even when that may come at the expense of less cash or less opportunity for bonuses. Those are legitimate choices that should be respected.

Instead, we get vapid rhetoric and threats. Joe Biden tweeted to the USSF, “Equal pay, now. Or else when I’m president, you can go elsewhere for World Cup funding.” For a guy who says he respects women’s choices, Biden doesn’t seem to think they know what’s good for them. We recommend he take his hands off women’s soccer.


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