Opinion: U.S. women can chase World Cup title, fight for equality at same time

Of course, it would have been easier for the U.S. women to wait. To have the focus be solely on the World Cup, the biggest tournament of their careers, and not have all these questions about why they are suing their employers.

But the U.S. women don’t do easy. They never have.

Going back almost to its formation, the U.S. women’s team has been pushing to be treated – and compensated – like its male counterpart. Months after winning the World Cup, the “99ers” went on strike over the pay gap. Three years ago, the women left open the possibility of boycotting the Rio Olympics over differences in travel and working conditions.

Now the women – every member of the national team — are embroiled in a federal lawsuit in which they allege that, nearly 30 years after they first took up this fight, U.S. Soccer continues to pay “only lip service to gender equality and continues to practice gender-based discrimination against its champion female employees.”

It’s a fight with broader social implications, and one that runs the risk of being a distraction during the World Cup. But leaving the fight for another time, or another team, isn’t an option.

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United States forward Megan Rapinoe bumps fists with a fan during training for the FIFA Women's World Cup. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)

“There have been women who have pioneered and paved the way for me to be able to sit here in front of you right now and have a platform,” goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said. “I wouldn’t be doing my job or holding myself to the standard I see fit if I just shut my mouth and played the game. That’s just not a good enough excuse.

“Does the timing suck? Yeah,” Harris added. “But when is the timing ever good to try to close these freaking gaps that are so massive?”

The lawsuit stems from a March 2016 complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by current World Cup players Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, as well as former national team member Hope Solo. Despite reaching an agreement the following year on a new collective bargaining agreement that addressed some of the disparities, the EEOC complaint remained active.

After three years of no action, the rest of the national team joined Morgan, Lloyd, Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn in filing the federal lawsuit. It was dated March 8 – which just happens to be International Women’s Day, a day that began to demand the right to work without discrimination.

“I don’t think we do anything flippantly or anything without sort of a broad understanding of what we’re doing,” Rapinoe said. “A big portion of the lawsuit is all of this non-monetary or non-compensation pieces that will hopefully set the team up to be better and be bigger in the future.”

The lawsuit alleges that U.S. Soccer has violated the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits women from being paid less than men for the same work, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, religion or national origin.

The women claim that some of them earn 38 percent of what members of the men’s national team do, despite the women having considerably more success. The 2015 World Cup title was the third for the U.S. women, who also won the Olympic gold medal in 2012 and 2008.

The men, in contrast, failed to qualify for last summer’s World Cup and have also missed the last two Olympics.

But the lawsuit isn’t just about money. The women allege that their games are not marketed as aggressively as the men’s games are, thus reducing their revenue potential. They say they are made to play on fields with artificial turf or poorly laid sod – conditions to which the men are rarely, if ever, subjected. They also say the men get better accommodations when they travel, including chartered jets rather than commercial flights.

U.S. Soccer has denied all of the allegations. It says any differences are not the result of discrimination but because the men’s and women’s teams are independent entities with different collective bargaining agreements. It also says some differences, like the use of chartered jets, is because of requirements from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.

The next hearing is July 15 – eight days after the World Cup final – but it will take months, if not years, to resolve. While the women say the case will not be a distraction while they’re in France, it is bound to come up – just as it did during their send-off tour and at their media day.

Of course, it would have been easier to wait. But for how long? Next year is the Olympics and soon after that it will be time to qualify for the next World Cup. Before you know it, another decade has passed and the gender gap is still right where it’s always been.

“You’re willing to put the work in because you know that it’s the right thing to do,” Sauerbrunn said. “There’s been too much time. It’s been too long. If people don’t take up the mantel and they don’t fight, and this thing stagnates, it’s not good for anybody."

The timing of this lawsuit might be less than ideal. Staying silent, however, would have been even worse.  

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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