USWNT - Zero to Sixty

U.S. Soccer has been the world leader in developing and advocating for women’s soccer globally for decades. We are actively working to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the USWNT. As part of that process, we believe a variety of factors need to be considered when determining total compensation for our National Team players. We are steadfast in our commitment and mission to grow the sport across all levels in the United States.

This bland paragraph, which for some reason or other was not labeled "patronizing.txt", is the entire USSF response to the 60 Minutes report broadcast on the US women's national team and their salary negotiations. 

For our younger readers - 60 Minutes is a television news program that used to be, no kidding, the most-watched television program in the country.  And then a little mom-and-pop network called Fox asked, "What if we put something against it that someone will want to watch?  And use NFL games as lead-ins?", and that was pretty much that.  But once upon a time being roasted on 60 Minutes was just about the worst thing that could happen to a person, place or thing.  You would read, afterwards, denials and brush-offs like the USSF statement above, but they were invariably exercises in graveyard whistlery. 

Times have changed.  I think the USSF is going to skate on this.  And the USWNT have largely themselves to blame.  The 60 Minutes interview, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint the USWNT filed, is a sign of weakness, not strength. 

It doesn't help that the USWNT has been inconsistent in what it has been asking for.  This exchange hardly helped:

Norah O’Donnell: Do you think you should be paid more than the men’s team?

Carli Lloyd: Yeah, absolutely.

Norah O’Donnell: Why?

Carli Lloyd: We win. We’re successful. Should get what we deserve.

That should just about do it for the moral argument the USWNT was trying to make.  The moral high ground was already surprisingly slippery for the US women.  I highly recommend going back to read Stephanie Yang's summary of the current CBA.  The most obviously unfair detail is that no NWSL player can make more than any USWNT player, no matter how scrubworthy:

If a WNT player loses their national team contract, but their NWSL team wants to exercise the option to retain her, the team has to offer the player a salary that is either 65% of her NWSL compensation or a salary commensurate with the highest paid non-WNT player in the league. Additionally, no non-WNT player can have compensation (salary plus housing) greater than a WNT player, while at the same time WNT salaries in the NWSL will increase proportionately with the highest-paid non-WNT player so that non-WNT player salaries don't "unreasonably outpace" WNT salaries in the event of the NWSL's increasing success.

I'm mystified as to why such a detail would need to be collectively bargained.  USWNT players are universally more marketable than any other American player, so one would think Adam Smith's Invisible Hand would have made this unnecessary.  I'm also mystified as to who is supposed to benefit from this, since the USSF pays both, and presumably wouldn't need the USWNT's advice to keep NWSL salaries low.  O'Donnell and 60 Minutes did not bring this up when Becky Sauerbrunn complained that the USSF was rejecting their suggestions wholesale. 

O'Donnell, however, did raise another inconvenient point while interviewing the team's lawyer:

Rich Nichols: I said, “Look, you are in control. This is your business. You have to take control of it. And you can be in control of it, but you have to be unified. You’ve gotta get a new deal.”

Norah O’Donnell: What kind of deal would the women accept?

Rich Nichols:  Equal. Equal pay.

Norah O’Donnell: Well, what does equal mean? You want the same agreement the men have?

Rich Nichols: We want the same money that the men are making, exactly. That’s $5,000 minimum-- that’s-- that $8,000-- bonus if you tie a game, and the $17,625 if you win. We want equal money.

Beau Dure in the Guardian did a fine job showing a lot of the issues that makes apples-to-apples comparisons difficult.  If I had been asked - and Lord knows I have not - I would have made the comparison between today's USWNT and the US men's national team in the early 1990's before the World Cup.  The USSF had to put all but a few of the World Cup team under contract, because most of those players literally did not have clubs that paid them a living wage.  It's depressing to compare the NWSL to the men's club scene back then, but at least the USSF is, for the moment, keeping that league alive.

For its own good, of course.  The USSF in the Rothenberg-Bora era didn't pay second-line US men's national team players out of the goodness of their hearts.  If those players weren't given competitive playing time, and a great deal of it, the United States would have performed significantly worse in 1994.  It's easy to conclude that if US women's soccer has no level between NCAA and the national team, the US will pay a larger and larger price for their stagnant player pool.  The NWSL isn't a charitable contribution from the USSF, it's an investment in continued USWNT success. 

Anyway, while "equal money" is, as far as I can tell, just noise, Nichols' advice that the USWNT need to take control is not.  This is, after all, a collective bargaining agreement.  We can discuss the difficulties union workers in America have faced over the past few decades in surviving strikes, but there are no celebrity longshoremen or grocery store workers.  Other industries can hire replacement workers with impunity - sports and entertainment cannot.  Most of what the USWNT wanted - including, perhaps, Lloyd's seemingly fanciful desire for more pay - might have been achievable. 

But the USWNT isn't willing to strike, and everybody knows it.  They claimed gender discrimination over the turf fields at the Women's World Cup in Canada, but played anyway - a decision that they profited from quite handsomely.  They played in the Rio Olympics this year rather than force the USSF to satisfy their salary demands - and that did not pan out.  The USSF can point to a result that a scab team could have achieved far more cheaply, and now has years of USWNT downtime, as far as the casual soccer fan is concerned. 

Whether the USWNT will have another opportunity in 2018 or 2019 depends on whether the USSF thinks a replacement team can qualify for the Women's World Cup out of CONCACAF.  The answer should be yes, but remember that the full team bungled the job in the 2011 cycle, and needed a playoff against Italy to advance to the main tournament.

So the USWNT will have to settle for loud publicity victories thanks to 60 Minutes, which they can file next to the public relations coup they scored when US Senators Feinstein and Murray leapt to their defense.  It's possible that the EEOC will make a landmark ruling in favor of the US women's national team, but that would qualify as the biggest upset in team history.  (If only because on the field, the USWNT is almost always favored.)

....and life comes at us fast.  The USSF fired their coach today - not Jill Ellis, the other one.  Here I thought the biggest soccer story of the week was how roundly screwed the Rapids were by Tim Howard getting injured and Jermaine Jones playing 90 minutes twice.