Tensions Between U.S. Soccer And Women’s National Team Rise

CREDIT: Elaine Thompson, AP

The United States Women's National Team poses for the traditional team photo before beating Japan 5-2 in the the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday, July 5, 2015.

On Wednesday night, the New York Times reported that U.S. Soccer had sued the U.S. Women’s National Team Player’s Association. That’s right — less than a year after the national team won the Women’s World Cup in front of an American television audience of 23 million, the team’s union is being sued by their soccer federation over the validity of the terms of their contract.

To make matters worse, the lawsuit itself — which has been released publicly — included the home addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of many of the U.S. Women’s National Team players.

“We’re public figures. There have been issues of privacy and hacking and stalkers,” USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “We’re upset. To know that someone could show up at your door? That’s extremely unsettling, and it’s something that you can’t get back.”

U.S. Soccer has said that the release of the information was unintentional, and it has already been redacted. However, it was public for almost half of a day. Rapinoe called it an “egregious error.”

This will only exacerbate the divide between the two parties. The federation has long treated the USWNT like “second-class citizens” according to the executive director of the USWNT player’s association, Richard Nichols. The players have been extremely unhappy with the field conditions they’ve been forced to play on, and their salaries are far inferior from their male counterparts.

The current lawsuit is over the validity of the collective bargaining agreement. The previous CBA between U.S. Soccer and the USWNT expired in 2012, and was updated at the time with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that served as an extension of the previous CBA. The MOU was scheduled to expire at the end of 2016, but Nichols, who was hired in 2014, thinks that the MOU can be voided at any time. On December 23 he sent a letter to U.S. Soccer stating that the union would terminate the CBA if there is not a new one in place within 60 days, which seems unlikely.

“If the emails provided in the lawsuit are any indication, there is no way a new CBA will be in place by 24 February, which is 60 days from the letter,” Caitlin Murray wrote for the Guardian.

So U.S. Soccer is suing because they want a judge to declare that the MOU is, in fact, valid until the end of this year. Crucially, the previous CBA and current MOU have a clause that forbids players from striking. Since the USWNT is riding the high of their World Cup victory and the Olympics are only six months away, U.S. Soccer is trying to avoid a strike at all costs.

Nichols said that the team had not threatened to strike, they “just want to be treated fairly” and are looking to “preserve our legal rights” in the negotiation.

Howard Megdal of Excelle Sports says that it makes sense that this is all happening now:

In essence, U.S. Soccer gets the lion’s share of revenue from the women’s team through two events and the associated events around them in the World Cup and the Olympics. Those both happen every four years. (You might have heard about that World Cup last year.) But after the 2016 Olympics, and U.S. Soccer hopes a victory and potentially lucrative victory tour, there’s no significant revenue driver until 2019. So for the players to act now to maximize their best deal is just labor common sense.

But according to Nichols, the team has put up with sub-par treatment for years, and isn’t going to stand for it any longer. The “last straw” was pulled last December, when the USWNT refused to play a match because of dangerous field conditions in Hawaii. (After the team refused to play, U.S. Soccer agreed that the conditions were sub-par and cancelled the match, so it did not count as a strike.)

The players described the artificial turf in Hawaii as “low-grade and aging” with “sharp rocks ingrained” all over it. U.S. Soccer apologized at the time, and admitted that the field had not been properly inspected beforehand. While the men’s team, which is far less successful, has not had to play on turf since 2005, the women have had to time and time again.

“They’ve suffered injuries from playing on turf all these years. They’ve sucked it up and said: ‘We’re gonna do it for the good of the cause.’ But there comes a time when you can’t take it any more,” Nichols said.

It’s clear that the USWNT does not feel respected or protected by U.S. Soccer, and after the debacle in December and the security breach in the lawsuit, it’s understandable why. Their bodies are their livelihood, and it’s imperative that they play on safe fields. The women also have a rabid fanbase and have had security scares in the past, so keeping them safe should be a priority for the federation.

“From a personal standpoint, I think the players all feel the same — it’s disrespectful and unacceptable,” Rapinoe said.

If the court rules that the current CBA is still valid, the USWNT will just have to play out the remainder of the year under the current agreement. But if the court rules in favor of the player’s association, and a new CBA is not immediately agreed upon, then things could get interesting since the players would have the ability to strike. That could greatly impact the SheBelieves Cup in March, the Olympics, and the fourth season of the National Women’s Soccer League.