#360USA: US women’s team sue federation

Steve Brenner 07:14 08/02/2016
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Standing firm: USWNT.

In sensational and unprecedented circumstances, the United States Soccer Federation went to war with the union representing the women’s national team – and sued them.

Both parties are angrily occupying a legal minefield which is increasingly dangerous to navigate. In a nutshell, the reigning World Cup champions are contesting the validity of extending a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), known as a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which was agreed upon in 2012.

The MOU, according to US Soccer, expires at the end of the year, taking the team through this summer’s Olympics where Team USA will aim for a fourth consecutive title. The agreement has been in place as the ruling labor document for the women who, unlike the men’s team, are classed as full-time employees of US Soccer. Their contracts include deals that incorporate their involvement in the National Women’s Soccer League.

The lawsuit revealed that World Cup players pocket $72,000, while others are paid $36,000. A gaping lack of parity with their male counterparts is a serious bone of contention – after all, the game has never been so popular – and with players’ union attorney Rich Nichols arguing the MOU can in fact be terminated at any time, hopes are high of a new deal being struck.

That, in turn, yields the possibility of strike action and a push for better deals.

With the Rio games fast-approaching, the discussions couldn’t have come at a worse time for the authorities. After weeks of tetchy, acrimonious talks between the two parties, lawsuits were filed. What wasn’t expected, however, was the release of players’ details including home and email addresses. Many players are household names in the U.S. and are rightfully worried about the potential threat of stalkers, hackers, and crazed fans.

“We understand mistakes happen, but this is one that can’t happen,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe told The New York Times. “The players are very upset. We feel disrespected. We feel our personal information, our privacy, and our safety were handled frivolously and with negligence. I doubt it was purposeful, but it’s an egregious error and one that’s unacceptable.”

That particular error was quickly removed from the official documents, yet the long-standing problems of money and playing conditions need much more work. Undoubtedly, the Olympics are being used as leverage, especially as the next World Cup isn’t until 2019. How clever those lawyers are.

Although not mentioned specifically in the lawsuit, the constant use of artificial surfaces for the women, rather than natural grass, has sent the heroines who were greeted by millions of adoring fans in New York City last July to celebrate their comprehensive final win over Japan towards breaking point.

A recent friendly in Hawaii was cancelled over concerns about the surface. The lack of real grass pitches has, however, been a constant source of anger. It’s also a disgrace. Considering the strength of the women’s game in the United States, demanding parity to the treatment meted out to their male counterparts seems only fair.

In the first friendly of 2016, the men drew a crowd of 8,803 while the women’s thumping of Ireland in San Diego boasted a healthy 23,309. Their run to the final last summer captivated a nation.

“They are not playing on artificial turf. Period.” Nichols said last month. “It shouldn’t need to be a topic we even have to discuss. It should be a foregone conclusion, and a natural obligation for the US soccer federation to make sure the women play on safe grass-playing surfaces, just like the men play on safe grass-playing surfaces.”

Talks will continue past the original cut-off date of February 24, though considering Sunil Gulati, the bungling head of U.S. Soccer, will be the driving force behind hammering out an agreement, no one is holding their breath.

A strike could destroy a tournament next month with France, England, and Germany all poised to meet in the US, as well as harm the future of the game overall. Watching star players, who have become role models for millions, down tools is not an option. Something will have to give.

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