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Experts Debate Pay Disparities for Female Soccer Players

Written on Tuesday, April 14th, 2020 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: Expert Opinions, In the News, Research & Trends

Sports Illustrated reports that expert witnesses will play crucial roles in a gender equity challenge that the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has made against the U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body of the sport of soccer in the United States. Daubert challenges may shape the expert testimony that the jury hears. The magazine notes that “arguing over expert witnesses illustrates how much experts could potentially sway juror opinion” in a complex case that offers competing views of how two different pay systems should be compared.

The members of the USWNT collectively sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination. The lawsuit contends that U.S. Soccer gives contracts to female players that are less favorable than the contracts it gives to male players. The USWNT members argue that the disparity cannot be explained by job duties or job performance. A May trial date was recently postponed to June because of the coronavirus epidemic.

In a public relations blunder, U.S. Soccer tried to win summary judgment by claiming, in part, that female players “did not perform work of equal skill, effort and responsibility” as male players. The organization made that argument notwithstanding that the USWNT has won two consecutive World Cup titles, while the Men’s National Team has never placed higher than third, a feat it last accomplished in 1930.

The suggestion that women don’t play as hard or as well as men caused a backlash that resulted in the resignation of U.S. Soccer’s president, the firing of its lawyers, and the withdrawal of that assertion. The lawsuit, however, continues.

Disparate Pay

U.S. Soccer now focuses on the argument that compensation statistics do not support the claims made by the USWNT players. In 2019, the president of U.S. Soccer released data that, in his view, proves that female players were paid more in salary and game bonuses than male players from 2010 to 2018. The USWNT players dispute that data, as do members of the Men’s National Team, who issued a statement accusing U.S. Soccer of resisting “any concept of equal pay or basic economic fairness for the USWNT players.”

Analysis of compensation data is complex. The men’s team and the women’s team are represented by separate unions that have negotiated contracts with different structures. Players on the men’s team are only paid if they are called up for a game or training camp. They also participate in bonuses for playing in certain games and earn higher bonuses if the team wins certain games or qualifies for the World Cup.

The 17 players who are signed to contracts on the women’s team are paid whether or not they are called up. The remaining “non-contract” players, like players on the men’s team, are paid an appearance fee if they are called up and can earn bonuses based on the team’s performance.

Although the contract structure is arguably better for the women’s team, the pay is arguably better for players who are called up to play on the men’s team. According to ESPN, “making a World Cup team will net a men’s player $68,750. A women’s player will make $37,500 for making the World Cup squad.” Other bonus payments are also higher for men than for women.

Challenges to Labor Law Expert

Given the difference in contract structure, expert testimony is essential to determining whether a pay disparity exists. Each side is relying on experts to make its case.

The USWNT recently made Daubert challenges to the proposed testimony that three experts plan to give on behalf of U.S. Soccer. The first challenge involves Philip Miscimarra, a labor lawyer who was chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under President Trump. He proposes to testify that U.S. Soccer has complied with civil rights laws and has not discriminated against female players.

The players object that the judge is the only expert in the law and that Miscimarra’s attempt to explain U.S. Soccer’s alleged compliance with the law to the jury could result in confusion. The players contend that his “misleading” testimony might make the jurors believe he knows more about civil rights law than the judge.

Miscimarra also contends that the players’ union agreed to the terms of their compensation and that finding their compensation to be unlawful would undermine federal labor law. Whether applying civil rights laws to collective bargaining agreements is good or bad seems like a policy argument for a court to decide rather than the kind of factual determination that juries make.

The players also note that the Equal Pay Act expressly states that “collective bargaining agreements are not a defense” and that “any and all provisions in a collective bargaining agreement which provide unequal rates of pay in conflict with the requirements of the Equal Pay Act are null and void and of no effect.” Appellate courts have held that collective bargaining agreements cannot perpetuate unlawful discrimination. If the judge decides that those statutory pronouncements and precedents apply to this case, they would seem to foreclose Miscimarra’s opinion.

Challenges to Forensic Accountant

Carlyn Irwin, a forensic accountant, opined that the total pay received by male players should be compared to the total pay of female players. The players argue that the rate of pay, not the total pay, is the better comparison. Given the recent success of female players, their total pay reflects bonuses for winning World Cups that male players did not earn. However, given their different rates of pay, male players would have earned more money than female players if their team had achieved comparable World Cup success.

The judge has signaled, but not decided, that rate of pay is a better comparator than total pay because it is less likely to be influenced by variables (like team success) that change from year to year. In any event, the proper basis for comparison seems like a legal question for the judge to decide, not a factual question that should be left to the jury. If the judge regards it as a legal question, Irwin’s testimony will likely be excluded as irrelevant.

Challenges to Labor Economist

Justin McCrary, a labor economist who is a professor at Columbia Law School, would opine that neither pay system “is systematically better or worse” and that “there is no single rate of pay for either” group. He also points out that members of the USWNT earn more than members of the men’s team when they play “friendlies” (international matches occur outside of tournament competition). Consequently, he reasons, the pay system for the women’s team is not inferior to the pay system for the men’s team.

The USWNT challenges McCrary’s analysis on the ground that it is based on hypothetical assumptions rather than actual data. The USWNT contends that McCrary assumed that the woman’s team would pay “an unrealistically small number of games” as opposed to the number of games that the team actually plays each year. Using the actual data rather than the assumed data, according to the WNT, undermines McCrary’s conclusions.

McCrary also argues that some members of the women’s team earn more than some members of the men’s team. Some female players, for example, earn pay when they are injured and cannot be called up, while injured male players earn no pay because men are only paid if they are called up. Women also receive maternity pay that men do not receive. The WNT argues that individual comparisons are misleading because women as a whole earn substantially less than men when the teams play a similar number of games and achieve comparable success.

Ruling to Come

The court had scheduled a hearing on the motion (as well as the USWNT’s summary judgment motion) for March 30, 2020. The court removed that hearing from the calendar due to coronavirus concerns. It stated its intent to decide the motions based on the parties’ submissions. The rulings may come within the next several weeks.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.