Women’s U.S. professional soccer saw groundbreaking changes in 2022. Settlement of a class action lawsuit over equal pay for women players promises a new era for pay equity in professional soccer. Meanwhile, an investigative report on widespread physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League should bring more transparency and oversight.
As a women-owned firm, The Noble Law is especially proud to have helped set the stage for this historic, long-overdue victory for gender equality by successfully arguing on behalf of “equal pay for equal work” before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 2021. The court’s ruling in favor of our client, Tracy Sempowich, is widely cited as a key precedent for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s Equal Pay Act claim.
Merritt Mathias’ Journey From Player to Negotiator
Merritt Mathias, the North Carolina Courage Defender, was center stage in bringing change to women’s soccer. Mathias returned to the Courage in 2018 after playing for the Seattle Reign at the urging of Paul Riley, her former coach and mentor. Three years later, Mathias was shocked and deeply saddened when a firestorm erupted over allegations of sexual misconduct against Riley, which he denies. Riley was fired and later hired by another team.
The emotional upheaval Mathias experienced motivated her to seek change. Mathias realized that pay equity could empower women players, and 2021 was the right time to become involved in that issue.
A few years earlier, players on the U.S. Women’s National Team brought a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging violations of the Equal Pay Act. As the case headed into settlement talks, Matthias became active on the Collective Bargaining Agreement Committee. The result was a historic settlement for equal pay between male and female soccer players.
The 2022 Class Action Settlement
The class action lawsuit was settled in May 2022 for $24 million. The U.S. Soccer Federation announced a new collective bargaining agreement for equal pay between the U.S. Women’s National Team and the U.S. Men’s National Team.
- Provides back pay of $22 million to the women athletes
- Places $2 million in a fund for women’s post-career goals and charitable efforts
- Ends long-standing practice of paying women less than men in friendlies and tournaments, including World Cup
Matthias reflected on her committee service and the settlement. “I wanted to turn this pain into power. I wanted to find myself again. And I wanted to come out of this experience stronger than ever,” Matthias said in an ESPN interview in 2022. “I gained a newfound purpose that felt bigger than what I had ever been a part of in the soccer world.”
The Noble Law Precedent That Aided Soccer Settlement
As noted above, The Noble Law helped pave the way for the historic settlement in the class action lawsuit by setting an important appellate precedent for the Equal Pay Act. The Noble Law’s Kathryn F. Abernethy represented Tracey Sempowich. Ms. Abernethy argued that Sempowich’s employer discriminated against her on the basis of sex under the Equal Pay Act because it paid her a different rate of pay than her male coworker. The District Court improperly considered Sempowich’s commissions under the Equal Pay Act, she argued.
In 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with Ms. Abernethy’s position. It ruled in Sempowich v. Tactile Systems Technology, Inc. that Sempowich’s employer violated the Equal Pay Act by paying her and a male coworker different rates of pay. Commissions should not be considered under the Equal Pay Act, the court concluded.
Sempowich is important because it ruled on what aspect of compensation an employer may consider when determining equal pay. In soccer, the leagues had been including bonuses as part of pay, rather than only salary. Bloomberg News’ analysis predicted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit likely would pay close attention to Sempowich in its upcoming hearing in the soccer class action case.
Sempowich doubtless played a role in bringing the U.S. Soccer Federation to the negotiating table to settle the class action suit.
Women in Soccer Face Harassment, Abuse
The National Women’s Soccer League is a microcosm for issues women across the nation face in employment, far beyond equal pay. A comprehensive investigation completed in 2022 documented that women’s professional soccer is rife with sexual harassment, bullying, physical abuse, and retaliation for speaking up.
Teams lack clear codes of conduct, and abusers move from team to team with impunity. The report, which was based on 200 interviews, recommended reforms to improve transparency and accountability. Change will take time, and commitment by leagues and teams.
The Noble Law prioritizes integrity and works every day to treat each client with empathy and compassion. If you have experienced sexual harassment or wage discrimination in the workplace, you can be confident that our attorneys will hear you and take your concerns seriously. We are nationally recognized as leaders in the field of employment law, with offices in North Carolina and South Carolina. Contact us today to protect your rights and learn your legal options.