“A Movement, Not a Moment”: The US Women’s National Soccer Team and Its Fight for Equal Pay, 2016-2020

By Bridget Simons (‘20)


The chant started in the northern end of the stadium. It was faint at first, but it soon grew into a deafening roar as thousands of fans inside Stade de Lyon cried “EQUAL PAY!” during the closing seconds of the US Women’s National Team’s (USWNT) 2019 World Cup victory. Moments later, millions more fans watched on television as Nike aired an advertisement celebrating the players as leaders “fighting not just to make history, but to change it – forever” (1). This outpouring of support and female empowerment was the culmination of a months-long campaign by the players to garner support for their fight for equal treatment, resources, and compensation. Their fight had burst into public view six months earlier, when all 28 members of the USWNT team sued the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) for gender-discrimination. In the following months, USWNT players embarked on an “equal pay for equal play” campaign of press interviews, television appearances, corporate sponsorships, and social media posts. By the time of the World Cup final, the campaign had become a movement, with thousands of Americans voicing, tweeting, and posting their support.

What many Americans do not know, however, is that an almost identical fight occurred three years earlier. In March 2016, five members of the USWNT filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing the USSF of wage discrimination. The players followed the complaint by campaigning for public support through press interviews, official statements, and op-eds. While their campaign seemed to succeed at first, it ultimately failed to catch the public’s attention. When the USWNT competed at the Olympics in August 2016, there were no chants, ads, or articles about equal pay. Social media stayed mostly quiet about the issue. A few months later, USWNT players privately agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that addressed some of the team’s demands but achieved “equitable” – not equal – pay. In other words, USWNT players still did not earn as much as their male counterparts.

In light of the 2016 complaint, the public response to the players’ 2019 lawsuit takes on greater meaning. The 2019 lawsuit made similar allegations to the 2016 complaint. Yet by 2019, the players had adjusted their communication strategies to create a more nuanced and successful campaign for equal pay. Rather than relying on old arguments about salary comparisons and winning records, the USWNT linked their cause to broader systemic inequalities, allying themselves with activists across society. They tapped into an intersectional feminism that recognized race and sexuality, and strove for systemic change. In the process, the team mobilized athletes and women across society to fight for equality, justice, and respect. Building on an analysis of official statements, traditional media articles, social media posts, and interviews, this thesis distillation examines how USWNT players honed their message to start a global movement for equality in women’s sports. […]


On March 31, 2016, five USWNT players – Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo – filed an EEOC complaint against the USSF (2). It was a bold move. The day of the filing, Solo admitted that she “was filled with anxiety.” Sauerbrunn added that “the whole idea of filing a complaint against your employer is a little… daunting” (3). Yet the teammates wanted to capitalize on their 2015 World Cup title and use their newfound fame as leverage in upcoming contract negotiations. Immediately after filing, the five players used a variety of resources to make their case to the public.

Their communication tactics played out in three distinct phases. On the day of the filing (March 3), the players spoke as a unit and made a strong ethical argument for equal pay. Lloyd, Morgan, Rapinoe, Sauerbrunn, and Solo appeared together on television, on social media, in magazine articles, and in press releases (3-10). In each media setting, the players spoke as one. No single voice was louder than the rest – a balance that was not easy to achieve. As Morgan explained, “there was five of us – five very strong women representing the team and trying to have this voice in unison – so there was a lot of preparation within a short period of time with our lawyers guiding us through that” (11). Their preparation paid off. In their Today show appearance, the players appeared poised and professional, dressed in black USWNT shirts that matched the serious tone of their argument. It was a promising start to their campaign for equal pay.

When speaking out, the players focused on equality and respect. “We are fighting for equal pay, equal treatment, and equal RESPECT for the same work,” Rapinoe posted on Instagram (8). Solo added that the team was willing “to do whatever it takes to push for equal pay and equal rights and be treated with respect” (3). The player’s emphasis on respect implied that they had an ethical, not just a financial, case for equal pay. Regardless of economics, compensating the women equally was the right thing to do. As Morgan argued, “it’s high time for our employers to address the inequality and to do not only what is fair, but what is right” (6). 

The player’s ethical approach allowed them to expand the scope of their fight against the USSF. When Lloyd tweeted that March 31 was a “historic moment” and Rapinoe asked her followers to “lean into this historic fight,” they implied that their cause was larger than the USWNT (9, 8). The players did not just want to get paid more, they wanted “to shift the times” and to “change history.” Solo optimistically declared: “First stop, women’s soccer. Next stop, the world!” (3). By expanding their fight, the players appealed to all women who suffer from unequal treatment, pay, or respect. The USWNT invited these women to join the fight for what they deserved.

In the months following the EEOC filing, leading up to the Olympics (April–August 2016), the players continued to speak out about equal pay, but individually and less frequently. This represented a new phase of their public relations campaign, when they abandoned their strategy of presenting as a collective unit. For instance, Solo told Vox that “it’s my obligation to build soccer in America for the young girls that come that come after me” (12). While this was the same argument that players had presented in March, Solo’s use of the word “my” (not “our”) placed the emphasis on herself, not the team. When they spoke as individuals, the players’ message became disjointed and, at times, contradictory. Solo boldly called for the WNT to be paid more than the men’s national team (MNT), while Sauerbrunn hesitantly admitted that the dispute may not be resolved in the USWNT’s favor (12, 13). 

Furthermore, some players stepped up their accusations and demands, thereby increasing tension with the federation and the MNT. Rapinoe publicly called out USSF President Sunil Gulati for missing contract negotiation meetings: “I’ve… flown six hours across the country and interrupted my rehab to come to New York, where he lives. And he can’t come to one meeting” (14). Meanwhile, Lloyd wrote a New York Times op-ed in which she directly compared herself, Solo, and Morgan to MNT players Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Geoff Cameron (15). On the Daily Show, Sauerbrunn noted that the USWNT was ranked #1 in the world while the MNT was ranked #30. Solo noted that “we’ve brought in almost $20 million in revenue, while the men’s team has lost $2 million,” and “we had more viewership” and “broke records” (16, 12). By repeatedly disparaging the MNT, the players may have alienated key allies and potential supporters who interpreted the player’s comments as disrespectful towards their male counterparts.

When the Rio Olympics started in August, players, officials, and reporters stayed mostly silent on equal pay, instead focusing on the team’s play or Solo’s comments on the Zika virus (17-20). When the USWNT fell to Sweden in the quarterfinals, the shocking loss dealt a devastating blow to arguments that were based on their winning record. The campaign suffered another setback when the USSF terminated Solo’s contract for calling the Swedish team “cowards” – a controversy that distracted reporters and fans from the team’s message of equality and respect (21). 

In the months following the Olympics as the players began negotiating a new CBA (September 2016–April 2017), the players stopped making provocative comments and lowered their demands because some of their key arguments no longer held. For instance, Lloyd had argued that the USWNT’s success on the field meant its players should be paid more than the men’s team: “We win. We’re successful. We should get what we deserve” (22). But in the Olympics, the USWNT didn’t win. They barely lasted longer than the men’s team did in its last World Cup. Morgan recognized this and she altered her rhetoric to adopt a more sympathetic and collaborative tone. Instead of directly comparing the WNT to the MNT, she acknowledged the complexity of the two team’s CBAs, explaining that “it’s very intertwined and hard to understand from the outside” (23). Furthermore, she recognized that “we’re probably the highest paid in terms of a women’s national team.” Finally, Morgan conceded that “the fight is about receiving equitable treatment” (24). Gradually, the entire team shifted its goal from equal to equitable pay. 

After months of back-and-forth negotiation, the two sides finally agreed on a new CBA in April 2017. The new contract did not include equal pay, but it contained several key improvements, including higher win bonuses, equal per diems, better travel accommodations, expanded pregnancy benefits, and exclusive control of licensing rights. In exchange, USWNT players agreed to a payment plan in which they did not earn as much as MNT players. The deal was not perfect, but it allowed the players to continue to play while the EEOC investigation continued (11).  

When the new CBA was signed in April 2017, it was unclear whether the EEOC complaint would resolve the USWNT’s dispute with the USSF. What was clear was that the complaint had kicked off a highly publicized campaign that did two things for the USWNT. First, as Sauerbrunn explained, it “made the negotiations way more public – probably more public than US Soccer wanted them to be,” which “put more pressure on US Soccer” and led to a more equitable CBA (11). Second, the campaign encouraged all women to stand up to their employers and call out unjust treatment. One group of women who internalized this message was the US Women’s Hockey Team who, in March 2017, won better pay and benefits after threatening to boycott the world championships. The New York Times reported that “several members of the women’s hockey team have mentioned the soccer team as an inspiration in the fight for gender and pay equality,” and many soccer players tweeted encouragement “from one #USWNT to the other” (26, 27-29). The US women’s soccer players had emerged as role models for other women, especially female athletes, fighting for equality in the workplace. […]

The women’s hockey boycott demonstrated that the soccer team’s public relations campaign leading to their CBA was far more significant than the CBA itself. During this campaign, USWNT players learned how to leverage their platforms and make a coherent, unified, and moral argument that extended beyond soccer and garnered support across American society. The campaign suffered, however, when the USWNT lost on the soccer field, when individual players diverged from the team’s argument, when they made accusations against the USSF, and when they compared themselves to the MNT. As a result, “equal pay for equal play” was pushed to the future, but not before inspiring other women athletes to stand up, speak out, and start to demand change.


On March 8, 2019, International Women’s Day, the USWNT players sued the USSF in federal court (30). The lawsuit, which is the first known instance of a professional sports team suing its employer for gender discrimination, was a dramatic escalation of the team’s fight against the federation (31). All 28 members of the current team were named as plaintiffs, and they sought class certification to include all USWNT players since 2015. Many were surprised at the team’s decision to sue just two years after their recent CBA and three months ahead of the World Cup. But the players, led by Morgan, Rapinoe, Sauerbrunn, Lloyd, and Christen Press conveyed confidence in themselves, their lawsuit, and their case for equality. As in 2016, they immediately embarked on a public relations campaign across diverse media platforms. Yet unlike 2016, the campaign did not fade out but continued to build momentum in the months before, during, and after the World Cup. 

The players’ 2019 campaign progressed further because of communication tactics that they used in four distinct phases. During the week of the filing (March 8–15), they presented a united front, buttressed their 2016 arguments with stronger claims, and employed new strategies based on what they had learned three years earlier. Immediately after the filing, a core group of veteran players took a break from training to speak with reporters, appear on television, and post on social media (32-37). As in 2016, they presented themselves as advocates for women’s rights with a moral claim for equal pay. Sauerbrunn told ESPN, “we’re kind of a visible team… so it’s important that we kind of take that on, and we show that we are empowered women and that we will fight for things that we believe in, like pay equity” (34). Rapinoe had a simple, inspirational message for girls and women everywhere: “Always believe in yourself. Fight for what you’re worth. And never accept anything less. Never” (35). Morgan tweeted a picture with the caption: “Women around the world supporting each other, fighting for each other, showing up for each other, empowering each other” (36). The players’ message of female empowerment was both timely and appropriate for International Women’s Day. 

Importantly, the USWNT players did not merely repeat what they had said three years earlier. Instead, they strengthened their argument by shifting their focus from compensation to investment. “We need to look at everything,” Rapinoe told Good Morning America. “We need to look at the way the youth teams are funded … the way our staff – our coaching staff, our medical staff – is funded… promotion and branding and marketing and sponsorship, all of that” (33). Morgan echoed that “you have to look at the investment that US Soccer has on the sport… from the ground up” (32). Focusing on investment relieved tensions with MNT players who had been reminded of their inferior record every time the USWNT had made compensation comparisons. 

Additionally, players like Lloyd relieved tensions with the USSF by praising the federation for making significant “progress on narrowing the gender pay gap” in recent years (34). Morgan acknowledged that the team was “really heartened by the gains that we have made throughout our collective bargaining agreement two years ago,” and Press commended new USSF President Carlos Cordeiro for his “public statements that more should be done” (32). This change in rhetoric could be linked to failed strategies from three years earlier, when the USWNT directly compared their earnings with the men’s earnings and adopted a belligerent tone towards the USSF. The USWNT, it seemed, had learned from their mistakes and altered their tactics accordingly.

In the months leading up to the World Cup (March 15–June 11), USWNT players collaborated with women’s organizations and sponsors to publicize the team’s fight. On April 2, Equal Pay Day, the nutrition food company LUNA Bar announced that it would pay each USWNT player $31,250 to make their roster bonus equal to the MNT bonus. The announcement made a splash on social media, and LUNA Bar hosted a media day for Morgan, Rapinoe, and Press (37-39). At the media day, Press encouraged women “to stand up for their worth and to believe in themselves and to believe in the limitlessness of their own potential.” She pointed to LUNA’s donation as an example of “how we can uplift each other. That’s a slightly different message that goes beyond sport and this team and says, ‘Let’s all help each other’” (40). With these words, Press positioned herself and her teammates as feminist icons. LUNA Bar backed this up, calling the USWNT “advocates, mentors, and role models” and posting advice from the players on negotiating for better pay (41).

Other corporations stepped in to contribute to the team’s fight for equality. In March, Adidas announced that it would pay its sponsored USWNT athletes the same performance bonus granted to their male counterparts (42). Two months later, VISA announced a five-year partnership with the USSF and dedicated 50 percent of its investment to women’s soccer programming and marketing (43). […] Meanwhile, actors from Time’s Up attended a USWNT game wearing “TIME’S UP PAY UP” shirts, and members of Congress wrote to Cordeiro calling for equal pay (44-47). As the World Cup drew closer, the USSF seemed more and more isolated in its opposition to equal pay.

During the World Cup (June 11–July 10), USWNT players leveraged their success on the field to increase their bargaining power against the federation. They recognized that the tournament presented a unique opportunity for publicity. “You have to seize the moment,” Morgan told the New York Times (48). “Seeing other women supporting each other on a grander level is pretty unique. We need to capitalize on that now.” Morgan added that if the USWNT won the World Cup, it would be “something greater and bigger than there’s ever been before” (49). Likewise, Sauerbrunn told Reuters that “if we are successful at the World Cup then we’ve got more eyes on us, more attention. Obviously, we want to do well for many reasons but we also feel that if we are successful that will help further our fight” (50). Linking a World Cup win to an equal pay win was a bold and risky move. A championship would be momentous, but a loss could be devastating. That is why Rapinoe recognized “the most important thing is continuing to win” (48).

Fortunately for the USWNT, they kept winning. As the team advanced through the tournament, the players remained confident, outspoken, and strong as more Americans became invested in their fight for equal pay. When the press criticized Morgan for her goal celebrations, she fired back by arguing that women are unfairly expected to restrain themselves in a way that men are not (51). When President Trump tweeted that Rapinoe “should WIN first before she TALKS,” Rapinoe responded with goals and her infamous celebration, “The Pose” (52, 53). The team’s momentum continued to build to their win in the final, where the crowd chanted “EQUAL PAY” in the final minutes. It was at that point, Rapinoe explained, that she realized “We’re in a movement, not a moment” (54). […]

In the months after the World Cup (July 10, 2019–2020), USWNT players stressed that their World Cup win was bigger than soccer. As Press explained to ESPN, “we weren’t playing just for soccer, just for ourselves, or just for a World Cup … we were actually playing for cultural change and women everywhere” (55). “Whether it’s equal pay or equal rights or whatever it is,” Rapinoe said on ESPN, “it just seems like this is kind of a turning point in history” (56). Press echoed that “for us it’s about more than this moment or this team … It’s actually about women everywhere being treated equally and respectfully in the workplace” (57). 

The players also expanded their fight to include broader social justice movements rooted in equality, respect, and fundamental human rights. Rapinoe invited the team’s supporters to rally around “what the team stands for, whether it’s equal pay, racial equality or LGBTQ rights.” Everyone has a place because, “We fight for everybody” (58). By pushing a broad message of inclusivity, Rapinoe defined the USWNT’s cause – and win – as universal. She also recognized the intersectional forces underlying the gender pay gap. “To have a complete and informed conversation around equal pay,” she told Vogue, “you have to talk about gender inequity and racial inequity” (59). In a Guardian article, Rapinoe explained that her platform “comes from Colin Kaepernick, from #MeToo; it comes from all of these other movements,” and at the Glamour awards ceremony she gave credit to “Colin Kaepernick, Tarana Burke and the #MeToo Movement, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi of Black Lives Matter, the women of Time’s Up… and the injustices that so many others face that have put me in this very position” (60, 61). With Rapinoe leading, the USWNT players projected confidence that they would achieve equal pay, but they set their sights even higher than that. “We’re here, we’re coming with armies and ladders on all sides of our platform,” Rapinoe told Time. “We’re not going anywhere. And we will change the world” (54). […]

Some may attribute the popularity of the USWNT’s 2019 campaign for equal pay to their World Cup title alone. But by the start of the tournament, the USWNT had already taken advantage of the increased media attention to publicize their case for equal pay, to gain the support of key allies, and to link their dispute to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. While winning the World Cup certainly helped, the USWNT had already put together a successful campaign for public support. By the end of 2019, the USWNT had won the equal pay debate.

But their fight for equality lived on. […]


On March 11, 2020, at the final game of the SheBelieves Cup, the USWNT walked onto the field with their warm up uniforms turned inside out, hiding the US Soccer crest but not the four stars representing their four World Cup championships. Right before the game, the entire team posed for a picture in their warmups, staring unsmiling at the camera with their arms around each other. It was a powerful response to a recent USSF legal filing which argued that women’s soccer players have inherently less skill, ability, and responsibility than their male counterparts (62). The federation’s blatantly sexist argument prompted immediate and severe backlash from former players, fans, journalists, and sponsors. Cordeiro issued a hasty apology in the middle of the game (which the USWNT won), but the damage had already been done. Before the night was over, “4 Stars Only” t-shirts had sold out (63). Rapinoe’s post-game interview, in which she reminded young fans that “you are not lesser because you are a girl, you are not better because you are a boy” had gone viral (64). Several players spoke out on social media. The next day, Cordeiro resigned and the federation hired a new president, former USWNT player Cindy Parlow Cone, who struck a conciliatory tone with the players (65).

In May 2020, a federal judge dismissed the USWNT players’ claim that they were systemically underpaid compared to the men’s team. In his decision, Judge R. Gary Klausner accepted the federation’s argument that “the WNT has been paid more on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis than the MNT” and he found the players’ evidence “insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact for trial” (66). Although Klausner ruled for the USSF, the federation did not express any pleasure in the ruling. Instead, Parlow Cone issued a brief statement that left the door open for a negotiated settlement: “We look forward to working with the women’s national team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game both here at home and around the world” (67). The players immediately vowed to appeal the decision, and assured fans that “We will never stop fighting to EQUALITY” and “we have a lot of fight left in us” (68, 69). Meanwhile, Joe Biden tweeted at the federation demanding “equal pay, now. Or else when I’m president, you can go elsewhere for World Cup funding” (70).

Although Klausner’s decision was a setback for the USWNT, the future looks bright for their fight for equality. In December, the federation and the players reached an agreement that resolved the players’ outstanding claims about working conditions (71). Parlow Cone praised the agreement, explaining that it “demonstrates the commitment of U.S. Soccer’s new leadership to find a new way forward with the USWNT” and it “will serve as a springboard for continued progress.” She hoped to “inspire a new era of collaboration, partnership, and trust between the USWNT and the Federation,” and she asked the USWNT to re-enter contract negotiations (72). Whether the players accept Parlow Cone’s invitation to negotiate now or wait until the end of 2021 (when their current CBA expires), they will enter negotiations with far greater leverage than they had four years ago. As they demonstrated during the “4 stars” protest, the players know how to act collectively with a single, unified message across media platforms, they have the support of key outside figures (including President Biden), and they back up their actions with success on the field. 

Evidence that these strategies work elsewhere can be found in the Women’s National Basketball Players Association’s (WNBPA) fight for better working conditions and pay. In 2018, the WNBPA opted out of their current CBA and began a “Bet on Women” campaign centered on female empowerment. “Bet on Women” attracted support from celebrities, athletes, and women everywhere, and it created enough pressure that the league agreed to a new CBA with higher salaries, better travel conditions, and progressive motherhood benefits (73).

Following the new contract, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert declared that “there’s a moment in women’s sports” (31). Now more than ever, female athletes are using their collective power to demand equality for themselves, other female athletes, and women everywhere. And the USWNT is leading the way, fulfilling gender historian Susan Cahn’s call for female athletes “to link sports activism to broader changes in the status quo.” In order for female athletes to challenge gendered hierarchies in sport, Cahn argues, they need a “far-reaching agenda” that connects women’s sports to a broader social movement (74). Or, as WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike put it, “it means being a group of empowered women… not just feeling fed up with the status quo, but going one step further: rejecting the status quo” (75) The USWNT did this by linking their equal pay fight to the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, as well as racial justice and LGBTQ rights. If other female athletes can do the same, the USWNT’s moment can become a movement in women’s sports.

Bridget Simons is an American Studies alum from the University of Notre Dame. Her featured retrospective is a distillation of her senior thesis, which was advised by Professor Annie Gilbert Coleman and Professor Richard Jones. Her research interests surround the intersections of sports, feminism, and media.


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