While Serena Williams admittedly doesn't follow soccer, the U.S. women's national team caught her attention with its lawsuit seeking equitable pay.
The players accuse the U.S. Soccer Federation of "institutionalized gender discrimination" that includes unequal pay with their counterparts on the men's national team.
At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, Williams praised the players who came before her to fight for equal prize money in tennis.
"I think at some point, in every sport, you have to have those pioneers, and maybe it's the time for soccer," she said. "I'm playing because someone else stood up, and so what they are doing right now is hopefully for the future of women's soccer."
The 28 members of the current women's player pool filed the lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The USSF has not commented on the suit.
"We believe it is our duty to be the role models that we've set out to be and fight to what we know we legally deserve," forward Christen Press told The Associated Press. "And hopefully in that way it inspires women everywhere."
The lawsuit, which is the culmination of long-simmering concerns by the players, highlights the struggle for female athletes globally to achieve fair compensation for their efforts, even if that doesn't mean identical paychecks to their male counterparts. "Fair" can include simple things like access to practice fields and changing rooms.
In tennis, Grand Slam events and many other tournaments give equal prize money to men and women, in part due to the work of pioneers like Billie Jean King, who was calling for equitable prize money in the 1970s. She once famously proclaimed: "Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing and the cherry on top, too."
Two years ago, just before the U.S. women's soccer team struck a new collective bargaining agreement that gave players pay raises and better benefits, the women's national hockey team won a better contract after taking the drastic step of threatening to sit out of the world championships. The players' effort went viral with the social media hashtag #BeBoldForChange.
Meghan Duggan was one of the players who led the fight.
"I have the utmost respect for the U.S. women's soccer team and what they have always stood for," she said. "They have continued to lead the way in advancing women's sports and this is just another example of their boldness and leadership."
The men's and women's soccer teams have separate collective bargaining agreements, and their pay is structured differently. That means there is no simple dollar-to-dollar salary comparison. Terms of the CBAs have not been made public.
Compensation for the women includes a guaranteed salary and salaries paid by the USSF for their time with clubs in the National Women's Soccer League. The men get paid based on appearances, roster selection for friendlies and tournaments, and collective performance. The USSF has cited the contracts, as well as the revenue generated by the teams, as the reason for the differences.
While the U.S. Women's National Team Players Association is not a party to the lawsuit, it issued a statement supporting the players' goal of "eliminating gender-based discrimination by USSF."
A group of five star players filed a complaint in 2016 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged wage discrimination by the federation. The new lawsuit effectively ends that EEOC complaint, brought by Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd and former goalkeeper Hope Solo. The players received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC last month.
At the time of the original complaint, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in a letter to the EEOC in support of the players. On Sunday, she applauded the team's ongoing efforts for pay equity.
"These women are at the pinnacle of their sport. They are world champions. Yet, when they receive their paychecks, they are being paid less than their male counterparts. That is unacceptable," she said in a statement to the AP. "Women and men in the same job deserve the same pay. Period. That is why I will keep pushing Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which should be on the House Floor soon."
Following the EEOC action, the women took the fight for equality into contract negotiations and struck a new CBA covering 2017-21.
WNBA players have exercised their right to terminate their CBA after the 2019 season, cutting the deal short by two years. The move allows the sides to negotiate a new deal that would go into effect for the 2020 season during an Olympic year.
"Without commenting on the specifics of the lawsuit, the WNBPA stands for equity and fairness, and stands against discrimination of any kind. We are proud to stand with the USWNTPA and other unions in support of players on these issues," said Terri Jackson, WNBA Players Association director of operations.
Solo no longer plays for the national team. Her contract was terminated when she was suspended for comments made at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. However, she continues to champion gender equity issues.
Last August, she filed her own federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California, accusing U.S. Soccer of violating the Equal Pay Act. That lawsuit is winding its way through the courts.
"I'd always hoped my former teammates would follow suit and join me in the battle in federal court against the United States Soccer Federation," Solo told the AP. "It was clear that U.S. Soccer was never going to acquiesce or negotiate to provide us equal pay or agree to treat us fairly. The filing by the entire United Sates women's national team demonstrated that they no longer fear the federation by forcefully and publicly acknowledging U.S. Soccer's violations of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII."
AP Sports Writers Beth Harris in Los Angeles, Larry Lage in Detroit and Doug Feinberg in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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