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U.S. Soccer President On How Prize Money Gap Is At The Center Of Equal Pay Lawsuit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Equal Pay Day - it's the day in the new year that women have to work through to reach the pay of their male counterparts in the previous year. This year, 2021, it took until March 24. Of course, the day itself is symbolic, but it is used to mark a very real problem - the gender pay gap, a gap that, along with other inequities, seeps into just about every field, including U.S. women's soccer. Arguments over pay and unequal working conditions led the women's U.S. national team to sue the U.S. Soccer Federation. While, on Monday, a federal judge approved a partial settlement over working conditions, he dismissed the part of the suit that dealt with pay, and yesterday the women's team filed an appeal. Cindy Parlow Cone is the president of U.S. Soccer. She was part of the team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup. And when I spoke with her this week, we started with that dispute over equal pay.

Explain. Why does U.S. soccer feel the current pay structure is fair?

CINDY PARLOW CONE: Yeah. Well, let me first and foremost say that as a former U.S. women's national team player, I can promise you that I am 100% committed to equal pay. And I know that everyone at U.S. soccer is supportive of equal pay, but there's a lot of misinformation out there about U.S. soccer and challenges to get there.

One is that the men's and women's teams - they have different unions, and they see completely different contract structures. So the men want a pay-to-play structure, so they only get paid when they come into camp and play a game and win, whereas the women wanted more security. They wanted guarantee salaries, benefits including health benefits. But the major challenge is FIFA World Cup prize money. And for those people that don't know about FIFA, that's our world governing body. And they put on a World Cup every four years for the men and the women. And the prize money from the World Cup is drastically different between the men's and the women's World Cup.

KELLY: And that's something you don't control. But to focus on what you do control, the U.S. women's team - I mean, the bottom line is they have more wins. They get paid less. And I - the basic question - how does U.S. soccer defend that as being fair?

PARLOW CONE: So on April 7 we provided an offer to the women's lawyers that would pay them identical compensation provided to the men's players for all matches (inaudible) soccer controls. But unfortunately, the response that we got back is they would not sit down and talk to us and negotiate unless U.S. soccer is willing to make up the World Cup prize money difference, which is a large majority of the 66 million that they're seeking.

KELLY: And is that absolutely off the table?

PARLOW CONE: I mean, I'm willing to sit down and talk to them and come up with creative solutions. But this would - I mean, not to be overly dramatic or anything, but this would likely bankrupt the federation if we're putting - the difference is about 34 million every four years. And by the way, the difference in the FIFA World Cup prize money isn't shrinking. It's actually getting larger. So this is a problem that's not only bad right now but is getting worse.

KELLY: How much influence does U.S. soccer have with FIFA? How far are you willing to go to press the case for equal pay for the women's team?

PARLOW CONE: I'm in conversations with the president of FIFA and the president of CONCACAF, which is the region in which U.S. soccer plays. And I'm pushing. I think the challenge here is we're one of 211 - they call it member associations, so basically countries that make up FIFA. And while we're a huge proponent of the women and the women's game, not all 211 are. So it's not just pushing FIFA. It's pushing the other member associations and countries and helping educate them to see the value in the women's game.

They may not make a national team or get a college scholarship or anything like that, but sport gives you so much more than just the X's and O's and tactics and technical skills. And we've seen it time and again there's life skills that you can learn through sport. And I think there's a lot of things that we can talk to other member associations to help them see the value in the girls' game and the women's game and start investing more in it.

KELLY: Let's shift to the bigger picture for U.S. soccer. You have been in your current role for a little over a year. You inherited all kinds of challenges. There's the litigation we've been talking about. Also, of course, you came in in the middle of a pandemic. How was U.S. soccer doing with the pandemic and all of the challenges that that has posed for play?

PARLOW CONE: Yeah. I didn't come in in the middle of a pandemic. I literally came in the day the sports world and our country was shutting down.

KELLY: Oh.

PARLOW CONE: That was my first day as president. And I came in without a CEO and without a chief commercial officer, so trying to navigate this was quite challenging in the beginning. But I think we've done a good job of navigating this and then also working with our board and our members. So hopefully we can have full stadiums here in the near future. But I think we see light at the end of the tunnel with COVID, especially with the vaccinations and how well those are going. So I think there's a huge upside here for U.S. soccer this summer because we have a busy summer and a busy fall. We have the women's national team going to the Olympics.

KELLY: Yeah.

PARLOW CONE: Our men's national team has Nations League, Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying. And our Paralympic team have - hopefully have matches this summer. And then also, our beach and futsal national teams have World Cup qualifiers.

KELLY: I do want to ask a question that feels very timely, which is about U.S. soccer's commitment to diversity. I know you formed a DEI council last year - diversity, equity, inclusion. Can you talk about plans for accountability, plans to extend change throughout the whole organization? And I suppose I'm talking about the top but also down into youth leagues.

PARLOW CONE: Yeah. When I came in as president, I wanted to fully and completely embrace diversity, equity, inclusion so that we can maximize our potential both on and off the field. One of the first things I did was I seeked (ph) out help. I went and hired a best-in-class consulting firm to come in to help us to see where are we right now and where do we need to go and how do we get there and setting goals.

So - and then another thing that I'm really excited about, because I spend my life in the youth game, is we're conducting a study with some of our members on why minorities aren't choosing soccer, which - I don't think a study of this type has been done. I think there's been ones about all sports, but we're taking a deep dive on specifically soccer. And what are those barriers to our game, and then how do we remove those barriers and increase access to our game?

I hope to create change that is long-lasting. I know we're not going to get there by the end of my presidency. But hopefully the groundwork has been laid for the next president to come in and to continue the work and to really make a difference in the world of soccer.

KELLY: That is Cindy Parlow Cone. She is president of U.S. Soccer. Thank you so much for talking with us.

PARLOW CONE: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: We reached out to the women's national soccer team for comment. In a statement, their spokeswoman says the U.S. Soccer Federation has not offered to meet with players from the women's national team to discuss equal pay, and she argues the women are paid less because of their gender. We hope to continue this conversation with a member of the women's national team.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY SONG, "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.