The USWNT’s fight for equality will have a lasting impact on women’s sports

Becky Sauerbrunn, Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd.

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Sports history and American history often overlap. Sometimes it is for amazing feats, or great moments that mark time, but more often than not and at its most impactful is when sports act as a vehicle for social progress. The United States women’s national team are on the cusp of writing their own chapter.

Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jesse Owens, Jason Collins, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Arthur Ashe are just a handful of the many athletes whose names are not just written in the record books, but also history books. The national conversation, extending well beyond sports on race, gender and sexual orientation were impacted to varying degrees by athletes.

The U.S. women are in a unique position to do the same. They are unquestionably accomplished on the field, capturing last year’s Women’s World Cup and are the favorites to take home their fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer. Their successes have attracted massive audiences, with 25 million Americans watching them capture the world championship a year ago and over a quarter million tickets sold in the victory tour that followed. They have the spotlight, or at least access to it, and are intent on using it.

Prior to the World Cup, the women were part of a group of players who sued in Canadian court, claiming gender discrimination because FIFA was requiring they play the tournament on artificial turf instead of natural grass like the men’s World Cups. The U.S. women followed that up by refusing to play a Victory Tour friendly in Honolulu, Hawaii because of a dangerous artificial turf surface. In addition, the World Cup champions hit out against U.S. Soccer’s continued practice of scheduling matches on turf, which they did not do for the men.

That alone had spurred a national and even international conversation on the treatment of women athletes. It is a long overdue cause, especially as participation in women’s sport is at an all-time high. More professional leagues are popping up and surviving, interest is skyrocketing and no longer is equal treatment for women’s athletes a cause left largely to those in individual sports.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati will have to bridge a gap between his federation and the women’s team.

On Thursday, five of the players took things a step further and filed an action with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing U.S. Soccer of gender discrimination. And those players are Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, making it a quintet of the team’s most prominent figures.

In an interview with TODAY, the five players and their lawyer Jeffrey Kessler highlighted the massive pay disparity between U.S. Soccer’s men’s and women’s teams despite the women generating more revenue than the men in 2015, and claimed it was a long-standing practice from the federation. The players also cited different bonus structures, travel accommodations and, as they had done before, the surfaces they are asked to play on.

The filing comes while the players are engaged with legal action against U.S. Soccer, claiming that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the two sides have been operating under since 2013 is not a valid Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). But however the court rules on the validity of the MOU, there is no agreement for 2017 and the women’s fight for equal pay and treatment will certainly be at the forefront of the negotiations for the new labor deal.

In past years, the U.S. women have not always gone public with their grievances. The public interest certainly would have been less. But they have an opportunity right now and have garnered considerable public support.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her support for the team’s fight for equal pay, and U.S. men’s goalkeeper Tim Howard backed his counterparts in their "fight for their rights and fight for what they think is just compensation."

The women earn $3,600 per friendly and $1,350 per win from U.S. Soccer. The men are paid $5,000 per friendly and $4,375 per win against the weakest of teams, with the men raking in as much as a $12,625 in win bonuses against the world’s best. The women’s team also gets paid less in per diem and sponsorship agreements, and takes home a smaller percentage of ticket revenues as well, while the men are paid more than five times as much as the women for winning the World Cup.

The U.S. men earned more for making the World Cup round of 16 than the U.S. women did for winning the World Cup.

At the very least, the conversation is louder than it has ever been and, hopefully, more intelligent than at any point in the past. And arguably with more on the line than ever before.

The legal process for untangling the many layers of the case is complicated, but the discussion is entirely necessary and legitimate. The law and common sense or moral right don’t always align. But how we view women’s athletes and their roles in a society that has long overlooked their talents and influence is crucial. And beyond that, how they are compensated in what is the relatively new world of women’s professional sports is a discussion that continues to evolve. After all, this is still a world where the CEO of a tennis tournament openly states that women’s players should get on their knees and thank the men for what they have.

Whether the women are successful in their legal challenge or not, they will have effected change. Curt Flood helped usher in free agency in Major League Baseball — which led to free agency in other leagues –€“ with his challenge that reached the Supreme Court. And while he lost his case, and then his career, it was that fight that led to the Major League Baseball Players Association getting the players’ rights they believed were just.

The EEOC may rule against the USWNT, but a CBA negotiation is coming. Maybe it is later this year, or maybe it is next year. And when it does, the players will have public opinion backing them, not to mention a much more evolved conversation in society that strengthens their arguments at the negotiating table. That helps set precedent for women’s sports across the board. And the EEOC could just as easily rule in their favor to begin with.

The women are making this push with significant risk. While they may be paid less than the men, this sport and, primarily, their place on the national team, is their livelihood. Be it their actual salaries or the endorsement deals that come with their play, anything that disrupts that could impact their earning power. They will undoubtedly face criticism and even nasty responses from those who oppose their stance.

And yet they are doing it anyway. It’s admirable. It’s necessary. It’s history making.