US Soccer Scores PR ‘Own Goal’ With Legal Strategy
The claims made recently by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) in its argument against the men’s and women’s teams being paid the same might have been considered strong … that is, if they had been made prior to 1999. Instead, they provide yet another example of a legal tack that is a terrible communications tack.
The strategy employed by the USSF’s legal team in the lawsuit brought by the women players for higher pay is as shockingly oblivious to public perception as one could imagine. Public relations professionals around the world collectively cringed upon hearing the contention that the women’s national team should not be paid as much as the men’s team because they’re not as strong or as fast as the men and don’t have to deal with as much scrutiny during road games.
This raises an important question that lawyers in 2020 constantly have to struggle with — how can I present my best argument without being considered insensitive and tone-deaf by the public?
In a sense, there’s a long history to this case.
In 1991, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) won the first official Women’s World Cup. But women’s soccer in the U.S. attained an unprecedented level of superstardom when the 1999 team led by Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy defeated China in an unforgettable overtime shootout that took place at the Rose Bowl in California in front of over 90,000 fans.
The U.S. Men’s team has largely not shown any major progress in the last 20 years and bottomed out when it failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The very fair public perception is that the U.S. Women’s team is consistently the best in the world, while the U.S. Men’s team has yet to rise to the level of its European and South American counterparts.
Last year, the USWNT successfully defended its 2015 World Cup victory. Certainly no easy task when it was the favorite and the main target of every other nation in the tournament. Immediately following the celebration, talk turned to members of the team fighting for equal pay with their male counterparts. It was more than talk: They sued. It’s presumably at this point that USSF’s legal team began to, in earnest, develop a defense strategy.
Lawyers, as we know, are trained to present the facts, feelings be damned. But as we’ve seen time and time again recently, that rote delivery of facts can be perceived by the public as obtuse and even callous. This is exactly how USSF’s case played out to the masses. In particular, it was the arguments in a March 9 court filing that caused major blowback. Those reacting negatively included advertisers; Volkswagen said it was “disgusted.” The heat got bad enough that the federation’s president, Carlos Cordeiro, decided to resign on March 12 and issued an apology as well.
Last week’s legal filing was an error.
— U.S. Soccer Federation President Cindy Parlow Cone
His replacement, fittingly, is Cindy Parlow Cone, a member of the legendary 1999 Women’s World Cup champion team. Cone apologizedfor the sexist language (“Last week’s legal filing was an error”). The federation brought on an additional law firm and, when it filed a new court brief March 16, the press coverage noted the “different tone” (it praised the women players).
Even in the earlier filing, along with the misogynistic “men are stronger than women and bear more responsibility” line of defense, the USSF lawyers presented more straightforward assertions about the men’s team competing in more lucrative tournaments, having higher ratings, and generating more revenue than the women’s team. All valid points if they can be proven. These perfectly legitimate and less offensive arguments, however, were buried in the public narrative by the headline-grabbing sexist points.
While the original USSF lawyers should have foreseen this backlash, if the federation itself wants to understand where it went wrong, it need only look inward. Neither former President Cordeiro nor the board did anything to stop their lawyers from causing damage to their public perception in this hotly debated legal battle.
Unfortunately, as we’re seeing, many firms have been slow to make the adjustments necessary to build a successful case in both actual court andin the court of opinion.
Photo Credit: Bplanet/Shutterstock
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