Payback: The Story of Jessica McDonald
For forward Jessica McDonald, the USA women’s national soccer team’s ongoing equal pay battle is just the latest fight she’s desperate to win. McDonald, a teenage runaway-turned-single mom, tells us for the first time how she used two soccer games in North Carolina to rise from a broken home to the top of her sport. Now she is using her voice to fight systemic inequalities in football. We hope you’ll be reading these articles, a motion graphic novel, and listening to our 10-episode storytelling podcast throughout the spring.
When Jessica McDonald made the US women’s national soccer team, becoming one of the faces at the forefront of a social movement for equal pay in women’s soccer wasn’t her top priority.
Back then, she was only focused on building the team that would go on to win a FIFA Women’s World Cup. Largely so did their teammates, even as a simultaneous off-field battle brewed.
Jessica was relatively new to the squad compared to others in 2019, but she said she had little hesitation when star forward Megan Rapinoe approached the group to sue her parents’ association over wage discrimination.
“Pinoe’s really the one who really stood up and said, ‘Look, this is what’s happening,'” Jessica said. “We all kind of knew what was happening, and then she said, ‘Look, we’re filing this lawsuit. Everyone on board?” ”
Jessica said she didn’t hesitate to sign up, but her situation was different from some of the another 27 players in a crucial way. She wasn’t matched, meaning the US Soccer Association didn’t pay her annual salary while she played in the National Women’s Soccer League like it did for other players in the 2021 season when this system ended.
Jessica’s regular paychecks come from her club teams in the domestic league, which she says have never exceeded $42,000 a year up until this year.
“This is for everyone, every woman out there who deserves justice and equality, regardless of where they work,” Jessica said.
The lawsuit, filed in March 2019, accused the USSF, a nonprofit organization, of “institutionalized gender discrimination” under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Complaints about working conditions were settled out of court in December 2020, and the two sides announced that the equal pay lawsuit was settled for $24 million late last month.
As part of the settlement, players will receive a payment of $22 million, distributed in a manner proposed by USWNT players and approved by the District Court. The USSF will also send $2 million to an account to help players with their post-career goals and charitable efforts for girls’ and women’s soccer, with each USWNT player eligible to receive up to $50,000 from the to apply for funds.
After Jessica’s team won the Women’s World Cup in France, chants of “Equal Pay!” erupted at the stadium, Parc Olympique Lyonnais. The slogan is a greatly simplified version of what a was differentiated litigationbut years later, the legal battle that inspired these chants is almost settled.
Settlement “a win for women in general”
The settlement is subject to USWNT players ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement. The players and the federation described it as a joint victory.
“It’s a victory for US soccer, for the women players and for women’s sports,” said Cindy Parlow Cone, USSF President, who was recently re-elected. “It’s a win for women in general. I will be the first to admit that the federation has made mistakes in the past.”
Cone was a former US women’s national team player who was an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina when Jessica played there. The two have a strong relationship that hasn’t seemed to break despite the long-running battle they’ve sat on opposite sides of the legal issue.
Jessica said she’s not yet sure how much she or other players in the lawsuit would personally win, but for now she said her quality of life as a professional soccer player has improved in large part thanks to reforms in the NWSL.
She has made significant progress on her team salary. This year, she said she will earn $75,000 for the season with her latest Racing Louisville team, which will increase to $80,000 next year, including bonuses.
“I’ve never had bonuses in my contract,” she said. “Bonus every time I have an assist. Bonus every time I score. The list goes on with just about anything I can contribute to the team. And so I was like, ‘Wow, finally, where has this been my whole career?’ ”
Now Jessica said she rents a home of her own that includes four bedrooms — one for her 10-year-old son Jeremiah, one for herself, an office and a guest room — and a huge backyard where her two dogs and son can play . That’s important, she said, as she described her son as an “outdoor kid.”
He said he loves to climb trees, even after a fright when he fell while climbing and broke his arm at the age of 7. He recalled his mother showing him a scar on her knee to teach him a lesson about overcoming his fears.
“I’ve told him a few times that going through those things sucks,” Jessica said. “But just to know that these (hard) moments and things don’t last forever. There is joy and happiness that comes from these things (and just to keep pushing forward). Never fear anything.”
Jessica reminded her son of the knee injury her scar caused and how she reacted after the setback.
“You went on anyway and played soccer,” Jeremiah said.
“Exactly,” Jessica said. “And after you broke your arm, what did you do?”
He replied, “I kept climbing higher and higher up the tree.”