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U.S. Soccer’s Becky Sauerbrunn talks equal pay, trans rights ahead of St. Louis homecoming

Becky Sauerbrunn, seen here in a 2021 match against France, grew up playing indoor and outdoor soccer in St. Louis before becoming a mainstay of the U.S. Women's National Team.
Brad Smith/ISI Photos
U.S. Soccer Federation
Becky Sauerbrunn, shown in a 2021 match against France, grew up playing indoor and outdoor soccer in St. Louis before becoming a mainstay of the U.S. Women's National Team.

Olivette native and soccer standout Becky Sauerbrunn has been a fixture on the U.S. Women’s National Team for more than a dozen years. The center back has won Olympic gold and bronze medals and two FIFA Women’s World Cups. She’s now serving her second stint as team captain and has played in more international competitions than any of her teammates.

Sauerbrunn was also one of five players who filed suit in 2019 seeking improved working conditions and the same pay as members of the men’s national team.

The U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association reached an equal-pay agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation last year, including $22 million in back pay. It incorporated a deal with players on the men’s team to pool and equally divide the unequal amounts of World Cup prize money awarded by FIFA, the international organization that runs the men’s and women’s tournaments.

On Tuesday, the USWNT visits CityPark in St. Louis to play the Republic of Ireland in an exhibition match. It’ll be the team’s last contest before heading to Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. The team is trying to do something no other national team has accomplished in either the men’s or women’s tournaments — win three consecutive World Cups.

'St. Louis on the Air' extended version of this conversation with Becky Sauerbrunn

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin asked Sauerbrunn how her teammates prevailed in the dispute over pay and working conditions, and why she recently spoke out to support trans athletes.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: What does it mean for you, to come home and play this match in a brand-new soccer stadium in the middle of St. Louis?

Becky Sauerbrunn: It's super exciting, and it just goes to show that St. Louis is very much a soccer city. And it's great to see the evolution of the game — getting an MLS side, getting a soccer specific stadium in the city. So it's all steps in the right direction.

Goodwin: Growing up in Olivette and attending Ladue Horton Warkins High School, what sort of soccer infrastructure was there here for a budding player like yourself?

Sauerbrunn: It was great. They had the Olivette Athletic Association, so at a young age, you're kind of thrown into all these different sports that you want to play. And you're playing with your friends and someone's mom or dad is probably coaching the team. And that's how I got started in soccer.

Goodwin: Let’s talk about your fight for equal pay. It's a complicated timeline, but you reached your eventual settlement with U.S. Soccer a couple of years after a federal judge dismissed a lot of your case. Why do you think you were successful in the end, even after you lost some of your legal leverage?

Olivette's Becky Sauerbrunn and her teammates are trying to do something unprecedented: win three consecutive World Cups.
Bob Drebin
U.S. Soccer Federation
Olivette's Becky Sauerbrunn and her teammates are trying to do something unprecedented: win three consecutive World Cups.

Sauerbrunn: I think a lot of that is because we were arguing and fighting for the right things. The argument was there. Yeah, the judge partially sided with U.S. Soccer when it came down to some of the financials. But as far as the working conditions, which to us are very important as well, they absolutely thought that there was too much inequality, and it needed to be rectified right away.

And so while we were working on making sure that those working conditions were equalized, our talks with U.S. Soccer changed a little bit, and we got a little bit more collaborative, and we found a way to eventually equalize even the financial part of it. That came with a lot of help from the men's national team and the U.S. Men's National Team Players Association, especially when it came to World Cup prize money. Because for us, that was the biggest difference. That’s where the big amounts of money come in.

Goodwin: I wonder if you successfully moved the public conversation to a place where, even if you weren't victorious on some of the key points in court, it just became untenable for U.S. Soccer to really continue what it had been doing.

Sauerbrunn: I believe so. A lot of sponsors were supporting the women. I think they also thought that the inequalities and some of the things that were said publicly were wrong. I think the public pressure as well from the fan base [contributed]. And then I think you have some people in Congress that really stepped up and were siding with us. You also had President Biden talking about the issues and saying that the women deserve equal pay. And so I think a lot of pressure came from all these different sides.

Goodwin: Recently you wrote an op-ed column supporting trans kids playing sports, particularly trans girls playing on girls’ teams. Why was it important to speak out about that?

Sauerbrunn: Luckily, I've been given this platform because of the teams that I've played on. When I think about what I have learned, especially as a young person playing sports — the teamwork that you've learned, the challenges, the obstacles that you learned to overcome, the camaraderie, the relationships that you create, fighting for a common goal — all these things really give you a sense of purpose and belonging.

And I think that's so important for young people and especially for transgendered youth, when you look at the suicidal thoughts and the depression. And to deny the opportunity for these children to have that sense of belonging and the camaraderie and all that, I think is extremely cruel.

I wrote that op-ed knowing that it was going to be extremely polarizing, but I so truly believe that transgender youth should get to play on sports teams with the gender that they identify with. I wanted transgender youth and their families and allies to know that there are people that do support them and do believe that they should get to play.

And I also wanted to call out the legislation that's asking to ban these transgender youth from playing sports and put some pressure on that as well.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.