CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge is poised to make a high-stakes ruling on whether the Women's World Cup-winning American national team has the right to strike before the Summer Olympics, an action the sport's governing body warns could stunt the development of soccer in the United States.
The case stems from a suit the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation filed in February against the players' union. During the first status hearing on Thursday, Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman set in-court arguments for May 25; she also set deadlines to file written arguments leading up to that hearing.
The simmering legal battle pits the soccer federation against the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Players Association, with their dispute centered on whether a collective bargaining agreement is or isn't still in effect. The union says it no longer is, giving its members the right to strike if they so choose.
The Olympic Games, which the women's team qualified for last month, starts in Brazil in August, when the American women, ranked No. 1 in the world, will seek their fourth straight Olympic gold medal. They won the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in Canada last year.
The union wants the option of striking, even though it hasn't said it will or identified any grievances that might trigger a strike. Many players, however, have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer. Some pointed to the artificial-turf playing surface in Canada, pointing out the men's World Cup is played on natural grass.
Judge Coleman could rule within weeks of the May hearing. She could also chose to stop short of a finding for either side, letting them thrash out their disagreements with the hope of resolving the matter between themselves outside court.
Samuel Mendenhall, an attorney for the union, and Russell Sauer, Jr., attorney for the federation, declined comment after Thursday's hearing.
The federation has argued in filings that the collective bargaining agreement remains very much in effect until Dec. 31 — an expiry date it says was designed to avoid just such disputes in the midst of big sports events like the Olympics.
A strike, it says, "could jeopardize the existence" of the professional National Women's Soccer League and force the U.S. women's team to withdraw from the Olympics — "all to the substantial detriment of" all soccer-related bodies in the U.S. and to "the growth of girls' and women's soccer in general."
In a filing this week, the union said it's acting well within the law. In earlier filings it said the federation account of the dispute is "filled with blatant inaccuracies, misrepresentations and misleadingly incomplete quotations from the relevant record."