Judge hears arguments on US women's soccer team strike rights

A federal judge heard arguments Thursday on whether the world champion U.S. women's soccer team has the right to strike for improved conditions and wages before this year's Summer Olympics, with her pending decision potentially carrying far-reaching consequences for American soccer.

An hour's worth of arguments in the civil case in federal court in Chicago focused on whether an existing agreement between the governing body of U.S. soccer and the union bars the women from striking in the lead up to the Olympics in Rio, where the American women would seek their fourth straight Olympic gold medal.

A strike, the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation has said in filings, could force the 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."

The union wants the option of striking, though it hasn't said for sure that it will strike. Many players have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman didn't say when she might rule, though the federation and the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team Players Association have both indicated they hope she does so soon.

Coleman referred during the hearing to the issue looming over the case, saying, "Obviously, the big question is — are they going to strike?" She didn't ask the union lawyers to answer that question, however.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, the executive director of the players association, Richard Nichols, clearly left the door open to a strike.

"We'd really like to be able to get a deal done before the Olympics so that we don't have to contemplate any other action," he said. But he also said: "We're going to reserve our rights to do whatever we need to do to affect equal pay."

Federation lawyer Russell Sauer Jr. told Coleman that a no-strike clause is implied in a still-valid memorandum of understanding signed by the sides in 2013.

A lawyer for the union balked at that claim, saying the federation failed to secure a no-strike clause in writing three years ago and can't argue now that such a provision is implied.

"What is happening here is they screwed up," Jeffrey Kessler told the court. "These are sophisticated counsel. They can't come in here and say, 'Oops.'"

Asked by the judge about why the federation didn't insist on a no-strike clause in the memorandum, another federation lawyer, Amy Quartarolo, said it was made clear in emails and other communications that a no-strike provision in old collective bargaining deals carried over into the 2013 agreement.

"I don't think that anyone messed up," said Quartarolo. "There was a meeting of the minds."