Women's soccer team ready for legal fight

The Canadian women's soccer team has been involved in some hotly contested matches on the field over the past few years. But the team's next big battle could be before a sports arbitrator, writes senior writer John F. Molinaro.

Compensation issue at heart of dispute with CSA

The Canadian women's soccer team has been involved in some hotly contested matches on the field over the past few years.

But the team's next big battle could be before a sports arbitrator.

Twenty-five members of the women's team have retained legal counsel in a dispute with the Canadian Soccer Association, the sport's governing body in Canada, over how they are paid.

The lawyer representing the teams said players are prepared to file a suit for arbitration with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. At the heart of the dispute is compensation for the players.

Toronto-based lawyer Jim Bunting, lead counsel for the women, contends that the members of the Canadian men's team have a fixed-term arrangement with the CSA under which they are compensated on a per game basis. He maintains the women do not have a similar deal, and instead receive ad-hoc compensation from the CSA.

Bunting sent a letter to the CSA on Jan. 13 outlining the players' request for a long-term compensation deal, which they originally raised in February 2009. Bunting revealed he has had some discussions with the CSA on the issue, but nothing has been resolved yet, which means he is prepared to file for arbitration this week.

"We're always hopeful to have something resolved rather than going to litigation. At this point in time, we are continuing to wait on information from the CSA," Bunting told on Tuesday.

To that end, Bunting said he has made several requests of the CSA, asking for documentation of the compensation agreement the women believe the organization has with the men's team. Bunting said he has yet to receive the information.

"In particular, we need to know what the exact arrangements are with the men's team. Until we have that, it's difficult to have a discussion of what an appropriate arrangement is for the women," Bunting said.

He later added: "We need to understand what's happening on the men's side before we can evaluate what's reasonable on the women's side."

Compensation negotiated

Members of the women's team receive approximately $1,500 a month from Sport Canada. Currently, the players also negotiate compensation with the CSA for each tournament it participates in.

That has to change, said Bunting, because the players often have to negotiate compensation with the CSA in the days leading up to, and even during, competition.

"Leaving aside the exact arrangement with the men's team, what the women are looking for is an arrangement that is fixed in term and provides them with predictability as to what their compensation will be," Bunting stated.

"The main complaint right now is that we're dealing with this on an ad-hoc basis, on a tournament-by-tournament basis and that's not just acceptable."

An arbitration suit isn't the only headache for the CSA.

Canadian captain Christine Sinclair dropped a major bombshell Monday when she confirmed that she and her teammates threatened the CSA with a boycott. Sinclair said they would not play another international match until the CSA resolves its dispute with coach Carolina Morace.

Morace announced last week that she plans to leave after this summer's World Cup, citing differences with the CSA over the long-term strategy of the women's program.

Boycott threatened

Bunting insisted that the boycott is not tied to the pending arbitration action as a way to put pressure on the CSA with regards to the women's compensation demands.

"We were involved before Carolina made that announcement. That was something that's developed, and we were retained specifically to deal with the compensation structure in place," Bunting stated.

He also said that the players would end the boycott if the CSA comes to an agreement to keep Morace in the fold, even if the compensation issue is not settled.

"The women don't have any intention boycotting solely as a result of the compensation issue. The boycott is a reaction to the coaching issue," Bunting stated.

Bunting's firm, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, is handling the case on a pro bono basis after being contacted by the players through the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.

"The women are strapped as it is financially. They have a lot of pressures focusing on competition and it's certainly a source of stress having limited financial compensation they currently have," Bunting said.

"In our view it was the right thing to do here to help out these women — they certainly don't need to be racking up legal bills trying to get to the right results."

If the case does go before the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, the process would be confidential and involve a decision being made by single arbitrator.

The SDRCC has the power to do "real-time litigation," meaning that depending on the ituation, it could deal with the women's case in a day or two, according to Bunting.

The Canadian Soccer Association could not be reached for comment.