U.S. Women’s National Team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on July 5, 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
Richard Nichols, a Dallas-based lawyer who once worked at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and K&L Gates predecessor Hughes & Luce, has been let go from his role as executive director of the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNST).
The team announced the departure of Nichols on Dec. 28, just four days before the expiration of its collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body for the sport in the country.
Nichols’ exit comes amid an ongoing battle by the top female soccer players in the U.S. to achieve compensation on par with their male counterparts. Key members of the team appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last month to discuss their fight for equal pay, which suffered a setback in June when a federal judge in Chicago barred the U.S. women’s team from going on strike ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The USSF has said that the pay disparity is an economic issue, not one of discrimination.
Winston & Strawn co-chairman Jeffrey Kessler, a veteran sports law litigator in New York, and litigation partner Samuel Mendenhall in Chicago are representing the USWNST in its litigation with the USSF. Kessler was also retained by five U.S. female soccer stars—Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Rebecca Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo—to handle a complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on their behalf in March 2016.
Kessler declined to comment when asked whether or not he and Winston & Strawn would step in after Nichols’ departure to advise the USWNST on its labor negotiations with the USSF. It will be up to players on the women’s team to decide if and when they want to name a new executive director to replace Nichols.
Winston & Strawn and Kessler are well-versed in handling collective bargaining matters for top athletes. The American Lawyer reported in June on the nearly $4.5 million in fees that the firm, via Kessler, earned for its work advising the National Football League Players Association in 2015.
Kessler and Winston & Strawn sports law co-chair David Feher also took the lead this month for the National Basketball Players Association when the union for professional basketball players reached a seven-year extension on its labor deal with the National Basketball Association. (The NBPA paid $369,196 to Winston & Strawn in 2015-16, according to our previous reports.)
Nichols (pictured right), who did not respond to a request for comment about his ouster, was hired in November 2014 by women’s soccer players to serve as executive director of the USWNST. He replaced John Langel, a top sports lawyer and labor and employment expert who has since retired from Ballard Spahr, in the leadership role.
Nichols was paid $72,000 for legal services work by the USWNST in 2015, according to an annual LM-2 filing by the union with the U.S. Department of Labor. He is based in the Dallas suburb of Keller, Texas, and worked as senior counsel at Wilson Sonini in Palo Alto, California, from 1999 to 2001 and senior counsel at Hughes & Luce in Dallas from 2004 to 2006. K&L Gates acquired Hughes & Luce the following year, and Nichols started his own entertainment, sports and crisis management and communications shop.
Latham & Watkins, which has longstanding ties to the USSF, has been representing the nonprofit organization in litigation with the USWNST. A tax filing by the USSF for 2012-13 shows that it paid nearly $1.4 million in legal fees to Latham during that fiscal year. The firm received another $6.4 million for its USSF-related work in 2011-12, according to tax filings.
Members of the USWNST have said publicly that their fight with the USSF should not be considered an indictment of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, whose members are paid more despite enjoying far less success in the realm of international competition.
As it happens, it’s not just players on the men’s team who earn more than their female counterparts—the lawyers have also been getting paid more for their services. Williams & Connolly received $396,806 for its work advising the U.S. men’s team in 2015, according to Labor Department records.