- Lifestyle & Sports
- 27 May 22
A lot of people might see women’s football in the United States of America as a benchmark for everyone else to follow. But what has the reality been like for players? And is that where we should be looking for ‘best practice’? Answers on a stolen postcard, please…
Call me cynical if you like, but the best thing that every democratic country can learn from the United States at the moment is to do exactly the opposite of what’s happening there. It’s as if the US is testing the world to see just how much depressing un-fake news it can stomach.
As with white pudding, the answer is not a lot. No wonder people are looking at America with their mouths agape, in sheer dismay.
We have the repeal of Roe V. Wade, the shortage of baby formula (horribly ironic, I know), skyrocketing prices, three mass shootings just this week (bringing the total to 288 school shootings in the history of the country), widespread abuse in professional sports, college admission scandals, and Bud Light beer.
I don’t mean to make light of just how unsafe, discriminatory, sexist, and racist the United States is at the moment, but I really do think that all light beer should be banned, rather than, say, historical books – which of course have been banned in a large number of conservative schools.
So here’s the deal…
AR-15 rifles? Allowed.
Books discussing slavery? Absolutely not.
It would be a joke if it weren’t so serious…
LACK OF STRUCTURE
Let’s remember why I’m really here – no, it’s not just the Guinness – and focus on soccer for a minute. The US women’s team are World Champions. Women’s football is more developed in the US than anywhere else in the world. What’s not to like?
That, it turns out, is a good question.
The National Women’s Soccer League has been around since 2013, with the league growing exponentially over the past few years. Growing, that is, in terms of players, teams and fans. Oh, and abuse scandals.
Not so much in terms of players’ rights, player autonomy or equitable pay. So in that regard, the NWSL is a sort of bellwether for all kinds of issues currently at play in the U.S.
During the first professional draft, players learned where they were being sent via Twitter – that’s right, the very same social media app that lets quirky comedians type funny one-liners and disgruntled employees say why they hate their boss. This was, indeed, the official way a professional league told professional athletes where they were going to ply their trade, for a salary of less than $12K per year.
Women’s soccer players were forced to live on $250 a week.
So, if your WiFi went out because you couldn’t pay your internet bill, how could you even download Twitter to get all of your “professional” communications from the NWSL? What if you still had your pink Razr flip-phone from when you were 14 years old because a smartphone was like, a month’s pay?
Players were forced to make difficult decisions. They could continue their career in the United States for next to no money; take their playing skills abroad for next to no money; or retire altogether right after university. Given that professional football players peak between the ages of 27 and 30 (or thereabouts), this was half tragic, half plain ludicrous.
The bottom line was that 22-year-old phenoms, whose talent had earned them full-ride scholarships to one of the Top 10 colleges in the United States were retiring from their chosen sport due to a lack of opportunity, money, stability, and – most of all – honesty.
Some of the best players in the world were forced to scrounge for a chance to play the game they loved. Some took their chances and moved abroad. Some went to Japan, others to the Scandinavian countries. A few even tried their luck in Russia – ask Yael Averbuch how well that went, with five girls crammed into one hotel room with two beds, one cellphone, and half a potato for sustenance.
Averbuch, a staple on the USWNT, had headed to Moscow after the 2011 season due to the cancellation of the US league. Although a free trip to Russia may have seemed enticing (...not anymore, Vlad), the lack of concern for player welfare was slightly disconcerting. If this was how the best players in the country had to make a living, what about the rest of the loyal, hard-working grunts that make up the numbers in any professional sport?
The lack of structure and organisation in women’s football in America – and the risible wages – made a nightmare of the dream of continuing to play after college. Sure, more players could have done what I did – test your luck in a million different places, get by paycheck to paycheck, and live out of a suitcase – but it is hardly anyone’s idea of a secure career. Not that it ever bothered me – but hey, I never liked the idea of a white picket fence, children, dogs, and a husband. Well, in all fairness, I do like dogs…
The league has expanded in recent years, and playing opportunities abroad now include full-time gigs that pay well, in the likes of the WSL in England, Damallsvenskan in Sweden, Toppserien in Norway, WE League in Japan and Superliga Femenina in Spain. That said, a few key issues still keep some of America’s best female athletes from continuing their football careers in their home country.
Let’s start with the money. Some of the league’s most experienced players, such as Lauren Barnes, who has the record for the most appearances in the NWSL, began when minimum salaries were as low as $6,000. Players needed second jobs to afford their ‘pro’ career and the franchises were disbanded multiple times.
Risking your security and stability for $500 a month doesn’t seem like the best smartest move. But that’s what women who really loved the game did.
I know one pro who regularly went straight from tough, no-holds-barred training sessions to minding three children under the age of 5 years because she didn’t make even remotely enough money to survive as a professional footballer. “Peppa the Pig” re-runs became unbearable, cutting apple slices for snack time seemed like torture, and children lost all their charm. If they had any to begin with. Did I mention I like dogs?
Next, far too often, the playing conditions were dismal. In the early days of the league, the “stadiums” in which some of the teams would play included high school football grounds (football with your hands, not your feet); turf (as in astro) fields in the middle of nowhere; and movable bleachers that substituted as permanent stands to get people to come and watch the matches.
As if horrible field conditions and pitiful salaries weren’t bad enough, players were also forced to give up their own rights during the buying, selling and transfer process. These women weren’t in charge of their own future – which, of course, presaged what is happening in the US as a whole right now.
This might seem hard to believe, but players were not able to choose where they wanted to play; when they might be bought or sold; or if they wanted to move abroad. Players could be purchased by a club like Orlando Pride and then just 48 hours later be told that they were going to Kansas City for the season.
If they didn’t like it, too bad. It was a modern form of indentured labour. The women were disposable. Like property. If they didn’t do wqhat they were told, they couldn’t work – or play! – at all. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Lincoln!
Finally, as is now emerging irrefutably, abuse was rampant in the league for many, many years. Big-name players, such as Christen Press, Mana Shim, and Alex Morgan, all came forward and made complaints to U.S. Soccer years ago, detailing abusive coaches, training environments, and experiences.
So, what did U.S. Soccer do about the complaints these women made? You think they immediately did the right thing by calling each and every player, hearing their stories and helping them to get all the mental health therapy they needed. And they, rigorously investigated the allegations AND….
Nah, sorry. They did none of that. They sent an email saying they had looked into it and would ‘take care’ of the issues.
And did they?
Nah. Again. Years later, the men who had abused their players – systematically throughout the formative years of the NWSL, with some coaches even “grooming” players throughout club and college careers – were still in positions of power. Coaches who had abused players could still control their playing rights, contracts, playing time, and, essentially, their lives.
Recently, a ray of hope broke through the dark clouds that have been hanging over the US and the NWSL.
You may have heard of the Rory Dames scandal, which led to the Washington Spirit coach being fired after multiple allegations of verbal and emotional abuse.
What you may not know is that he was the FOURTH coach this year to be fired over abuse and misconduct allegations.
Which confirms that a systemic problem existed in the NWSL that led to players being repeatedly taken advantage of: emotionally, financially, mentally, physically, and in any other sense of the word you can think of. But also – and here’s where the light creeps in – that it is finally being addressed.
There are those who would say that the US has so many things going for it. You can rent an Apple scooter at Disney World and ride to Olive Garden for unlimited breadsticks before a Starbucks and Netflix. Hmmmmm…
Of course, the United States also has some of the best female football players in the world and – by some distance – the best women’s national team. So, the burgeoning Women’s National League in Ireland could learn quite a bit from US soccer.
The most important thing is that we learn from their mistakes – and, above all, avoid making the same ones.
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