The U.S. women's national team has not only been wildly successful on the field, the players have also been unabashedly outspoken, using their platform to advocate for equal rights for themselves and others.
The team's efforts to secure equitable pay finally came to fruition this week. The four-time Women's World Cup winners reached a collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer that gives them the same pay as their male counterparts.
But the historic milestone wasn't achieved just because the women filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2019, or complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. It was decades in the making.
Former goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who started on the team that won the 1999 World Cup, said the job of a national team player is first to be a skilled player and a great teammate. But there's always been another unspoken component.
“Part two is you have to understand that there is a standard of doing more than just being a footballer, you have to push the envelope further and further, raise the bar in terms of equality," Scurry said. “It was so clear to all of us back then that we deserved so much more than we were getting when we were the ones winning World Cups and Olympic Games, and bringing great notoriety to soccer in this country.”
—In 1995, before the Atlanta Games became the first Olympics to include women's soccer, a group of nine players, including Scurry, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, sat out of a training camp in a dispute over bonuses.
—Following the team's memorable 1999 World Cup victory at the Rose Bowl, 20 of the team's players refused to play in a tournament in Australia. That led to the team's first collective bargaining agreement.
Akers, who is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, said that back when the team was founded in the 80s, the players got a $10 per diem and had to wear their own cleats in games. They were given hand-me-down uniforms from the men's team.
Out of necessity, it became “part of the team's DNA” for the players to advocate for themselves off the field, Akers said.
"That’s also a part of playing for the US National Team, you’re representing your country, you’re representing your family, your teammates, and you’re out there giving everything you have to be the best you can be — and that doesn’t just mean as a soccer player, it means as a person and it means how you interact and work to make the world better," she said.
Over the years, the battles extended beyond just pay.
Abby Wambach led a group of players in protesting the artificial turf fields at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, claiming — rightly — that the men's World Cup would never be held on fake grass. The players said the game is inherently different on turf and there’s a greater risk of injury. The tournament went on as planned, but the point was made for future World Cups.
Megan Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem before two games in 2016 in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who knelt to draw attention to racial inequity.
At a match in Texas this year, a number of players wore armbands that read “Protect Trans Kids" hours after Gov. Greg Abbott called for investigations into parents for seeking gender-affirming care for their transgender children, likening it to child abuse.
One of the team's most dramatic stands for equality came in 2016, when five high-profile players — Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd — filed their EEOC complaint.
Unsatisfied with the lack of response, the women filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in 2019, just a few months before the team went to France and won the World Cup, spurring chants of “Equal Pay!” from fans celebrating the victory.
The U.S. Soccer Federation settled the lawsuit with the women earlier this year, and vowed to work with both the men's and women's teams to equalize pay going forward. On Wednesday, the teams announced that deals had been struck.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without all the generations of women’s national team players that came before that decided to fight for better everything,” Sauerbrunn said. “So much credit needs to go to them and I hope that they feel pride in what they did because we wouldn’t be here without them."
Amanda Cromwell, who played for the national team from 1991-98, appearing in 55 matches, is proud of that legacy.
“I hope these women know the players that came before them, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, they paved the way for this group, and we fought our battles back then with some contract issues and trying to get more,” Cromwell said. "We’ve come a long way, I’ll say that.”
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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press