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This Women’s World Cup is reaching new heights thanks to collective actions from female footballers

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Inside the labor movements that are taking women’s soccer to new heights.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is already on its way to being the most successful edition of the event ever. Though the tournament is still in the group stages, it is already breaking viewership records around the globe.

FIFA likes to take credit for this increase in popularity, but that credit is, of course, wholly unearned. In the past four years, as more and more people called for the sport’s governing body to close the gap in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cup, FIFA actually increased the disparity between the two by $40 million, and on the ground in France, it seems that FIFA has not done an adequate job of promotion or ticketing.

Rather, the increased excitement is owed largely to the overall growth of women’s football; and that growth is due solely to the women who not only play the sport, but have taken it upon themselves to be its fiercest and most effective advocates and activists. Female footballers have always had to fight for the right to merely exist, but since the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, collective labor actions from teams around the world have extracted more concessions and progress from federations than FIFA ever has.

Even the most casual sports fans have likely heard about the defending World Cup champions, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, arguing that it pays the men’s team more money than the women’s team, despite the fact that they do the same job, and have achieved more success than their male counterparts.

The USWNT — which has been battling U.S. Soccer for more equitable treatment since it was founded — really brought their fight with the federation into the public square after winning it all in Canada in 2015 and being subjected to a Victory Tour of exhibition games that were played primarily on subpar turf, a surface the men’s team hardly ever has to play on. After boycotting a match in Hawaii because of the dangerous field conditions, the USWNT launched an #EqualPlayEqualPay campaign in 2016 and filed a wage-discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Since the issue still has not been remedied to their liking, the USWNT has now taken its fight to the biggest stage in the sport.

The Spanish women’s team actually began its collective action in 2015, when the Women’s World Cup was still happening. After the Spanish women finished in last place in their group in their World Cup debut, the players wrote an open letter asking for the firing of their manager, Ignacio Quereda, who was allowed to oversee the team for 27 years despite only winning 38% of their matches under his direction. As detailed by Deadspin, he also emotionally abused the players by attacking them for their weight and calling them immature little girls (“chavalitas”); kept players off the team if they crossed him; and did so little actual coaching that the players actually had to scout their opponents on YouTube themselves.

The letter received enough attention that Quereda ultimately resigned, and the Spanish football federation — which spent less than 1% of its budget on women’s football in 2014 — has begun prioritizing the women’s game a bit more. At this year’s World Cup, the Spanish team has already advanced to the knockout rounds.

In the fall of 2015, the Australian women’s national soccer team canceled a sell-out tour of the United States because players were so upset over their pay, which was far below minimum wage. Despite the fact that the Matildas reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup, they left Canada with just $2,014 in their pockets, which did little to boost their $14,844 annual salary. The strike was effective — their annual salary has essentially doubled, and contracts in the Australian pro league have increased significantly as well.

In 2016, the Chilean women’s team was fed up after years of neglect, and decided to form a players’ union. This union ended up integrating with the men’s union, and gained enough power to convince the Chilean federation to host the Copa América, a major women’s football tournament in the region, which ended up being the launchpad for Chile to earn its maiden Women’s World Cup bid.

“The Chilean team would not be playing in the 2019 World Cup were it not for the voluntary labor, blood, sweat, tears of the players themselves,” said Dr. Brenda Elsey, an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author of Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America.

In December 2016, the Nigerian Super Falcons decided to stage a sit-in at the Agura Hotel in the nation’s capital until they received their bonuses for winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations — a total of $23,650 per player. Janine Anthony, a presenter and reporter for BBC South Africa, told ThinkProgress that it is not uncommon for bureaucracy in Nigeria to complicate payments, since most of the money for football comes from the government. However, those complications disproportionately impact the women.

“You just know that if it was for the men’s team, a lot of things would be faster,” Anthony said. “Every time you have issues, the girls have to be the one to … just understand. ‘Oh, please bear with us.’”

This time, however, they were done bearing with anybody. Their protest garnered national attention, and the federation very quickly found a way to access the money that had been so unobtainable just a day prior.

The following year, the Swedish women’s football team threatened to boycott the Player Awards Gala and their friendly against France if a new contract wasn’t reached, and Scottish players implemented a media blackout to raise awareness about the lack of financial support and respect shown by the Scottish Football Association. Both actions led to improved contracts.

Also in 2017, Argentinian and Brazilian female players followed in Chile’s footsteps and challenged their federations. In Brazil, multiple players retired in protest and a group of former and current players released a powerful letter denouncing the federation’s abrupt firing of Emily Lima, the team’s first female coach. The Brazilian federation launched a commission to address the concerns raised in the letter, but it was disbanded four months later, without any concrete advances.

The Argentinian women had a bit more luck. In the spring of 2017, the Argentinian women’s team was convened after an 18-month hiatus to play a match in Uruguay. But players had to travel in and out of the country on the same day as the match, there was hardly any support staff present, and the players didn’t even receive their paltry $8.50 per day stipends. So, they went on strike, and wrote a letter as a national team.

The federation ended up re-hiring head coach Carlos Borello, who they had let go after the team failed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, adding a bit more support staff, and paying the players a stipend. It’s far from equality, but it did lead to the Argentinian women making their World Cup debut in France.

Of course, these examples only come from the 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup. These labor movements are happening throughout the ranks of women’s football.

Last September, the Puerto Rico women’s team actually stopped playing right after their friendly against Argentina kicked off and stood united facing the main stand, putting their hands to their ears, signaling for the Puerto Rican Football Association to listen to their complaints about working conditions and support.

In December, The Guardian reported on allegations that Karim Keramuddin, a top official with the Afghanistan Football Federation, had been sexually abusing players on the Afghanistan women’s national team. The players — who do not all live in Afghanistan, but rather are spread out around the globe — came together and reported the abuse. Just last week, FIFA banned Keram for life, and Afghan officials have issued a warrant for his arrest.

“I think the executives and the men complicit in this abuse were feeling like, because the women were not all in one place that they would not be unified or have that network. But sometimes WhatsApp does wonderful things, and it can keep you bonded. And these women really, literally decided to stick together,” said Shireen Ahmed, a freelance sports reporter and co-host of Burn It All Down, a weekly feminist sports podcast. [Editor’s note: the author of this article is also a co-host of the podcast.]

Thanks to all of these collective actions, progress is slowly unfolding.  In the past couple of years, both Norway and New Zealand have struck historic equal pay deals with their women’s teams, and in 2019, just before they left for the World Cup, the South African football federation told the women’s national team that it would earn the same bonuses that the men earn in tournaments from here on out.

All of these gains are only possible because female footballers worldwide are banding together and demanding their worth, recognizing and embracing the power of solidarity.

Of course, until FIFA itself decides to get its act together and close the $410 million prize money gap, and mandate that federations spend more than 15% of their FIFA funds on programs for women and youth, the gender gap in football is always going to be gaping.

“FIFA is ultimately the gatekeeper because they have the most amount of resources,” said Meg Linehan. “U.S. soccer isn’t happy with them but no one in the world was happy with them either.”

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on June 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs covers sports. SportsReporter CoHost  Tennis  Mystics   

‘It’s terrifying’: Why women’s hockey players are risking their careers for this boycott

Monday, May 6th, 2019

Women’s hockey players are fed up with being told to be grateful for the scraps of professional leagues they’ve been given, so they’re taking a stand. Last Thursday, more than 200 of the best women’s hockey players in the world announced they would not suit up for any North American professional women’s hockey teams this season until there’s a league in place with the resources and support deserving of the best athletes on the planet.

“We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this game that we revere so deeply and yet, more than ever, we understand the responsibility that comes with that ambassadorship: To leave this game in better shape than when we entered it,” the women said in a statement.

“We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as $2,000 a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level.”

Up until a few weeks ago, there were two professional hockey options for women in North America. But on March 31, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), abruptly announced it was closing its doors after 12 years due to an “unsustainable” business model. The CWHL, which operated as a nonprofit, began paying its players stipends between $2,000 and $10,000 in 2017. It officially folded on May 1.

Currently, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is the only viable professional women’s hockey league in North America. It operates under the same $100,000 salary cap as the CWHL did, and pays players a minimum of $2,500. But since it launched in 2015, the NWHL has faced criticism from the media and players for a lack of transparency when it comes to finances — it does not disclose its budget or revenue, and only some of its investors are known to the public. This has led to a lack of trust between the NWHL and many elite players in he sport.

Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Latmoureux-Davidson, members of USWNT and twin sisters, carefully told ThinkProgress that the players were not boycotting the NWHL specifically, but rather were refusing to play in any North American professional women’s hockey league. However, considering the only existing league in North America is the NWHL, that seems to be just a matter of semantics.

“The league that exists right now is not sustainable, it doesn’t have our best long-term interests in mind,” said Lamoureux-Morando.

Liz Knox, a former CWHL goalie and co-chair of the CWHL Players Association (CWHLPA), told ThinkProgress that after the shock of her league folding, she immediately began hearing from colleagues who weren’t ready to give up on their professional dreams. They wanted to stick together and fight for a better future.

“What we want, what we’ve always wanted, is to have a sustainable league, something to be proud of,” Knox said. “Billions goes into global hockey. We don’t have pennies.”

Soon, Knox got a call from U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) stars Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield, who made a suggestion: What if everyone joined together and took a stance, and said, we’re not playing? Knox was excited by the idea, and immediately reached out to members of the CWHLPA.

“The resounding answer was yes,” she said.

Conversations about a sit-out actually began back at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, according to Lamoureux-Morando and Lamoureux-Davidson. However, after the CWHL unexpectedly closed its doors, the discussions escalated quickly. The players were already intimately aware of the power of a boycott.

Two years ago, the USWNT threatened to skip the world championships if USA Hockey did not provide them with an improved contract. At the time, the women’s national team players were only earning $6,000 every four years of an Olympic cycle, and were provided with far inferior travel accommodations and benefits than their male counterparts. That boycott was a success; USA Hockey ended up offering them a contract that included a base salary of approximately $70,000, and the boycott ended just in time for the world championships on home soil.

That boycott certainly provided an infrastructure of solidarity, communication, and messaging that can be built on this time. But this current movement — which is being referenced by the hashtag #ForTheGame on social media — is much more complex. It’s much bigger, because it includes players from all over the world, and it doesn’t yet have a concrete set of demands. Rather, players are taking a leap of faith hoping a net appears.

While most players are willing to take this risk, #ForTheGame doesn’t have unanimous support. In an interview with The Ice Garden, NWHL Player’s Association (NWHLPA) director Anya Battaglino said that none of the #ForTheGame organizers called her to talk about this movement, and expressed frustration that this was slowing — or at least fragmenting — the progress that women’s hockey was making. To her, it makes sense to fight for the improvement of the league that’s already in place, rather than asking for something that doesn’t exist.

The players behind #ForTheGame don’t believe that the NWHL holds the keys to a viable future for the sport. Rather, many want to see the National Hockey League (NHL) to put legitimate resources into a professional women’s hockey league.

“If you look at the history of women’s sports, the successful leagues are attached and linked to an already existing league,” said Lamoureux-Davidson, pointing to the WNBA, which is supported by the NBA, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which is supported by U.S. Soccer. “We’re confident that can happen in women’s hockey, too.”

The NHL has expressed reluctance to get involved in women’s professional hockey, in part because it didn’t want to chose sides between the NWHL and CWHL, and also because it didn’t want to “look like a bully” by putting the independent leagues out of business. But to some, those were convenient excuses, not legitimate reasons.

Last season, the NHL gave $50,000 annual contributions to each women’s league. When the CWHL folded, the NHL upped its contribution to the NWHL to $100,000. To the NHL, flush with cash, that’s a laughable amount of money. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman makes around $10 million per year. In the 2017-18 season, NHL revenue was about $4.86 billion. The average value of an NHL team is $630 million. The average team makes $25 million in profit, according to Forbes. The salary cap this season was $79.5 million.

“The [NHL] has never been healthier,” Bettman said last year.

But #ForTheGame isn’t just looking to the NHL to step up. It’s also hoping that U.S. and Canadian hockey federations — which benefit immensely from the success of their women’s national teams — support a pro women’s league, too.

“USA Hockey, they say hockey is for everyone, that they’re trying to make hockey more diverse and include everyone and show everyone that they can play the game,” said Lamoureux-Morando. “By making women’s hockey more visible from a year-to-year basis, you’re going to inspire girls to put skates on, you’re going to have more people playing the sport, and then you’re going to have more fans. In that scenario, everyone wins.”

It seems simple when broken down like that, but nobody is fooling themselves into believing that the path forward is going to be easy. Knox, who works as a contractor during the day and is training to be a firefighter at night, isn’t one of the players who has a national team contract to keep her in the sport. She knows that by the time the league she wants is established, the sport might have passed her by. After all, there are more than 200 players involved in this boycott, and it’s unrealistic to think that any new league would have that many roster spots right out of the gate.

“It’s terrifying, honestly,” Knox said.

“That’s what’s so powerful: This many women saying, ‘I might never play again, but I want the next generation to have something better,’” said Lamoureux-Davidson.

Of course, it helps to have words of encouragement from legends such as Billie Jean King, one of the founding members of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). King spoke to the players leading the organizing and made sure a message was passed along to the entire group: “Change is hard. If you’re looking for the right time to make change, it’s never going to happen.”

Knox said that there have been plenty of moments of doubt over the past few weeks, but that’s why she’s grateful to be part of a team. There’s always another player in the group text sending words of encouragement; they take turns lifting one another up and recognizing the big picture.

And since the boycott went public, she’s been getting plenty of strength from outside her circle, too. On Friday, the father of a young girl that Knox coaches reached out to her. “He said, ‘You’ve taught my daughter so much on the ice, but that all pales in comparison to what you taught her yesterday.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs covers sports for ThinkProgress.

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