‘Tell them we’re not playing along’: Inside the USWNT’s fight for equal pay

<span>The <a klasse=USWNT agreed a settlement with US Soccer on equal pay in February 2022.Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/kbJQEtOb9q0TpvZs6aaH3A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/5465d92e2abed702a e1916f286468a4c” data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/kbJQEtOb9q0TpvZs6aaH3A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/5465d92e2abed702ae191 6f286468a4c”/>

We’re not playing, Rich. Fuck them, we’re not playing. Just tell them we’re not playing. I heard that on July 10, 2015, during a phone call from Christie Rampone, the captain of the USWNT. I was the Executive Director of the Women’s National Team Players Association, the official collective bargaining unit of the USWNT. Rampone called me five days after the USWNT won the World Cup. As Rampone spoke with me, the team was heading from the set of Good Morning America in downtown Manhattan to the start of the ticker tape parade at the “Canyon of Heroes” in Lower Manhattan to celebrate their title.

Just a few days earlier, on the morning after the team’s World Cup victory, US Soccer’s longtime president Sunil Gulati called captains Abby Wambach and Rampone to tell them that the team’s request for a weekend release had been rejected, and they were all forced to play their matches in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

As Rampone told me, Gulati’s response was immediate. He told Rampone that the players had to play those NWSL games. He noted that all the NWSL teams had developed massive marketing and promotional campaigns around the World Cup champions to sell out their stadiums that weekend, and that he didn’t care how the players felt, that they would play anyway. .

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To drive home this point, Gulati would set up a conference call with the entire team. Rampone made it clear to me that they were not interested in a conference call with Sunil the next evening. I immediately told Christie that under no circumstances would the team participate in a phone call with him. Technically, Gulati issuing a call without first consulting the players’ association was an unfair labor practice, and he knew it.

This was classic Sunil Gulati. I told Christie that I would make sure that Sunil spoke to me, and that I would make sure that Gulati’s mandatory team call was cancelled. If he or anyone else at US Soccer wanted to address the team, they were required by law to speak to me. So I picked up the phone and called Lisa Levine, the general counsel of US Soccer.

By July 2015, I had developed a fairly good relationship with Lisa. I told her that if Sunil wanted to talk to anyone about the team’s schedule for the week of the “World Cup Championship Celebration,” he would have to talk to me. She agreed and scheduled a phone call for the next evening between me, her, and Dan Flynn, the CEO of US Soccer. As usual, Sunil never took part in awkward meetings or phone calls. He always sent Dan.

I listened politely as Dan lectured me about what the players were going to do over the next few days. He told me what the players’ post-World Cup winning schedule would look like between Wednesday and Saturday… with an unmistakable, Whether the players liked it or not attitude. He said the team would be flown from Chicago to Los Angeles on Thursday for some celebrations on the West Coast. Next up, the team would be on a redeye Thursday night from Los Angeles to New York City, where the team would appear on the Today show early Friday morning, followed by a trip to the Good Morning America studios. The team would then be transported by bus to the start of the ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan. After the parade and honorary luncheon with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the team would disperse to their NWSL games that weekend, and that was that.

When Flynn’s talk ended, I thanked him for the information and told him I would contact him to let him know what the players were going to do. He sounded bewildered and asked, “What do you mean?” I repeated what I had said. It was like the call was cut off, but I could still hear the breathing on the other end of the call. And with that I heard a click and the conversation was over.

I told the team about the schedule that Flynn had dictated for the next few days and if they didn’t want to do anything on that schedule, including playing those NWSL games, they had to let me know. My condition was that if they didn’t want to do anything within that schedule, they needed complete unanimity. Unanimously meant they had to use their World Cup championship to determine their future.

When the team left the studios a few days later, they boarded their luxury bus, making sure no U.S. Soccer officials were in the vehicle that would transport them to the start of the ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan . I picked up the phone and I could hear and feel the raw, almost jubilant energy in the background. “We’re not playing, Rich. Tell him [Gulati] we don’t play. Fuck him. We are tired and we are going to do what we want to do.” And with that, Christie said, “I think you can hear it. The team voted 24 votes to none not to play the games this weekend.” I told Christie that this was a great, courageous decision, and the unanimous vote was powerful. I knew it was a byproduct of winning the World Cup .

Winners gain power. Power provides winners with the leverage necessary to get what they want. The USWNT was about to use that power to get something they wanted, which was a weekend off. It may not seem like a big deal, but these were the small hurdles you have to overcome to achieve fair negotiating tactics.

I drafted a letter to US Soccer while watching the team’s ticker tape parade live on CNN. I emailed the letter to the players and it appeared that some players read the letter on their phones while riding the float through the ticker tape parade. Just before the parade ended, the players approved the letter and I sent it to US Soccer.

Lisa called me almost immediately. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. “What is this? What are you telling me in this letter, Rich?” she said.

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“It says what it says,” I told her calmly. “The World Cup champions are physically, mentally and emotionally fatigued after a 30-day World Cup championship tour in Canada and will not play in the scheduled NWSL matches this weekend.”

About half an hour later Dan called me on the phone with Lisa. “What is this?” Zane asked. I said, “It’s a letter letting you know that the team is not playing the NWSL games this weekend.” Flynn echoed Lisa’s response: “But you can’t do that.” “We just did,” I replied. “But…you guys, the players have contracts and are obligated to play,” Lisa said.

Dan immediately responded to Lisa’s legal challenge following our mini work stoppage by saying, “I don’t want to get involved in a legal argument. This is a business decision.” I don’t know if he knew it or not, but Dan’s temporary avoidance of negotiating whether the players were contractually obligated to play NWSL games was a wise choice, because I had in my back pocket the product of an incredible blunder which I had committed for more than twenty years by an overconfident federation.

The USWNT players had never signed contracts to play for the USWNT – nor had they signed contracts to play for the NWSL. Legally, the players had no obligation to play for the USWNT or the NWSL.

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