AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Becky Sauerbrunn, right, faces off against French forward Eugenie Le Sommer during a SheBelieves Cup match March 6 in Nashville.
My daughter Joanna was a captain of her high school soccer team. When she spotted a March 31 New York Times story
about the national women's team demanding to be paid what they're worth, she immediately forwarded it to everyone in the family.
"Before, they were role models for me in soccer," says Joanna. "But now, they are really role models for me. It is not as big as Jackie Robinson, but it's along those lines in history."
My daughter Molly spotted the story before I did. "Isn't it great what Becky's doing!" she told me jubilantly, using words like outrage
and total injustice
to describe the situation. I wondered who Becky was.
It turns out she's Becky Sauerbrunn
, cocaptain of the national team. She's my daughters' third cousin, but at this dramatic moment she might as well have grown up next door. Nothing beats the sight of injustice defied to turn far-flung relations
into a clan.
Last week Sauerbraunn and four other members of the national team filed a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They accuse the United States Soccer Federation of paying the women's team members about 40 percent of what the players on the men's team receive. And yet the men's team has never accomplished much of anything, while the women's team won last year's World Cup and two others, and will travel to Rio for this summer's Olympics (unless the players refuse to go) as the defending champion.
U.S. Soccer subsidizes the national team and the National Women's Soccer League. (Sauerbrunn's Kansas City team has won the last two NWSL titles, and she's been named defender of the year the past three seasons.) Last year, to quote the Times
, the national team's "World Cup triumph set television viewership records and a nine-game victory tour in packed stadiums." Players say the women's team earned the soccer federation some $16 million while the men's team cost it about $2 million.
Nevertheless—said the Times
—a player on the men's team can earn more than $17,000 for playing in a "friendly" (a nontournament match against another country), a woman player $1,350.
I spoke to Sauerbrunn over the weekend and asked her if she and her teammates were getting much support from the men's team. "It's kind of a tricky situation for them," she said. "They have to be mindful of their own relationship with U.S. Soccer as well."
And of course, she's right. Most male players who rub the powers that be at U.S. Soccer the wrong way could be dropped from the U.S. team at minimal risk, given that so few fans have any idea who they are. The top women players have become household names—Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd . . .
If Sauerbrunn is not, it's largely because it's hard to make headlines by being almost impossible to score against. This February I watched the last 20 minutes of an Olympic qualifying match
between the U.S. and Canada. As usual, the U.S. won in a shutout. Earlier in the match, Sauerbrunn had assisted on a goal. But even as the Americans dominated play, the camera rarely found her.
Beautiful defense by Sauerbrunn!
said the announcer at one point. The U.S. was back on its heels, and Sauerbrunn found the ball at her feet. Any other defender, the announcer observed, would have pounded the ball downfield to relieve the pressure; Sauerbrunn, in the instant before a Canadian attacker closed on her, surveyed the field, threaded a pass to an open teammate, and launched a counterattack.
It was the rare time she was mentioned by name. The moment had passed too quickly for me to appreciate it, so I backed up the TV and watched it again. Sure enough, the move was quietly elegant.
Sauerbrunn and her four teammates were elected to be the team's collective bargaining committee. She told me matters "came to a head" after months of negotiations, when U.S. Soccer announced it was assigning the team an amount of money "nowhere near" what they felt they deserved.
I guessed the bargaining had been awkward. I said I supposed the men who run U.S. Soccer aren't comfortable dealing with young, aggressive, educated women, some of them gay. Sauerbrunn was silent for a moment, perhaps choosing her words.
"I think we're fighting against a very deep-seated cultural bias that has permeated everything, and particularly sports," she said. "And we fight against that every time we sit down across the table and say we must be paid more."
"The complaint is based on compensation," she went on to say. "But the whole fight is about respect and breaking the whole cycle of unequal treatment. We're a very marketable team. People know who we are. Soccer is the most played sport among young women in the country, and that in itself makes the fight even more important, because we're fighting for the next generation of women's national players."
What about the last generation? I asked, meaning the Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, and Kristine Lilly generation that won the World Cup in 1999. Do you hear from them? Are they are your side?
We do, she said. And they are.
As for the Olympics, the players recognize that the threat of a boycott might be the greatest leverage they have. "We're leaving everything open as a possibility," Sauerbrunn said. "We're reserving the right to do whatever we have to do to win this fight. We're not closing any doors."
"I don't intend to be one of the most vocal players on this team," said Sauerbrunn. "But this is something that's very important to me, and I was very willing to get out of my comfort level and fight for it."
"We're on the right side of history, fighting for gender equality," she said. "I'll do what it takes."