Why you should care

Because their goal has long been equal pay.

Clad all in white, she set the ball down, counted her paces and turned to face a 90,000-strong crowd. Brandi Chastain then raced a few steps toward the ball and kicked her way into history by scoring the winning penalty goal of the Women’s World Cup on July 10, 1999.

In her excitement, Chastain famously ripped off her shirt and fell into a group hug with teammates at the most-attended U.S. women’s sports event ever. She, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Briana Scurry become instant toasts of a soccer-crazed nation. Six months later, they went on strike for more pay.

[It] absolutely changed the course of women’s soccer for this country.

Christie Welsh

The showdown, which would see the U.S. women’s team play a tournament in Australia without its stars, was neither the first nor the last contract dispute between the women’s team and U.S. Soccer. Due to contractual issues, nine players, including Hamm, Foudy and Scurry, were kept out of a training camp in late 1995, a few months before the team’s groundbreaking Olympic victory.

The strike in 2000 didn’t affect the Olympics. Competitively, in fact, it meant very little as a group of young players went in place of the World Cup champions to a minor warmup tournament — and won. But it sent a clear message that the U.S. women’s players would not be pushed around.

“We were trying to convince U.S. Soccer that they should care about women’s soccer,” Foudy recalls. The impasse wasn’t resolved in time to send the World Cup winners to the Australia Cup, a four-team round-robin event in January 2000. U.S. Soccer sent replacement players instead; with the exception of 1995 World Cup defender Thori Bryan, they were a group with an average age of 19.9.

But the striking players didn’t heap scorn on the replacements. “We didn’t think of them as scabs,” Foudy says. “We essentially said, ‘Go.’ ” The older players opened a strong line of communication with the younger group, making sure everyone understood what was at stake.

“I recall being on a few conference calls with the entire pool of the women’s national team,” says Christie Welsh, then a Penn State freshman — and therefore ineligible to receive any payment for her play, along with most of her teammates. No one wanted to “step on anyone’s toes, but at the same time, [there was the] excitement of the chance to play at the highest level,” Welsh says, noting how she wanted to respect the veterans and the “future they were trying to pursue.”

Foudy and the veterans told the younger players that the pay issue had less to do with the World Cup winners and more about the next generation. “This next negotiation is for you,” Foudy said. “It isn’t for us.”

Several of the players on the Australia trip went on to star in the professional Women’s United Soccer Association, which ran from 2001 to 2003, and to enjoy solid national team careers. Danielle Slaton, Nikki Serlenga and Siri Mullinix were named to the Olympic roster in 2000, with Mullinix starting all five games in goal. Welsh, Michelle French, Susan Bush and Nandi Pryce were alternates. Aly Wagner, one of the most skilled midfielders the U.S. women’s team has ever seen, didn’t make the 2000 team but went on to win two Olympic golds and to play in two World Cups.

Winning the Aussie tournament — with an 8-1 victory over the Czech Republic, a 0-0 draw with Sweden and a 3-1 win over Australia — didn’t hurt the youngsters’ chances of making future national teams. Nor did it hurt the older players’ negotiations, especially when Foudy, Hamm and company informed U.S. Soccer that the younger players had agreed not to be strikebreakers for the Olympics.

Welsh, who finished her national team career with 20 goals in 39 games, sees the players’ unified stance as an important turning point. “[It] absolutely changed the course of women’s soccer for this country,” she says, and “provided immense opportunity at a time when it was drastically needed.”

U.S. Soccer made enough short-term concessions to bring the regulars back in the fold for some games in February 2000, and they recognized a new players union. A year later, the players signed their first collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, retroactive to February 2000.

Now, that younger generation has revved up its own negotiations over equal pay, challenging U.S. Soccer’s claim of a “no-strike” agreement and filing a wage-discrimination complaint. But a strike this year — co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn has said a boycott is possible — might just keep the team out of the Rio de Janeiro Games.

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