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

<span>The <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:USWNT;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">USWNT</a> agreed a settlement with US Soccer over equal pay in February 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images</span>

We’re not playing, Rich. Fuck them, we’re not playing. Just tell them that we’re not playing. That’s what I heard on 10 July 2015, on a 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 for the USWNT. Rampone called me five days after the USWNT’s World Cup victory. While Rampone talked with me, the team were on their way from the midtown Manhattan set of Good Morning America to the beginning of the ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan’s “Canyon of Heroes” to celebrate their title.

Just a few days earlier, on the morning after the team’s World Cup victory, Sunil Gulati, the longtime president of US Soccer, called captains Abby Wambach and Rampone to tell them that the team’s request for the weekend off was denied, and they were all going to be forced to play their National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) games.

As recounted to me by Rampone, the response from Gulati was immediate. He told Rampone that the players had to play those NWSL games. He noted that all the NWSL teams had developed huge 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 were feeling, that no matter what, they were going to play.

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To drive home the point, Gulati would convene a conference call with the entire team. Rampone made it clear to me that they had no interest in a conference call with Sunil the following night. Immediately, I told Christie that under no circumstances would the team participate in a call with him. Technically, Gulati’s issuance of a call without consulting the players’ association first was an unfair labor practice, and he knew it.

This was classic Sunil Gulati. I told Christie I would make sure that Sunil would talk to me, and I would make sure that the Gulati-mandated team call would be canceled. If he or anyone else at US Soccer wanted to address the team, they were obliged per law to talk to me. So, I picked up the phone and called the US Soccer’s general counsel Lisa Levine.

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

I politely listened to Dan lecture me on what the players were going to be doing over the next few days. He told me what the players’ post-World Cup victory schedule was going to look like between Wednesday and Saturday … with an unmistakable, whether the players liked it or not attitude. He said that the team would be flown from Chicago to Los Angeles on Thursday for some west coast celebrations. Then, the team would be on a redeye Thursday night from Los Angeles to New York City where early on Friday morning the team would appear on the Today show, followed by a trip to the studios of Good Morning America. 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 be dispersed to their NWSL games that weekend, and that was that.

When Flynn’s lecture ended, I thanked him for the information and told him I would get back to him to let him know what the players were going to do. Sounding flabbergasted, he asked, “What do you mean?” I repeated what I’d said. It was as if the call was cut off, but I could still hear breathing on the other side of the call. And with that, I could hear a click and the call was over.

I told the team about the schedule Flynn had dictated for the next few days and if they didn’t want to do anything in that schedule, including playing those NWSL games, they should let me know. My proviso was that if they did not want to do anything in that schedule, they needed complete unanimity. Unanimous meant leveraging their World Cup championship into the power to determine their future.

As the team exited the studios a few days later, they boarded their luxury bus and made sure that no US Soccer officials were on 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 raucous, almost jubilant energy in the background. “We’re not playing, Rich. Tell him [Gulati] we’re not playing. Fuck him. We are tired and we’re gonna do what we want to do”. And with that, Christie said, “I guess you can hear it. The team has voted 24 to nothing to not play the games this weekend.” I told Christie that was a great, courageous decision, and the unanimous vote was powerful. I knew it was a by-product of winning the World Cup.

Winners amass power. Power provides winners the leverage required to get what they want. The USWNT was about to utilize that leverage to get something they wanted, which was a weekend off. It may not look like a huge deal, but these were the small hurdles that one must overcome to establish a fair negotiation tactic.

I drafted a letter to US Soccer as I watched the team’s ticker-tape parade live on CNN. I emailed the letter to the players and it appeared that some of the players were reading the letter on their phones as they rode the float through the ticker-tape parade. Just before the parade concluded, 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 journey in Canada and they are not going to play in the scheduled NWSL games this coming weekend.”

About half an hour later, Dan called me with Lisa on the phone. “What is this?” Dan asked. I said, “It’s a letter notifying you that the team is not playing the NWSL games this weekend.” Flynn regurgitated Lisa’s reaction – “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 to 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 momentary avoidance of haggling over whether or not the players were contractually obliged to play NWSL games was a wise choice, because I had in my back pocket the product of an incredible blunder perpetrated for 20-plus years by an overconfident federation.

The USWNT players had never signed contracts to play for the USWNT – and they had not signed contracts to play for the NWSL. So, legally, the players did not have any obligation to play for the USWNT or the NWSL.