The US women’s hockey team knows blowout victories. In the last two Winter Olympics, they recorded wins of 9-0, 13-0 and 12-1 on the way to the medal round. In the 1992 World Championships, the US women dispatched Switzerland by a score of 17-0. But they’ve never given a whipping to any opponent like the one they just handed out to USA Hockey.
A week ago, the US national women’s team announced they planned to boycott this year’s world championships – set to begin later this week in Plymouth, Michigan – until they were paid a “living wage” by USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body in the United States. On Tuesday evening, the team approved a late offer that includes an exponential increase in compensation from $6,000 per player annually to $70,000, with the chance to reach six figures with performance bonuses. The deal is the hockey equivalent of winning 20-0 while playing three-on-five.
While the old agreement paid male and female players the same $6,000, a figure an economist or anyone over 12 will tell you is not a livable wage, the men’s team had their USA Hockey income nicely supplemented by multi-million dollar NHL contracts. The men’s team was afforded extra benefits, too. For example, the women were flown in coach while the men got business class. The men got to bring guests along to tournaments free of charge; the women were not, and had to bunk together upon arrival. Depending on the airline, the women may not have even been allowed to wear leggings. Even the per diem has been bumped up in the new deal from $15 a day to the $50 figure the men receive. USA Hockey has also vowed to spend more on girls’ development programs, making the boycott a huge success for female players at all levels and age groups.
“USA Hockey’s role is not to employ athletes, and we will not do so,” USA Hockey president Jim Smith said earlier this month.
Now here he is Smith speaking again on Tuesday night after the agreement was reached: “Today reflects everyone coming together and compromising in order to reach a resolution for the betterment of the sport. We’ll now move forward together knowing we’ll look back on this day as one of the most positive in the history of USA Hockey.”
Smith can call it a compromise, but the women’s players won in a rout. They only area the team compromised was maybe in agreeing not to rip USA Hockey’s beating heart out of its chest and hold it in their face.
Throughout the boycott the team consolidated behind the #BeBoldForChange hashtag that quickly spread beyond the roster to other female hockey players, male players and any and everyone who supported the cause. As USA Hockey attempted to avoid the players’ demands by reaching out to potential replacement players from 16-year-olds to retired beer league players, those contacted quickly declined and in turn showed their support for the current players by using the same statement, dozens of small voices combining into a single powerful one: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what other’s can’t.”
Today I will do what others won't so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC #BeBoldForChange— Paige Johnson (@Pjhockey5) March 27, 2017
As the boycott gained momentum, the US men’s team players also began hinting they’d skip the men’s world championships in May if the women were not treated fairly. USA Hockey no doubt realized they were in over their heads every bit as much as that Swiss team from 25 years ago.
But while Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and the rest of Team USA earned a huge win for themselves and for the future of women’s hockey in the United States, they also showed the power athletes now have against the management structure in this new age of social media and social awareness.
The last NFL labor dispute that resulted in any games being missed was 1987, while MLB has avoided a major dispute since 1995. Both of those occurred prior to most people having dial-up internet, let alone the ability to connect via Twitter and Facebook. And while the lockouts by the NBA in 2011 and the NHL in 2013 happened in the social media age, they came before activism of both the real and hashtag varieties became a major part of modern American life.
Despite Team Trump currently running America – and because of it – there is a vocal and growing opposition primed to stand up for any cause that supports women, those who are not treated fairly or people taken advantage of economically. This particular boycott by Team USA just so happened to check off all of those boxes and should serve as a warning to every league and governing body that athletes now realize their bargaining potential.
No one will compare the $6,000 pittance women’s players got from USA Hockey to $6m and more many male athletes are making in the four majors, but the current national mood is not one in which many will take the side of those with more money and power over those with less. Few want to hear a billionaire team owner cry poverty, or a governing body claim they can’t pay their athletes enough in a year to buy a decent used car to get to practice. There is little public appetite for increasing league profits over the financial security of a fullback who gets his head beat in on every play of a brief career. Fans cheer for the athletes, not management. Always. On the field and off. Sometimes we just need some clever hashtags to remember that.