When Brooke Elby woke up on June 20, 2018, the first thing she noticed was a strange odor. It was coming from the bathroom of the hotel room in which she had slept. The shower had failed to drain and water had seeped into the carpet of the bedroom. The air stank of wet dog. All Elby wanted to do was cry.
Later, she did. On the phone to her parents, like a jilted teenager begging to be picked up from a party, the 25-year old explained through sobs what had happened. She – a professional soccer player – had been traded with no warning by her team in Utah, made up of some of her closest friends, to a club in Chicago, a city she’d never even been. Then Elby listened in a state of numbness as her father tried to convince her to leave her job and come home to Pasadena, 2,000 miles away.
Early that morning, she had arrived at O’Hare airport from Salt Lake City, scared and discombobulated. Two days prior, while she was sitting at a hotel breakfast buffet with her teammates on the Utah Royals Football Club, talking about their upcoming match against North Carolina, she had been pulled aside by her coach.
“That’s when she told me I wouldn’t be playing,” Elby recalls. “I’d been traded unceremoniously, like a pawn in a game of chess, to Chicago.”
Shock transfers are not unusual in soccer. In fact, in many sports they’re as integral to strategy as anything that happens on the pitch, court or field, but what astonished Elby were the conditions and the way in which the move was executed.
“Often when we hear about a big-name athlete – a male soccer player or a football star, for example – being transferred suddenly, a generous pay packet is thrown in to sweeten the deal,” she explains. “I was in a city I didn’t know, embarking on a new job, with no permanent place to stay and a salary that was technically below minimum wage. Let’s just say my self-worth was not in a good place.”
Hours after she was informed of her move, Elby started packing a single suitcase. Over the years she’d learned to travel light. With no time to make plans, she left her red Honda in the Salt Lake City stadium parking lot. In the weeks ahead, her teammates would intermittently send her pictures of the abandoned car with captions like, “Still waiting for you to come home”.
The following evening, after a slew of miserable farewells from the women who had been her colleagues, confidantes and friends since she had transferred from the Boston Breakers a year earlier, Elby boarded the three-and-half hour United flight. An old school friend, the only person Elby knew in Chicago, scooped her up at the other end, bundled her into a car and deposited her at the soulless “LaGrange” Holiday Inn. This would be Elby’s home for the next two weeks while she waited for her new employer, the Chicago Red Stars, to figure out what to do with this defense football player, their latest arrival.
During the next few days, Elby eased into a state of lonely limbo. She became accustomed to the training sessions with strangers and the seemingly endless hours of daytime TV. The distinctions between her anxiety-filled days and restless nights blurred. At some point, between painful phone calls to friends and moments of deep self-reflection, she started to understand that things couldn’t go on like this.
As a young girl, she had pined for sporting stardom. She had tacked posters of David Beckham and Landon Donovan – widely considered one of the best male American soccer players of all time – to her bedroom wall. She adored Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm, two of the greatest ever female players, and was convinced that if, like them, she trained hard and played well, she too could become a rich, world-famous athlete.
But in the ensuing years, she realized that the career path she had staked out for herself was rigged with potholes, hurdles and dead ends. Misogyny overshadowed so much of the world she found herself in. Unlike many male counterparts she knew, Elby struggled to earn a comfortable living or secure a lucrative sponsorship deal.
Whether it was in training or during a match, there was an unexpressed but palpable understanding that women’s soccer comes second to men’s, she explains. Every day, she was not only considering how to beat her team’s next opponent, but also how to keep going in the face of systemic sexism.
“I realized during those weeks in that Chicago hotel room that [the way I was living] was entirely unsustainable. I was an adult woman but I was being treated like a prop. That was the beginning of the end of my career as a professional soccer player.”
Women’s soccer in the United States is a two-faced institution. Particularly over the last few years, the picture of it painted by the media tends to feature the national team in 2019 storming to World Cup victory against the Netherlands in a strapping display of female prowess. National team co-captain Megan Rapinoe’s trademark shock of purple hair has been hailed a symbol of a promising new era for women athletes everywhere but the playing field so many seem determined to level is still painfully uneven.
In her memoir “One Life”, published in November, Rapinoe writes that even though the women’s national team has won far more games and titles than the American men, a top women’s player could expect to earn less than half what a comparable player on the men’s squad makes.
Though exact salary figures are hard to come by, Rapinoe’s estimate is one that is echoed by scores of female players I spoke to. And while the media may frequently paint the women’s squad as a bustling pack of fierce revolutionaries, many are generally more concerned about paying rent than overthrowing the patriarchy. In cramped apartments across Jersey suburbs – where five women share a single bathroom because it is all they can afford – even the prospect of a level playing field might seem fanciful today.
“The best way to understand it is to think of it like an iceberg,” says one former player, who asked not to be named for fear that it might tarnish her reputation as a coach or prevent her from being offered professional opportunities within the soccer world in future.
“If you make it to the top, you can do well for yourself. You can earn a seat at the table when it comes to determining your own career path. But for the rest it’s really very rough. The salaries are low, the women live like students. Many work part-time in coffee shops or bars to make extra money. Very few would tell you that they’re being treated fair,” she adds. “There are many factors at play, but the gender pay gap is definitely a huge elephant in the room.”
In 2019, the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit seeking compensation equal to that of their male counterparts. The suit claimed that, at the highest level of the sport, female players make $4,950 a game compared to the $13,166 a game that men make. It also stated that women players earned just $15,000 for making the World Cup team, while men got $55,000 for making the roster in 2014. As a result, they demanded $66 million in damages under the Equal Pay Act.
But last May District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner dismissed key parts of the suit. He argued that the female players had actually been paid more on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis than their male counterparts over recent years.
Elby scoffs at the judge’s reasoning. “Everyone knows that is entirely flawed,” she tells me as we stroll across Columbia University’s campus on a rainy day in late October, where she’s recently started studying for an MBA. “It was a loophole. A ridiculous technicality. The men didn’t qualify for the last World Cup and the women did. If this case had been made in a different year, the outcome would’ve been different.”
But as I sift through court filings and league documents, it is clear that things aren’t quite that simple. The women’s victory in the World Cup certainly did distort comparisons that one might previously have been able to draw, but the entire structure of how the women’s sport is organized differs from the way in which the men’s sport is, in a way that puts women at a disadvantage. And the picture in the league is also entirely different from what’s happening at the national level.
“It’s a complex issue that doesn’t just boil down to dollars and cents,” Alyssa Naeher tells me. Naeher, who’s originally from Connecticut, played with Elby for the Chicago Red Stars but is best known as goalkeeper of the victorious U.S. team in the 2019 FIFA World Cup. She was on the pitch for every minute of every game the U.S. played during the tournament.
“Yes, there is a pay gap, yes there is a pay difference. But there’s far more to it than just comparing numbers.”
And this is what Judge Klausner seemed to refer to when he explained why he dismissed the equal pay argument. The women’s national team had previously rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the men’s national team is, Klausner said. Instead, they had opted to forgo higher bonuses in favor of other benefits, like a greater base compensation.
“Accordingly,” Klausner concluded, “plaintiffs cannot now retroactively deem their CBA [collective bargaining agreement] worse than the [men’s national team’s] CBA by reference to what they would have made had they been paid under the [men’s national team’s] pay-to-play structure when they themselves rejected such a structure.”
There’s one stark fact that speaks for itself though: When the U.S. women’s team won the World Cup in France in 2019, it received $4m in prize money. Their male counterparts took home $400m – one hundred times as much – during the corresponding tournament in 2018.
Although the women’s case was thrown out, and although some players readily concede that the judge’s argument stands – at least technically – the dismissal has done nothing to curb the momentum building behind a much broader movement across women’s soccer in the U.S.
Inspired by global campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp, female players are at last finding the courage to express their resolve to change the way they are perceived and treated, both on and off the pitch.
Veteran athletes like Billie Jean King and politicians like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have thrown their weight behind the players’ call for fair pay. When the team scored those victorious goals against their Dutch rivals in France in 2019 year, it was chants of “equal pay! equal pay!” that rang out across the bleachers.
In April 2019, before the compensation case was dismissed, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro quit over language in a court filing that suggested women possess less ability than men when it comes to playing soccer. That incident prompted on-field player protest, during which the women wore their warm-up jerseys inside out to hide the U.S. soccer logo prior to playing.
In June of that year, The Wall Street Journal published audited financial reports from the U.S. Soccer Federation showing that in the three years after the U.S. women’s soccer team won the 2015 World Cup, games played by the women actually generated more total revenue than those played by men: $50.8 million compared to $49.9 million.
“We’re really not asking for much,” the former player who doesn’t want to be named, says. “We want to be respected – we want to be treated like adults and in a dignified way – and we don’t want to be afraid of losing our jobs if we don’t agree to move across the country based on a quick decision made by someone we’ve never met. There’s not much more to it than that.”
The National Women’s Soccer League, unlike other leagues, doesn’t publish a detailed breakdown of salaries, and the players I spoke to declined to give exact figures, indicating that, as is the case in other industries, a culture of pay secrecy still dominates, which may even be exacerbating the problem. But it’s not hard to get an impression of what paychecks look like.
In 2015, when Brooke Elby graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she’d been studying on a full sports scholarship, the average starting salary for her classmates across the whole university was $48,000. “My starting salary was less than a third of that,” she says.
In November 2019, the NWSL, which comprised of nine professional teams at the time and has since added another, announced that it was raising the league’s maximum salary to $50,000 in 2020, from $46,200 previously. The minimum figure was being notched up to $20,000 from $16,538. The national mean wage across all occupations in the U.S is currently well above that, at around $53,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in big cities, like Boston and Chicago, where Elby played, it’s much higher. Until recently, NWSL teams also faced a cap on the extent to which they were able to subsidize players’ housing and car expenses.
“If I compare the situation now to where the sport was ten years ago, it’s a completely different picture. We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” Naeher says. “But there’s obviously still a very long way to go.”
Perhaps as a result of all these inequities, women all over the world seem to be leaving professional soccer at a much higher rate than men. A 2017 research report published by the University of Manchester in the U.K., found that 90% of female players said that they would consider retiring early, most because of low pay.
The report found that most salaries for female players globally are well under $2,000 a month, forcing the women to take on extra work around training and matches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost two thirds of professional female players with children said that they received no childcare support at all. On pay specifically, the report found that the pay gap in the U.S. was just as prevalent elsewhere. In the UK’s Premier League, for example, which is the highest division of professional soccer, average pay is 99 times higher than the what the top-paid female player gets.
But beyond money there are of course other reasons for calling it quits. Kelly Conheeney, who played for the New Jersey team Sky Blue FC in the NWSL league from 2016 until 2018, retired last year at the age of 28, after a season at the Swedish club Hammarby.
Money did not drive her out of the game – an injury did – but she acknowledges that the pay was “absurdly low”. For one season, which lasted from March to November, she was making $16,000 or less than $2,000 a month, she tells me over the phone from California, where she now works in sales for a sports media company. And there were other problems too.
Conheeney started playing soccer when she was eight for her local club team in New Jersey. In 2004, when she was 12 , her coach, Keith Ildefonso, began molesting her between training sessions and games. “It was an awful and very confusing time in my life because I knew what was happening was wrong but I didn’t know how to make it stop.”
Eventually, when Conheeney was 14, she told her sister and then her parents about the abuse. Ildefonso was arrested and spent five years in prison. Since then, Conheeney says, she’s been fortunate enough not to have experienced any more blatant transgressions or abuse through sport, but the post-traumatic effects follow her to this day and she insists that a gendered power dynamic exists in women’s soccer that, if left unchecked, can quickly turn toxic.
“The culture of men still widely being in charge of women, and making decisions on behalf of women, is problematic,” she says.
FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, has in recent years been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct against some of its highest-ranking officials. In June 2019, the Association launched an internal investigation into Ahmad Ahmad, the president of Africa’s soccer confederation, after he was accused of laying off an employee in 2017 when she rejected his romantic advances. Hope Solo, who served as goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s national team from 2000 to 2016, once accused Sepp Blatter, who was FIFA’s president at the time, of groping her at an awards ceremony.
These are the big headline-grabbing occurrences that make the front pages of broadsheets, but the players – both those who are still enduring the drop-of-the-hat transfers and anemic salaries, and those who have hung up their cleats for good – agree that there’s a much more subtle but equally worrying dynamic at play at all levels of the sport.
“Of course there are a lot of fantastic male coaches and trainers out there, a few in particular have been integral to my growth as a player, but the fact is that there are not enough women in charge. It doesn’t make sense to me because men just don’t understand women on a psychological and emotional level in the way that women understand women,” says Conheeney. “I’m not saying take the male coaches out of the women’s game, but as more women continue to grow the game and assume higher positions in the sport, I believe you will see us find ways to push the envelope, raise the salaries and get us on a more equal playing field. Obviously that’s easier said than done, but I believe we will make it happen.”
One thing Conheeney and many of her former team mates are excited about: Late last year, the NWSL announced that Billie Jean King and Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn would be joining an all-star, mostly female, group of investors who are launching a Los Angeles-based expansion franchise. The club, called Angel City Football Club, will be the 11th in the league and is currently slated to start playing in 2022.
At Columbia University, Elby has joined the board of Columbia Women in Business, a campus group designed to promote and support women as they embark on leadership roles in business. She is an executive director for The National Women’s Soccer League’s Players Association, which is dedicated to advocating for and protecting the rights of women players.
“I’m not sure yet where I’ll end up after graduation, but I will always continue advocating for equity in women’s soccer,” Elby says. “The lack of equality is most visible at the very top but it’s just as critical at the club level and further down. We need to safeguard a pipeline of emerging talent.” She vividly remembers how powerless and lost she felt that morning in the odorous hotel room so far from home.
“Elite athletes should never have to feel like that. We’ve got to sort out the system. The future of our sport truly depends on it.”