Everywhere Briana Scurry looks, be it billboards or commercials, social media or magazines, she is reminded that the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is just a week away. The teams are all making their way overseas, practices are underway, and in a few short weeks a champion will be crowned. The National Soccer Hall of Famer, who won two Olympic gold medals and the 1999 Women’s World Cup as a goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), is giddy with anticipation.
“It’s like a pot of boiling,” Scurry told ThinkProgress at the “Athletes + Activism” panel hosted by The Atlantic and the Washington Mystics on Thursday. “And soon, it’s just going to be boiling all the way.”
Her zeal is understandable. This year, the USWNT is defending its title from the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. It won’t be an easy task; most experts think this the most competitive field in the tournament’s history. But the U.S. team certainly looks up for the task.
And as if the stakes needed to be intensified somehow, while the USWNT is competing in France, its members are simultaneously suing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for gender discrimination. In that way, this latest iteration of women’s soccer Team America already shares an important legacy with their famous predecessors that first stamped the team into our national consciousness.
And twenty years after Briana Scurry led the U.S. team to its sensational victory over China, and surrounded a shirt-less Brandi Chastain while ecstatically celebrating amid the throng of her instantly-iconic teammates, it’s actually the lawsuit part of this USWNT’s story that makes her the most proud.
Because the ’99ers, as they’re commonly called, didn’t just inspire with their on-the-field play; they made an impact by openly fighting against USSF for better pay off the field — most notably by boycotting matches in January 2000 due to a contract dispute. Today, that fight is echoed not just by the USWNT, but by women’s national teams all across the globe, from Nigeria to Australia, Scotland to Brazil.
“I feel that’s part of the legacy of what ’99 did, not only on the field, but off the field. We inspired. I know that if you were to interview all these different federations and women’s teams that are making a stand, they will all go back to reference the ’99ers and what we did,” Scurry said.
“And that’s part of the fabric and the culture of our team. If you are willing to accept an opportunity to play on the women’s national team, you also have to accept the mantle that comes along with that. And that’s moving the game forward for those who come behind you.”
In the winter of 2000, months after their momentous World Cup victory, the USWNT was tried to arrange a short-term contract with USSF that would take them through a couple of months of friendlies. The USSF offered the players a short-term contract which amounted to $6,300 total per player with no per-game bonuses — the same deal the players had before they became world championships. The players were asking for $18,000 total per player for two months, and a $2,000 bonus per game for four games, but the USSF would not budge from $6,300, and insisted it was a fair offer.
“It’s a very vogue thing to be on the side of the women on this,” said U.S. Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher at the time, per Soccer America. “We’re going to do what we think is best regardless of what the media has to say or uninformed people have to say.”
The players were insulted, and all 20 members of the 1999 World Cup team opted not to play in the Australian Cup that January.
“I remember us being really excited about what we were doing, and realizing that it was more than just playing soccer,” Scurry said.
“In order to be able to move that needle, sometimes you have to do something that may seem a little outrageous at the time, and something that might be a little bit scary. And so the boycott was just something that we felt we had to do. We felt that we had good leverage at that point in time. And that we just had to put our voices out there and really make a stand. Otherwise things weren’t going to change for the better if we didn’t do that.”
The collective action ended up working, and by the end of January, the USWNT had agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with the USSF that guaranteed them $5,000 a month. At the time, that was a huge achievement.
But 16 years later, after the USWNT won the World Cup in 2015 — its first World Cup championship since 1999 — the players faced the same reality that Scurry and her teammates did, when they realized that winning the biggest title in women’s soccer, and having the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history, men’s or women’s, didn’t solve its problems with the U.S. Soccer Federation overnight.
In their Victory Tour, the USWNT was forced to play on turf fields in eight of their 10 matches, a surface that is much more dangerous for players than natural grass. on which the men’s team is almost never forced to play. On top of that, the players were still getting paid as little as 40% less than their male counterparts. That winter, things reached a breaking point when the team arrived in Hawaii for a friendly against Trinidad & Tobago and boycotted the match because the field of play had sharp rocks embedded all over the cheap, aging artificial turf that was peeling away from the ground.
— Julie Foudy (@JulieFoudy) December 6, 2015
In 2016, five of the USWNT’s biggest names — Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo — filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) with wage discrimination. Then, they launched an #EqualPlayEqualPay campaign on both mainstream and social media, in order to put pressure on the USSF to offer them a better contract. They did reach a new agreement, but in its 2019 gender discrimination suit, USWNT players said the USSF had “utterly failed to promote gender equality” and “stubbornly refused to treat its female employees who are members of the WNT equally to its male employees who are members of the MNT.”
Scurry thinks it’s utterly disgraceful that these players are having still having to fight USSF for basic respect — at times, it feels that the USSF goes out of its way to keep accommodations for the USWNT less just for the sake of being less.
“For example, this last collective bargaining agreement, they finally got business class flights,” Scurry said. “And I’m like, ‘Really, that that was still something that was on the table, that hadn’t been rectified after 20 years…business class flights?’ I mean, how can you justify sending men to their destinations in business class and not sending the women, who are world champions and Olympic gold medalists, in the same way? That’s just a class deficiency. And that’s a disrespect.”
But looking around the Women’s World Cup field this year, she can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride at the women all over the world who are willing to take collective actions to stand up to their federations and demand more money, better resources, and more equitable treatment. Ultimately, that means more to her than any trophy or medal.
“Some people think, well, it’s unfortunate that that is actually something that has to be continued. But it’s also something that is really rewarding, because you know that you did more than just play a game, you helped fight for equality for other people who you’ll probably never meet,” Scurry said.
“And now you see with other women’s federation’s, because of what we’ve done, now they’re doing it, and we’ll probably never meet them either. But they’re doing their own little battle. And they’re inspired by us. And for me, that’s inspiration and creation is what I’m here for.”