The soccer was over by the time Alex Morgan was reunited with her 2-year-old daughter, Charlie, and the veteran of the U.S. women’s national soccer team transitioned seamlessly from star forward to mom. But as she bounced Charlie in her arms on the pitch at Audi Field, the meaning of the night was right there: The back of Charlie’s women’s national team jersey didn’t read “Morgan,” a tribute to her mom. It read “Equal Pay,” a tribute to a cause and a fight that lasted generations.
There was some light work for the women’s national team, a tighter-than-anticipated 2-1 victory over Nigeria in an international friendly. But the serious business came after the game and had far broader implications, not just for the players who pulled on the jersey in the District but for the generations who laid the groundwork to get to this point — and for generations to come.
As Morgan held her daughter, officials from U.S. Soccer and the men’s and women’s national team unions signed a pair of collective bargaining agreements that — after so much time and so much sweat — established equal pay for both teams. It sounds boring. It was historic. The ceremony was staged. The hugs were real. There’s a reason Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy and captains from eras gone by were here. It wasn’t for Nigeria. It was for that simple concept: equal pay for equal work.
“Every time people told us to sit down and shut up, there was a Billie Jean King, or there was a moment where someone would say: ‘No, you don’t sit down and shut up. You fight, and you keep fighting,’ ” said Foudy, a mainstay on the national team from 1988 to 2004 who was a broadcaster for ESPN during the game and the emcee for the CBA signing afterward.
“We always wanted to pass that baton on and make sure they understood that, and so to see them then get it over the finish line, it’s like almost a maternal, proud moment of, like, ‘Whooaaaaa, they did it. They finally got it!’”
They finally got it. So what happened postgame was a photo op with feeling. U.S. Soccer agreed to new CBAs with its men’s and women’s teams in May, guaranteeing not only equal pay but comparable training and travel conditions for the women. The dignitaries who showed up at Audi Field not only included former national team stars such as Lilly, Briana Scurry and others, but U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). Throw in the heads of the players unions for the NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League along with AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, and it’s clear how many people wanted to be associated with this moment.
“Wasn’t quite certain it was going to happen during my career,” said Becky Sauerbrunn, the 37-year-old longtime defender who serves as the president of the national team players association.
But it did. So now, there is soccer — just soccer. What a feeling.
“Contrary to what it may seem like, we don’t love to be in these fights,” forward Megan Rapinoe said. “We’d much rather focus on what we need to, which is winning and winning World Cups and continuing to be the best team we can. That’s not up to us. If everybody else wants to stop this, it’d be great.”
For now, it has stopped, and if it’s possible to get emotional about ink going onto a contract, Tuesday night was it. Think about what a distraction this has been — not just for the women who appeared here Tuesday night and will lead the quest next summer in the World Cup but for those going back decades. When 28 players on the women’s team decided to sue U.S. Soccer in 2019, they did so not only with pent-up passion and legal precision. They did it with a confident flair. The filing date: March 8, which — not coincidentally — is International Women’s Day. The World Cup was only months away.
Foudy remembers discussing that strategy with Mia Hamm, her longtime teammate and fellow member of teams that won World Cups in 1991 and ’99 and Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think we would have done that,’ ” Foudy said. “I don’t think we would have had the courage. We would have thought it was too much of a distraction. ‘Let’s wait till after the World Cup.’
“And yet you could argue that was the best World Cup they ever played. They just dominated that World Cup. So they’re very good at compartmentalizing.”
They’re good at so much, and they matter to so many. Audi Field was dotted Tuesday night with the No. 13 jerseys of Morgan and the No. 15s of Rapinoe, arguably the biggest stars on the current roster, heroes from World Cups and Olympics gone by. But there’s a deeper history that informs what these women accomplished on the field and the fights they took up off it. So the No. 9 of Hamm and the No. 6 of Brandi Chastain — also seen in the crowd — are akin to a Yankees fan wearing the No. 7 of Mickey Mantle or a 49ers fan wearing the No. 16 of Joe Montana.
“I think if you speak to any of us, we always speak of the older players,” Rapinoe said. “… That’s where we learned our tenaciousness on and off the field. That’s just in the DNA and the fabric of the team.”
To varying degrees, they are celebrities and stars. When Rapinoe entered the game in the 65th minute, the 18,869 on hand greeted her as such. It took her all of a minute to create the game-winning goal, a pretzel-twist of a header by Rose Lavelle.
Give her a decade — or maybe even a week — and Rapinoe might not remember that cross to Lavelle. She’ll never forget the ceremony afterward, the fight it took to get to that point and the people who went before her to make it happen.
And here’s the kicker: We don’t yet fully understand what the ramifications of this deal are. Not for FIFA, which oversees soccer globally. Not for women’s sports domestically or internationally. Not for women in all walks of life in all sorts of countries.
“I think the biggest thing that gets me, that I’m incredibly proud of, is that it reverberates way beyond women’s sports,” Foudy said. “It’s not just women’s soccer. It’s not just women’s sports. It’s going to impact so many people globally in terms of women that come up and say: ‘It’s given me the courage to ask for more money at my job. It’s given me the courage ask for this. It’s given me the courage to say, “Huh, that’s not right.” ’ ”
As the ceremony drew to a conclusion, a chant started up from the thousands of fans who remained in the Audi Field stands. It might have been the rallying cry — “Equal pay! Equal pay!” — that became ubiquitous over the past few years. But it also might have been, from some folks, just: “USA! USA!”
Isn’t it amazing that the first of those chants will be considered a relic in the not-too-distant future? Then we won’t chant about labor rights. We’ll just cheer on these incredible women and the country for which they play.