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Abby Wambach on Wolfpack, wage gap, and those “foreign guys” comments

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P&G, Global Citizen, ANA #SheIsEqual Summit Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Procter & Gamble

Abby Wambach has lived through and done things that the great majority of us can only ever dream of doing. There’s Olympics and World Cups and league championships, years of globetrotting, and let’s not forget hanging out at the White House. There were darker moments too, chronicled by Wambach herself in her memoir: substance abuse and self-loathing and a failed marriage. She’s had her triumphs and her regrets, and is now talking to people about them as part of the publicity around her upcoming book, WOLFPACK, which “focuses on a set of seven rules to guide women so they can discover their own power,” and a partnership with Secret for their “I’d Rather Get Paid” campaign.

In a phone interview at the end of February, Wambach said the book was born out of the commencement speech she delivered at Barnard to the graduating class of 2018. “The whole concept of wolfpack,” said Wambach, “Is there are these old rules, unwritten rules, that we all operate under. Every single one of us has been in one or another shaped by our culture, and in order to make real change, positive and effective real change, we have to start understanding what those old rules are so that we can actually impart those changes in our lives.”

But for all that Wambach is trying to speak up now, she says she regrets that she didn’t do the same while she was still an active player. Wambach told CNN in January that “I didn’t demand enough when I was in it to make the lifestyle of all women around me better.”

Wambach got a dose of cold reality at the ESPYs, receiving an Icon award alongside Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning, both of whom made many millions of dollars more over the course of their careers than Wambach, who was not headed into a glowing post-career sunset; without soccer, she was going to have to keep hustling to pay the bills, and she began to understand the forces that had combined to create her situation, including the part she had (or in this case, hadn’t) played. “I had to do some real soul-searching about why it is that I didn’t do more while I was in it,” Wambach said. “In order to make any change you have to know that things are happening. There’s so many people on planet Earth, so many women especially, that we kind of sleepwalk through our lives because it’s more comfortable. This is what we know and we don’t want to push boundaries and we don’t want to ruffle feathers.”

It makes sense - if you aren’t even aware that what is happening to you is a problem, how can you possibly address the problem itself? Wambach said she did a lot of introspection, a lot of reading, a lot of talking to her wife, Glennon Doyle. While she didn’t name a specific author or authors she turned to, she did say that she came to realize that what she had was access. “Even though I felt like I didn’t do enough while I was in it, I was still getting invited into certain rooms,” she said. “I was still getting offered that one chair in somebody’s boardrooms or in somebody’s environment so when I went and when I accepted these positions, or accepted these invitations, it was my job and responsibility to ask hard questions, and to get as much information as I possibly could from the corporate world. From governments. From universities.”

So what is Wambach going to do with this access, this information that she’s gathering as she asks “hard questions”? How can this translate into bringing more money and opportunity into women’s soccer, or women’s sports as a whole? Wambach thinks it’ll take companies letting go of a purely capitalist mindset. “Why is it that [companies] are only driven to make money?” she asked. “Because I think [the] next generation of humans on planet Earth are requiring companies to have some more purpose, some bigger idea than just capital gain.... And I think that that’s part of my mission, is to get the corporate cultures, the corporate structures to break down these corporate barriers between companies and get them to see the light and the value in women, not just in women in sports.”

While the topic was regrets, I also asked Wambach if she regretted making xenophobic comments in December of 2015 about then-USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann bringing in “a bunch of these foreign guys.” Wambach was referring, generally, to American dual-nationals or eligible players with American parents like John Brooks and Mix Diskerud; a year later she doubled down on these comments in the New York Times, saying of Diskerud and co., “I’d love to understand how much they love their country.” In our interview, Wambach walked back her original comments somewhat.

“I think that we all do and say certain things we wish we could take back, in a lot of ways,” she said, “And I think that that specific issue, I think for me what I got wrong was I was having more of an issue with Jurgen Klinsmann as a coach rather than it being about the players, and that’s what I got wrong. And I understand why so many people were upset and offended by some of those comments. I know where I stand on the issue and I’m still confident that the best [men’s] team is going to be fielded and we’re going to get another opportunity at a World Cup. Of course I think it was naïve of me to say some of those things but I also think that we’re human beings and we say things and we learn from them and we move on and I’ve done that.”

When asked if dual-national or foreign-born eligible players becoming more of a common occurrence on the women’s side would help inform her opinion, Wambach said, “I can’t talk about things that are happening or not happening in the future. That feels a little bit too futuristic for me. But I want to support the evolution of football worldwide.” She added, “I think that it’s very common for somebody who’s played for a national team and has had an experience to want to maintain that experience. But that’s not my expectation. My expectation is that it will evolve in the way that it needs to evolve, and if that’s the way that it goes, then awesome.”

So not an outright admission that the comments were wrong, but perhaps an awareness from Wambach that doubling down in 2016 was the wrong way to go. Still, there was a sense of more critical thinking along one axis and somewhat less along another, with Wambach not totally acknowledging she understood the actual root of the soccer community’s disappointment with her xenophobic comments then readily picking up the thread of her work against gender discrimination, not just at US Soccer, but as a global social and cultural condition.

“It’s not just US Soccer’s charge, it’s also the charge of the communities that we all grew up in,” Wambach said of the need to reach out not just to women in general, but to take into consideration the ways that race and gender interact to create worse salary conditions for women of color in particular.

As Brittany Packnett wrote for The Cut, “Black women make 65 cents [for every man’s dollar]. Latina women make 58 cents. And Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Native women are often not even considered ‘statistically significant’ enough to be calculated.”

“I think all industries, every company, every city, every state, every country, the stats are the stats,” Wambach said of those figures showing the disparate impact of the pay gap on women of color. “I think we all have a responsibility, especially those like myself who find ourselves in certain positions of privilege - it’s not our job, it’s our responsibility to make sure that it’s democratized, that the world around us is as accessible to as many possible people as it can be.”

Wambach was cautiously optimistic about the general upwards movement she’s seen but refuses to settle for slowly-but-surely. “Over the last 30 years, we have to remember how women’s sports have evolved,” she said. “Title IX has been in existence for over 40 years, so evolutionarily speaking, we’re trending in the right direction. Does that mean things are happening at the pace that I feel good about? No. Does that mean women are being equally treated across all sports? No.”

And so Wambach hustles. She’s currently on a book tour to promote WOLFPACK, which is scheduled for release tomorrow, April 9. She’s hitting book stores, partnering with women’s apparel company Wildfang, and appearing on talk shows.

“Let’s just be real about some of this bias and some of this racism and some of this sexism that truly is running rampant through our world,” Wambach said. “It’s a sincerely difficult and hard topic for some people to understand, but for me it’s very simple. Everybody deserves to be treated equally.”