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Ada Hegerberg doesn’t owe you an explanation

But we wrote one up for you anyway.

Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona - UEFA Women’s Champions League Final Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images

Norway just notched a big 3-0 victory in their opening match of this World Cup. Next, they’ll face France, with a real chance to blow things wide open for themselves. It’s an exciting time for the team and for their fans. So why are we spending so much time talking about someone who hasn’t played for Norway in two years?

I’m not naïve. It’s understandable why this is a story. Ada Hegerberg is the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, one of the best players in the world, and is sitting at home while her team plays in the World Cup. It’s totally fair to discuss the issue. But the sense of entitlement and ownership people insist on placing over her in those conversations is out of line, and frankly pretty destructive.

Why did Ada Hegerberg quit the team? What were her specific grievances? Why hasn’t she been more clear? Is this really about her sister? Is it just sour grapes after Norway bombed out of the Euros? These are the Serious Questions that keep pinging back and forth, with talking heads tut-tutting and wondering what this is all really about.

To them I say: first, Hegerberg has actually been pretty clear. But second, even if she hadn’t been clear, she doesn’t owe you anything.

Hegerberg’s reasons are not obscure

Taking these one by one: let’s start with what she has actually said. This is admittedly a little difficult to find, especially in English. She clearly does not like talking about this, and has not been especially forthcoming when asked about it recently. But if you do even a little digging, the answers are right there. Hegerberg was unhappy with training methods (“we were not allowed to train enough”), with the overall levels of support for the team (according to Marius Lien and Lars Johnsen’s reporting, she felt that “the well-being of the Norwegians women’s teams was low on the agenda among the people running the game”), with accountability, with the nature of communication, the lack of an open channel for players to express criticism or concerns. She identified a general lack of interest in supporting women, from the lack of girls’ academies right up to the national team. Men’s appearance fees were higher. Staff payments to the men’s team were higher. And on and on.

All of this combined to produce an environment that made her feel like she was actively being held back. For a player with sky-high ambitions, playing for Norway seems to have imposed real limits on her sense of possibility, and left her miserable in the process. On this point, she spoke to Tv2 in Norway, and said (via google translate): “there is a reason I play abroad. I traveled out at a very young age because I realized it was necessary to reach the level I wanted.”

All together, as Sophie Lawson has noted for Equalizer, her comments “[paint] a picture of a stifled team, a group without individuality and one which begrudges loud voices.” A team where Hegerberg was expected to be a leader, while being expected to fit tightly into an overarching group mentality. Those dueling demands seem to have been extremely taxing on her, leaving her unhappy and unfulfilled as a player. In her words, according to reporting in the New York Times, the conditions grew to the point of being “unbearable.”

For reasons that are somewhat unclear, this has all been reduced to a vague claim about ‘equality,’ and therefore dismissed on the grounds that Norway instituted pay equality. But that clearly doesn’t fix the bulk of her concerns, which are about team culture and overall treatment, not the relatively narrow question of compensation. She apparently believes that the Norwegian women’s team should be treated with dignity and respect in all areas, and she did not find it to be so.

Now, is she making a realistic demand? Perhaps not. But why does it matter if the demand was realistic? She has a vision of what real commitment to her sport would look like, and doesn’t see any evidence of it from the Norwegian FA. Why should she be expected to donate her time, skill, and emotional energy to an institution that she finds unacceptable?

She doesn’t owe us anything

This brings us to the second point. Underneath all this conversation is a troubling presumption: that service to a national team is a fundamental moral good – that it really is a kind of national service that players owe to their institutions. If Hegerberg doesn’t want to play, she is ‘walking out on her team’ in their moment of need.

This sense of collective responsibility and togetherness certainly is useful for teams attempting to build a cohesive unit. And it makes sense that former players, who found that sense of community in their national team, should want other players to find the same strength. But that’s a far cry from making it mandatory. As Hegerberg herself notes, this verges on “military technique” – to build unity by standing against everyone else. And in her mind, it shields the organization from addressing any of the underlying issues.

Compare this to Hegerberg’s club situation at Olympic Lyonnais, a place where she clearly does feel a sense of community and collective support. The difference is that Lyon is a choice. If she were to become unsatisfied there, she could simply play elsewhere. The relationship contains a crucial element of mutuality, which is missing in the national context, where Hegerberg’s only leverage is to simply step away.

All of this reflects an important new reality in women’s soccer. For the first time, it is not just possible but completely understandable that players might have stronger attachments to their clubs than their countries. Lyon pays Hegerberg extremely well, provides her with world class training facilities and coaching, surrounds her with everything befitting a generational talent. Norway does none of these things.

For most of the world’s top players, the allure of the national team, of international glory, is still overwhelming. Hegerberg is obviously an exception on this point. But that is her right, and it’s not really anyone’s business if she feels that way.

We need to stop putting unreasonable demands on women

Ultimately, what’s really going on here is a form of subtle harassment, the kind that women in our society constantly undergo. They are expected to justify their decisions, substantiate their feelings, document their claims, and then stand in front of accusers and defend themselves against every point.

You can even see this in those trying to frame their concerns as supportive. Consider this ridiculous claim by Ian Darke, which he later deleted:

This argument presumes that Hegerberg sees herself as a righteous crusader for gender equality, who should be willing to sacrifice her own mental health for the sake of the cause. It’s classic concern-trolling. And she has always made clear that this choice was fundamentally about trying to protect herself from an environment that she found intolerable. She identified areas in need of progress, found her the Norwegian FA to be wholly uninterested in working on improvements on those fronts, and decided to simply get herself out of a bad situation.

That is a perfectly legitimate decision. She is allowed to put herself first.

Our society is very good at ‘respecting’ women when they make decisions that everyone finds comprehensible. It is a toxic stew when women make decisions that buck the norms. They are faced with an impossible burden: to precisely define and articulate every grievance with grace and deference, and then subject themselves to a never-ending stream of nitpicky Internet Guys screaming “ADA, COME DEBATE ME” into the void.

She’s made her choice; respect it and let it be

None of this is to deny that there is a real story here. It is obviously significant that one of the world’s best players has chosen to pass on the World Cup, and it’s perfectly reasonable for soccer media to cover that story. But the conversation should start from a presumption of respect for Hegerberg and her ability to choose her own path.

There’s room for discussion about how the decision might be weighing on her as her former teammates progress through the tournament, or how her choice played into the development of Norway’s current team dynamic. But these are relatively small topics. And, quite frankly, they’re just not that interesting. In the longer term, we should continue to think about how countries might improve their systems to provide the full levels of support that these players deserve.

But for right now, it’s time to let Hegerberg’s decision stand on its own, and focus our attention right now on what this group of 23 players is up to.