Update: Linked Marc Skinner clarifying his comments to the BBC.
Canadian women’s hockey player Caroline Ouellette was once asked about playing for the purity of her sport and not the glory or the money.
“If we had the chance to play for money, maybe we’d like to have that too,” she said.
Having options is a luxury, at this point in women’s soccer. The option to play wherever you want, for however long you want. The option to have a career and a family at the same time. The option to retire with a financial safety net. It’s why money, money, money is the constant refrain in the work to grow the game. Bigger salaries, better sponsorships, more investment from owners. No more talented players retiring in their primes because they have to get jobs that pay livable wages.
That’s the context around Orlando Pride head coach Marc Skinner’s recent comments to the BBC, when he spoke about the national team’s equal pay fight. Here’s the quote in full:
”I’m not going to go into the equal pay row because I think that I’d still love to see the women do something the men haven’t done, and that is to continue to love football not just for the money but for the love of the game. I think that’s the purity of women’s football, I really do,” he adds.
”I think they have something beautiful that they should look after and cherish, and not just sell out to that. But I also think they need to be paid to be respected and supported like that.
”These people give everything. I don’t think people appreciate that when a man retires from his football career he can go and sit at home, and go on a yacht or do other things. Women here sacrifice a lot and they still go on to become mothers and get other careers.
”I hope the exposure of the World Cup continues and that it continues to grow. But I still hope that the females keep the love and the purity of their game.”
What does that mean – the “purity” of the game? There’s this idea that’s taken hold in women’s soccer that the women’s game is “pure” because the players don’t have any extrinsic motivation for wanting to play and win. They play simply because they love to play. And to a certain extent, this is true, but it’s also true that for many female players, they have no choice but to play for love and love alone.
Women certainly didn’t create the circumstances that made it so that there was no financial gain to be had in their sport, and their constant battles for better pay should be evidence that they’ve never been particularly enamored of the idea that there is some kind of nobility or virtuousness in the struggle that comes with being underpaid. The early pioneers of the US women’s national team would probably say that they wanted to get paid precisely because the struggle sucked so much; you just can’t be competitive when you have to work a day job in order to pay for your soccer habit. And if a federation or a sports brand or a network is going to be making money off the back of your labor, well you deserve a cut of that too.
Several USWNT players dismissed the idea of “purity” in interviews in Philadelphia, where they played a friendly against Portugal in front of a record-setting crowd.
“What I will say is more money needs to be in the women’s game on all levels for it to continue to grow and be successful,” said Ashlyn Harris when asked about Skinner, with the caveat that she had not seen his comments for herself yet. “We need more salary cap money. We need more money put in marketing. More money for the lowest paid players, the minimum. So all of these things. Money is such a huge part of growth. We need money to be a better league, to be better players, to have better trainers who keep us on the field longer, better everything. It’s all hand in hand. What I will say is I can speak for the entire team and everyone in NWSL that soccer always comes first.”
Harris added, “I don’t know what he meant, but I can guarantee this team is about football and about winning, and money goes hand in hand with that because you need both. But our main focus is always football. We put football first. We put this team and each other first, otherwise we would never be as successful or made it this level as long as we’ve been here if football never was our first priority. So I just want to make sure that that’s very clear.”
Julie Ertz didn’t seem particularly worried that more money entering the women’s game might fundamentally alter it. “I love the game so much. Every single one of my teammates do too,” she said. “I see players in the EPL and everything else who make a big paycheck and play amazingly and I enjoy watching. I don’t know, I think it comes down to the type of player that you have. This game has given us so many amazing opportunities and amazing fans that you want to go day in, day out at training or games to entertain and have them love the game as much as you do. So for me, I don’t really see that. I think it comes on the individual themselves. I see a lot of people have so much love and passion for the game that can also get paid.”
Crystal Dunn didn’t agree that some element of purity might be lost with bigger paychecks and more sponsorships for women. “I think on the men’s side they get paid obviously a lot of money and their joy for the game is right there,” she said. “And I think the more money poured in the women’s game doesn’t mean the joy of the game is going to go anywhere. If anything, people are going to want to stay longer because they know that they can survive off of the paycheck that they’re making.”
Skinner clearly understands Dunn’s point on some level – he himself said women often don’t have the option to retire comfortable, and that they have to go on to get other jobs after their playing days are over. That’s why it’s disappointing to see him, or anyone, buy into an idea that the women’s game might lose something when they can “sell out,” aka be paid generously because women’s soccer is a popular and profitable enterprise. Maybe one day there will be female players who are in it for the millions – and won’t it be nice for them to have that option.