Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Standing in Sad Sisterhood, with Regret

I wasn't as young as Skyler. I wasn't working directly for any MLS team, even as an intern. 

While trying to gather player comments for a post-game story, I knew the instant I was told to leave the locker room by a player that it was happening because I was female and that was wrong. I had supportive reporter colleagues around me, even if they were somewhat confused because they didn't speak Spanish. I stood my ground and did my job, even if that meant getting quotes while other players joked and catcalled and Ezra Hendrickson had to tell them to settle down. Upon returning to the pressbox, I sent in my article and then wrote an email directly to the league about the incident. 

I didn't want to go public about it, but felt I had to explain what had already been mentioned, and so I did in blog form. Like Skyler, I received a lot of comments appalled that anyone tried to prevent me from doing my job in peace, but of course, the words that stay in my head over a decade later are the ones of condemnation and shame. They still make me angry and frustrated. I was doing my job. 

But there is also still some lingering regret. In my email to MLS higher-ups (Director of Communications, League Executives) I mentioned specifically how the league needed to have some kind of transition training for players & staff who arrive from other countries and need to learn what's culturally acceptable in the US. The bullshit of that is that other players whooping at me in the locker room that night were American. In other words, players across the league needed sexual harassment avoidance training. I wish I'd insisted on that, maybe on threat of suing otherwise.  

The month after the incident, I was in the press room at the MLS All-Star Game in Colorado when MLS Commissioner Don Garber approached me after his public press conference. He apologized, saying that he was told what happened, that he was appalled and that it shouldn't have happened. I was caught off-guard, and mumbled something like, "Thanks," and "Yeah, it shouldn't have." I was embarrassed. I'd worked hard at my job for years and didn't want to be known for a locker room scene. 

Thing is, Garber's apology didn't really change anything, and certainly not for Skyler. I wish now I'd pulled out my recorder immediately and asked Garber if he'd commit on the record to league-wide sensitivity training for all staff and players, with a clear chain of reporting and accountability if anyone fell short. What was he going to do to make sure that what shouldn't have happened wouldn't happen again? Instead, I just hoped the league had learned a lesson and would do better. 

Maybe pushing Garber to do more to address the issue all those years ago wouldn't have changed anything for Skyler, who was in a different situation than mine in many ways. But I wish I had done more, regardless. Instead, all I can offer now is that I'm appalled at what happened to her. It shouldn't have happened. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Love is Love; Image is Everything

I had my recorder out for the mixed zone at the end of the USWNT game in Los Angeles some years ago and one of the stars of the match, after having answered a few questions, left the media scrum to affectionately greet a woman who called out to her. The pair then departed, holding hands.  
"We never write about that," one reporter told me. I looked at him, puzzled. I had had one more question to ask about the game and I was contemplating following them (they weren't technically out of the mixed zone area) to ask it of the women's national team player. 
"All the national team players that have girlfriends," the reporter explained. "We know, everybody close to the team knows, but we don't ever write about it."
"Why?" I asked. "I've seen a lot of articles about who on the team is married or engaged to men." 
He laughed, "Oh, the team puts out plenty of publicity about that, but not this. They don't want the public to know." 

I thought about that incident recently, partly because of Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird going public in a national media article, not about their relationship, but about key differences between the WNBA (and by extension, the USA women's basketball team) and the NWSL (and the USWNT) popularity.  

The blame is not entirely on the public here, given that US Soccer itself has gone out of its way to cultivate the image of the USWNT as, well, straight. Even as certain players have stepped forward and gone public with relationships with other women, there's been little coverage of that, at least from the team media channels or website, compared to the players on the team in relationships with men. Put "Zach Ertz" into the US Soccer website engine for comparison against Sue Bird or Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach's wife. Bird results come back in single digits and Doyle comes up a zero, opposed to Ertz's 24.  

There is a nice podcast on the site with Robbie Rogers from July of this year, which is notable since he was the first openly out MLS player. However, all of his USMNT call-ups took place while he was closeted, so the distinction of being the first openly out USMNT player to take the field remains for someone to claim someday. Soon, I hope. 

It's a positive to see national team players going directly to media about who they are and love. I believe the WNBA deserves credit for blazing that trail and it is sad to think some of the repercussions have been negative. It's also about time for the USWNT team known at one point as "America's Sweethearts" to break from a stifling mold of conformity and fear of offending anyone. It's good for the revolving cycle of the public being fed an image, but also being blamed for that image being cultivated in the first place to stop. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Georgie, or Germany?

Back in 2006, not long before I covered my first World Cup in person, I had an opportunity to interview Landon Donovan for an ESPN Soccernet article (this was so long ago, it's not even archived anywhere anymore). On the heels of a 2002 USA quarterfinal finish and winning the World Cup Young Player award, there was a big focus on LD. Had American soccer finally found its savior? 

To me, that was the wrong question altogether. I don't remember exactly when I first saw the video of George Best and his enchanting, mazy run in NASL action with the Earthquakes, but I was entranced. Best was aptly named and his skills were beyond doubt, yet that wasn't ever going to be enough to take Northern Ireland to a World Cup. 

The USA's dream run in 2002 hadn't been driven exclusively by Donovan, either, though he impressed, no doubt. The deep run in the tournament required key contributions by young MLS talents such as Clint Mathis, Damarcus Beaseley, Pablo Mastroeni, Brian McBride and key veterans such as Eddie Pope, as well as wily European-tested players like Claudio Reyna, Tony Sanneh, Eddie Lewis and John O'Brien. Brad Friedel was also in top form. Then the US played Germany. The team spirit the USA had built all through the tournament shone against one of the world's biggest teams, but a Michael Ballack goal was the difference to eliminate the scrappy Americans. 

Germany didn't consider Michael Ballack a savior, of course. He was merely one in a long line of German greats. To me, it was telling that Germans didn't seem to even bother ever entering into the Pele/Maradona/Best/Cruyff argument of who was the greatest player. They just kept playing good soccer and winning World Cups (4x). 

American Soccer, in my view, didn't need saving as much as it needed to be spared the angst many in the soccer community exhibited in obseessing continously on whatever their preferred unattainable silver bullet of soccer success happened to be (converting top athletes to play socccer, pro/rel, joining CONMEBOL, etc).

I sat down with Donovan, asked questions and wrote up the article, trying to capture some of his enigmatic personality and quirks, but also tackling that inferiority aspect, since the first line went something like this:
Landon Donovan will not save U.S.A soccer. 
And the last line of the piece: American soccer can save itself, followed Donovan's quotes about some other young players he was expecting to make their impact on behalf of the US at the World Cup - Clint Dempsey was one specific mention, as Donovan noted his hunger. 

Of course, that 2006 team didn't make it out of group play. Donovan didn't score a single goal and Dempsey announced himself on the world stage by scoring, albeit in a losing effort. It was a low point for American soccer fans  -- though of course, not nearly as low as the fateful 10/10/2017 World Cup qualifying elimination. On the field that day for the infamous failure was a new US soccer darling, Christian Pulisic. His unmistakable talent couldn't propel the team to avoid a loss, but his star, already in the ascendency in his European club career, has risen now to the No. 10 jersey on the Premier League team, Chelsea. 

Especially for US fans starved for overseas club success for their players, that accomplishment alone puts Pulisic in the conversation for best American player ever, and there's more than a few articles focused on that discussion. Your milage may vary on how captivating the debate is when it still distills down to a version of, "Yes, our country's men's soccer team sucks, but here's this one very, very good player everyone has to respect!"

Do American soccer fans want their team to be more like Germany, and Pulisic to be an important cog in that machine, or do they want to have Pulisic be their George Best? I honestly appreciate both, but for different reasons. 

I'm curious if Pulisic checks out his old team, Dortmund, partly to see how Gio Reyna is progressing -- or views highlight clips of a wide array of young talented Americans, both abroad and in MLS, who might be contibuting teammates in the future mission of getting the USA men back to the World Cup tournament, and then powering another deep run to actually compete for the title. The USMNT reached the semifinal in 1930, but the squad has never contented in the championship final. Pulisic is still young enough to imagine himself at multiple future World Cups. It's a long way from not even playing in the tournament, to vying for the trophy, but there's a new generation of possibilities now, and the alchemy to meld them well can happen, even if it's more elusive than establishing an alltime best. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chivas is Overdue for Integration

As far as classicos go, it was an odd one, taking place during a pandemic, without fans. But Chivas vs Club America wasn't much of a thrilling matchup on Sept. 19, 2020. The lack of the fervent support of Chivas Guadalajara was only part of the problem. The truth is, the club hasn't been very competitive for many seasons and isn't (unlike Club America) competing regularly for titles any more. The Chivas club has an incredibly large and loyal fanbase, but their devotion isn't rewarded as it should be. The limiting policy of the nationalistic player roster is only part of the reason why. 

This blog has covered numerous times how the policy of Chivas changed over the years, but most obviously and officially, under the late Jorge Vergara, from only fielding players born IN Mexico to now fielding players born eligible for Mexican citizenship (they could be born anywhere in the world, but had to have at least one Mexican parent or grandparent). The fact that Luis and I uncovered the ruse Chivas had been using (fake birth certificates) helped make the change public. Vergara rode the idea that gringo USA reporters were somehow attacking the Chivas legacy by exposing his deception to help get everyone to accept the change. 

Now Miguel Angel Ponce and Isaac Brizuela are longtime stalwarts for the Guadalajara squad, despite their American roots. But Chivas still has a shortsighted policy in place that maintains that any dual-citizen who signs for them has to renounce ever playing with a non-Mexican national team. Frankly, such a contract clause shouldn't be legal or binding over any professional international athlete. It also either limits Chivas to signing Mexican-American players who probably aren't going to be called up by either team or limits the players who sign with the club to only playing with Mexico. 

What the nationalist approach has done in addition to build up a following for Chivas is to help keep out players of African heritage. Naturilized players, like Zinha, have featured for the Mexican national team, but not for Chivas. That's part of the reason there was a certain irony in Giovanni Dos Santos scoring the winning goal for Club America over Chivas in Liga MX action on Saturday. He's obviously Mexican and has featured internationally for El Tri many times. So why wasn't he a top option for Chivas brass to land as player instead of him going to their rivals? 

The easy answer is that Club America had more cash to splash on a player who has struggled with injuries of late. The answer fans of Chivas have to confront at some point is that it doesn't seem to be priority for the club to integrate the squad. Of course, there's something to be said for the idea that the top priority for any club should be winning, but if that was the case, why not allow all citizens of Mexico, naturalized or born eligible or eligible for other national teams or playing for other national teams, to be Chivas players? They'd still be Chivas. They'd likely attract even more fans. They'd still be an all-Mexican team, but one that's more inclusive and likely more diverse. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Time in a Bottle

We're locked up. At least, if we're being careful, we should be. So much has changed since I last posted to this blog. The biggest change currently is that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, people who are trying to keep everyone safe are staying mostly indoors, wearing masks and social distancing when they do go out in public. 

I had dipped back into the educational field after my ESPN contract expired in 2017, but my contract at the school where I worked ended in June, so I'm job hunting during a pandemic. Fun. 

Lots of things give me hope, however, even during a Trump presidency. The moment for social justice and confronting racial inequality seems more timely than ever and in many ways, the sports world and athletes are leading the way. 

Also, since the untimely death of the Sol, there's a women's soccer team coming to Los Angeles! With a lot of female investors, including Serena Williams and her daughter, Olympia. 

I have to give the NWSL a lot of credit for lasting longer than any previous women's soccer league in the USA. I still wish it had done so without being propped up by the USSF paying the NWSL salaries of the USWNT players. Even more so, I wish the UWSNT players hadn't inserted that infamous clause into their payment contract. To clarify, I'm referring to the contract clause where the USSF had to guarantee the lowest-paid USWNT salary in the NWSL would always be more than the payment of any other player signed to the league. It wouldn't matter if the NWSL Player of the Year was non-USWNT, either (which happened multiple times). There was no bonus option for any non-USWNT NWSL player to ever out-earn the USSF-paid group.  All legal papers pictured here courtesy of Jonathan Tannenwald's posting of the initial filing of the USWNT lawsuit.

Then they sued for equal pay. No, not the NWSL players who weren't part of the USWNT (basically all the foreign players and US players just outside the USWNT top tier), the USWNT players sued the federation for equal pay to the men's contract, ignoring how they had recently signed a separate contract with their own specifications. I'll give them credit for great public relations, because they did an excellent job of promoting their cause as a progressive feminist one. 

It frankly puzzles me how the USWNT can package their pay movement as being on behalf of women when the contract they signed as a group created an NWSL caste system which kept their group (and their group only) as the highest paid. The contract clause was an unbreakable glass ceiling that kept other women from being compensated as well. Many of them looking for "fair pay" for their play either left the league (Kim Little, NWSL MVP 2014) or never signed with it (Deyna Castellanos specified that the inability to be paid as much as the USWNT in the league factored into her signing abroad).

Think about this, since the NWSL started in 2013 all the way to 2019, a foreign player (Little, Sam Kerr 3x) has won the League Golden Boot the majority of the time. Due at least in part to the "Most-favored Player" clause, none of those players made equal or more than the lowest-paid USWNT player in NWSL salary. 

Back in 2016, I discussed some of these NWSL issues with a national soccer writer. Here's a transcript of our online messages on the topic. 

NSW: I find your candor in the WNT debate -- going back months -- refreshing and remarkably on point. Of course it's 20 women out for themselves. Too bad the woso set is so angry they're not actually reading the words. 

Me: I started out covering women's college soccer & figure the least I can add now and then to the convo is my honest perspective. 

NSW: Deep down, I bet the WNT players would sacrifice the entire NWSL in a NY minute for full-time residency on salary. Preferably in California. 

Me: Some definitely would, and they tend to be the ones with big sponsor compensation as well. You can see the huge difference in the way they play for their club teams versus the national team. Some play NWSL like they're doing the world a favor. 

NSW: Equal play, equal pay, equally M.I.A. 

Me: It's a PR disaster, for sure, for the USSF, and I'm sure they want it all to go away. Problem is, the whole "going away" thing at some point may take NWSL with it. I know it's worst-case scenario, but then again, I've watched two of these leagues go up in smoke. 

NSW: But for the optics of folding your women's league while bidding for a WC, I figured they'd pull the plug this winter. But hard to sustain. My bet is they cut a deal and fold it into MLS. Built-in stadiums, PR megaphone, ticket-sales partners, sponsors -- just makes more sense, financially, to me to have everyone in the same boat, rowing the same direction. Of course, the WNT will hate it, but they may not have a choice. 

Me: Beyond the WNT hating it, there's quite a few in MLS opposed as well. They see the women's league as a huge albatross & have the view that they prefer to follow NFL model, with no supplementary women's league. Even some former women's league supporters, like Anschutz, are in this boat now. My point is, MLS wants to be wooed into taking on a women's league. The WNT controls much of the NWSL structure and they're not going to that altar willingly, let alone wooing. So I'm not optimistic. 

NSW: Garber would be a negotiation genius if he can pull it off. Actually, what it will really take is for the three MLS-affiliated teams to really do well. Nothing convinces people with money like money. He needs Portland's crew to sell it to the others. 

Me: As long as Portland's success is alone, it's an outlier. 

(This part of the convo referred to the starting 11 of an NWSL game about to start)

NSW: As if any NWSL team is allowed to sit a WNT player.

Me: Never even thought about that. Might be unwritten rule, for sure, but how to prove it? 

NSW: Only a fired coach would say so. But then, only a moron would bench a NT-level player for some of the extras and emergency fill-ins that league regularly runs out.

Me: It's a Catch 22 again - why would any NT level players from other top countries ever sign with NWSL if teams can't even match the salary being made by lowest paid USWNT players? That's just a set up to sign mostly scrubs. 

NSW: Exactly. And protect the gravy train from interlopers. Or from getting shown up on the field by better pros. 

Me: Still, I was really surprised to see the venom among some WoSo players for Marta's contract back in WPS. Arguably, she was so good and so well known that she was still worth the profile she brought. But the backlash allowed the USWNT to sorta frame the exclusionary aspect of their contract as a GOOD thing for the NWSL to be so protectionist. But really, it's taking everything bad about Marta's contract and extrapolating it to the entire team, instead of just one person. It's jingoistic, and the opposite of "Fair pay for play" to have a contract that guarantees that the whole team will always make more than any foreign player ever will. 

NSW: That's the biggest bull in the whole argument. It's protectionism, pure and simple. And it makes them all full of crap. Of course, they'd probably just as soon see the league fail. Full time NT residency camp a much easier life. 

Me: Especially for those who prefer to live in Los Angeles anyway. It's just that the league now seems set up on a false premise - geared to players who are in it to try not to win for their clubs, but to earn a call-up and a USWNT contract to play for real money. They hang on to that dream as long as they can, then they let go. 

NSW: Except there is no room at the inn. 

Me: Yep. It ends up like the lottery, or the Hunger Games for those females scrapping so hard with so little, for so long, for just a couple of new USWNT spots that these days are more likely to go to a college phenom anyway, not an NWSL player at all. 

NSW: Truth

What's changed in four years? 

Well, the NWSL has endured and even raised their salary cap a modest amount. The USWNT won another World Cup, which gave them a great bargaining position against the USSF. Also, the infamous NWSL clause disappeared -- or at least, it wasn't specifically present in any of the current documents of the USSF/USWNT lawsuit agreement. The entire 2017 CBA agreement, which expires in 2021, wasn't ever released publicly, so we don't really know. 

 Some other stuff came out, including a horribly sexist and paternalistic argument from the USSF about the USWNT. This led to the resignation of Carlos Cordiero (next time, read your lawyer's papers) and the installation of former WC winner Cindy Parlow Cone. 

Though the latest judge's ruling has focused on how the USWNT as a group signed their contract and it is binding on that basis, it didn't really address the inequality aspect. Frankly, the stupid USSF wording about the women  concerning "certain physical attributes such as speed and strength." made it impossible for the public to focus on more valid differences between the WNT and MNT, like how the qualifying for the World Cup is completely different or how WNT contracts pay salaries differently & offer different benefits (such as to pregnant players) because the women have different situations. Equal pay by the USWNT is always presented without their NWSL pay factored in, although the USSF not only pays that, but through the clause, affected the pay of other league players.  

Media coverage of the USWNT has generally been solidly in their camp, with very few bothering to mention that the 2017 labor contract was voluntarily signed, or that USWNT NWSL salaries are paid by the USSF. Not a single reporter has ever, to the best of my knowledge, even asked any USWNT member about the salary clause that kept all of them on a different earning plane than their club peers, let alone the possible hypocrisy related to their current lawsuit. 

Beau Dure has been one of the few soccer writers even looking at possible USWNT lawsuit ramifications on the next generation of female players.  If you don't want to sign up for Soccer America's free articles or subscribe for unlimited access, I'll spill the tea -- it could be very bad. Even without the worst case scenario, the current lawyer costs have no doubt impacted the USSF finances and therefore, investment in youth development somewhat. 

I'm not changing my name from Canales to "What Happened to the NWSL Salary Clause, USWNT?" yet, though I'd buy a reasonably priced T-shirt of that phrase. It's long been my view that the WNT are deserving of a better contract with the USSF, one that's specific to their needs and desires. The equal pay campaign of USNT being warriors on behalf of all women players, however, that glosses over their past of being decidedly unequal in regards to NWSL seems conveniently revisionist at best and downright deceptive at worst. Pretending there was never a clause about "no non-WNT Player receives compensation greater than a WNT Player," doesn't make it true. The clause was in multiple MOUs that appeared to be in effect from 2013 to 2017, at least.

That matters, even if it's gone now. In this Caitlin Murray article about the new NWSL allocation pay structure, Megan Rapinoe is vociferous in her objection to the possibility that someone on her NWSL squad might possibly get paid more than herself.  Though she specified "we need to find a way to appropriately compensate our best and brightest," that clearly wasn't as big a priority in 2013, when she signed onto the clause that kept all non-USWNT players out of  Most-Favored Player status; that clause isn't mentioned in the article. 

I'm not paid to write on soccer anymore, so who knows if I'll ever get to ask any USWNT member the clause question. Perhaps by the time I do, no one on the current team will know.