Soccer star Abby Wambach gets real on how 'gratitude' can hurt women

Get a first look at her new book.

April 9, 2019, 7:58 AM

Abby Wambach, a retired soccer player and outspoken advocate of equal pay for women, will soon release her book, “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game.” In this first look, Wambach details how receiving a coveted ESPY award contributed to her belief that the gratitude of women, along with the the entitlement and complicity of men, keep the gender pay gap in place. You can read the full excerpt below.

When I retired from soccer, ESPN decided to celebrate my career by honoring me with their Icon Award. I’d accept the award at the ESPYS—their nationally televised show—along with two other retiring champions: the NBA’s Kobe Bryant and the NFL’s Peyton Manning.

I was excited. This felt like a big deal. My first thought was: What am I going to wear?

PHOTO: The cover of Abby Wambach's book, "Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game."
The cover of Abby Wambach's book, "Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game."
Celadon Books/Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.

My answer was—exactly what I want to wear— sneakers and all. I got my new suit tailored. I bought some sparkly sneakers. I got my head freshly bleached and shaved. Why not go for soccer icon and fashion icon on the same night?

The night of the ESPYS Justin Timberlake, the presenter of our awards, stood on stage and showed highlight videos of our careers to the audience. He talked about what we three had in common: our talent, our grit, our dedication. As he described the lengths we were willing to go, he showed footage of me getting my bloody head stapled back together during a game. He stopped and said, with shock and awe: “They stapled. Her head.”

The crowd squirmed and laughed, which made me feel like a badass—worthy of the stage I was standing on.

When it was time for us to receive our awards, the three of us stood together while the cameras rolled and the audience cheered. I don’t know how Kobe and Peyton felt in that moment, but I felt overwhelming gratitude. I was so grateful to be there—to be included in the company of Kobe and Peyton. I had a momentary feeling of having arrived, like women athletes had finally made it.

Then the applause ended, and it was time for the three of us to exit stage left. As I watched those men walk off the stage, it dawned on me that while the three of us were stepping away from similar careers, we were facing very different futures.

Each of us—Kobe, Peyton, and I—had made the same sacrifices for our careers; shed the same amount of blood, sweat, and tears; won world championships at the same level. We’d left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent, and commitment. But our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton were walking off that stage and into their futures with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts. Because of that they had something else I didn’t have: Freedom. Their hustling days were over. Mine were just beginning.

Later that night, back in my hotel room, I lay in bed and finally acknowledged what had been simmering inside me for decades: Anger.

In the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup the winning team took home $38 million in prize money— that’s 19 times the amount that the winning team brought home in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Nineteen times more. This despite the fact that in 2015, when the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup championship, the Women’s National Team turned a profit of $6.6 million, whereas the Men’s National Team earned a profit of just under $2 million.

I was angry at myself for not speaking up more about this glaring inequity and obvious injustice.

I was angry for my teammates, for my mentors, for all women. Because I knew that this wasn’t just about me, and it wasn’t just about sports.

My story is every woman’s story.

On average, women across the globe will earn significantly less than men in equivalent positions throughout their careers. In the first quarter of 2018, women in the U.S. earned 81.1 percent of what their male counterparts earned across all industries and ages. Studies have shown that, on average, women must work 66 extra days in order to earn the same salary as their male counterparts. Wage inequity is even more devastating for women of color: Black women are typically paid only 63 cents, and Latina women only 54 cents, for every dollar paid to their white, male counterparts.

I spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPYS stage. Just feeling grateful. I was so grateful for a paycheck, so grateful to represent my country, so grateful to be the token woman at the table, so grateful to receive any respect at all that I was afraid to use my voice to demand more for myself—and equality for all of us.

What keeps the pay gap in existence is not just the entitlement and complicity of men. It’s the gratitude of women.

Our gratitude is how power uses the tokenism of a few women to keep the rest of us in line.

From “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game” by Abby Wambach. Copyright (c) 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.