It’s 2009, I am in 7th grade, at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill, NC. We have a student teacher in our social studies class, a UNC student finishing up her Education major. Her name is Heather O’Reilly, you may have heard of her?
Of course we were all excited to have her as a student teacher in our classroom, and honored that she would play basketball with us at recess. But she was already a star at that point, and looking back it seems pretty ridiculous that she felt the need to devote time and energy to her career after soccer, while she was in the prime of her professional and international soccer career. Carla Overbeck said in the Struggle for Equality in Women’s Soccer panel that to her, being a professional athlete meant being paid enough to being able to focus on her sports career. It meant not having to pick up a second job on the side just to be able to play soccer at a high level. The US soccer federation and professional women’s soccer leagues couldn’t even make that happen for the highly successful WNT in her time.
I want to be clear, it is very admirable of Heather O’Reilly to complete her education, and contribute to the education of impressionable young 7th graders, and still have a successful soccer career. She deserves praise for this. But the system which makes this a near necessity for her and for other women’s soccer stars, while men’s soccer stars in general don’t face the same, deserves the opposite of praise.
After hearing Carla Overbeck’s thoughts on women’s soccer in the USA, I then heard about similar situations from the rest of the world. Shireen Ahmed mentioned the heartbreaking story of Fara Williams, England’s most capped player. She was homeless for 7 years while playing for England’s national team early in her career. How she stayed fit, kept her nutrition up to the standards required to play soccer at an elite level, and remained sane, is a mystery to me, and it’s utterly unacceptable for one of the most celebrated women’s soccer players in England to have to live like this. Of course no one wanted her to be homeless, no one conspired to make it that way. But how the %^&* does that happen, in the country that invented soccer mind you?
Shireen Ahmed also told the inspiring journey of Nadia Nadim, whose family had to flee from the Taliban to Denmark after they executed her father. She is 30 and playing for Manchester City and the Denmark national team, all the while studying to become a surgeon when her playing career is over. Again, Nadia Nadim is so inspiring. But we all know some pre-med students, and we know how busy they always are. If students who spend all of their time studying medicine (purportedly) have so much on their plate, how about a professional soccer player who’s also studying medicine?
If even the best women’s soccer players have to think about their side careers, it must be the case at all levels of the game. While there are slightly similar stories in men’s sports like John Urschel (the Baltimore Ravens lineman and math scholar), they’re rare. What is the effect of this? It seems to me that it stifles the development of women’s soccer. If women’s soccer players weren’t spread so thin, they would be able to train more, to devote more time and energy to their craft. The pay gap in women’s sports is problematic for this reason and others. These stories are inspiring, but I think I would rather have fewer of these stories than more.
To end on a good note, here is a clip of Heather O’Reilly’s sublime strike against Colombia: https://youtu.be/fFYX8J_UZIY?t=24s