ORLANDO, Fla. — As Canada’s women’s soccer team walked onto the field for a pretournament training session on Wednesday, the vibe was one of just another practice.
A few players chatted. Some sang along with the music blaring from a portable speaker. A small group tossed around a football — an American one — and acted out dramatic sideline catches.
At a glance, it would have been nearly impossible to tell that the team was opposed to playing at this week’s SheBelieves Cup, which it is. It would have been impossible to know that it did not want to represent the Canadian soccer federation — which it most certainly did not.
The players’ red practice jerseys told the other, far more discordant story: In a show of silent but very public protest, the players had turned their shirts inside out. Doing so hid the Canada Soccer logo, and showed the players’ disdain for how they say the federation has treated them during their ongoing equal pay fight.
The fight is not new. For more than a year, Canada’s women’s team players have demanded that their federation provide them with equal pay, equal treatment and equal working conditions with Canada’s men’s team. This week, with the players exhausted by months of failed negotiations and outraged by recent budget cuts, the simmering feud boiled over.
The players went on strike. The federation responded with threats. Statements were issued. Raw feelings were aired.
More on Women and Girls in Sports
- Waves of Gender Equality: In 2002, “Blue Crush” depicted women competing at a major competition at Hawaii’s Pipeline. That’s only now become a reality thanks to grass-roots efforts and hard-charging surfers.
- ‘We Have Fun All the Time’: Women’s college running programs can be rife with toxicity. At North Carolina State, Coach Laurie Henes is winning with a different approach.
- Pressure to Cut Body Fat: Collegiate athletic departments across the country require student-athletes to measure their body composition. Many female athletes have found the tests to be invasive and triggering for those who had eating disorders or were predisposed to them.
- New Endorsements Bring Up Old Debate: Female college athletes are making millions thanks to their large social media followings. But some who have fought for equity worry that their brand building is regressive.
“We feel as though our federation has let us down,” forward Janine Beckie said.
Last week, the Canadian women said, they were dead-set on skipping the SheBelieves Cup, an important warm-up for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, which Canada — the reigning Olympic gold medalist in women’s soccer — will enter as a favorite.
When they arrived for the tournament, in which they will play the United States (Thursday), Brazil (Sunday) and Japan (Wednesday), the players said some of those inequities they have become used to were glaring. There were fewer staff members than usual, they said. Fewer players in the camp, and fewer days in the ones to come. So the team refused to take the field.
The strike, however, lasted only one day. A meeting with Canada Soccer went poorly; the federation, the team said, threatened to sue the players’ union and individual players for an illegal work stoppage. Saying they could not bear that risk, the players grudgingly returned to work and committed to taking part in the tournament. They are doing so under protest, players said, and they vowed to continue to find ways to amplify the issue with the public.
Beckie and Christine Sinclair, the longtime team captain, said they could no longer represent the federation until the federation resolved its disputes with the team. Infuriated after Friday’s meeting with the federation, midfielder Sophie Schmidt said she resolved to retire on the spot, and asked the team’s coach, Bev Priestman, to arrange her flight home. Schmidt decided to stick around until the World Cup only after Sinclair talked her out of leaving.
On Thursday night, Canada’s team will take the field knowing it has an ally in its opponent, the U.S. women’s team, and a blueprint in that team’s successful equal pay fight. The Americans spent years fighting their federation for equal treatment and equal pay, nearly a decade in which they managed court fights and legal filings while winning two World Cup titles. Though the U.S. team eventually lost its equal pay case in federal court, it emerged last year with a landmark agreement that might be the most player-friendly contract in women’s sports.
But none of it was easy, the U.S. forward Alex Morgan said. Or fast.
“Canada’s just getting started,” Morgan said Wednesday. “They know the long road ahead of them because we just went through that and I hope it’s a shorter road for them. We’ll do anything to publicize what they’re fighting for and why they should achieve that.”
American stars like Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn said they had spoken with the Canadians and offered advice on strategies to achieve their goals. One key factor, Morgan and the other Americans said, is getting the public and sponsors involved in applying pressure on the federation to make changes.
“I think they should use that as something that can be galvanizing and motivating for fans and players alike,” Rapinoe said.
Priestman, the Canada coach caught between her players and her employer, said the team did not need any extra motivation. While the labor dispute might be erasing some of their focus heading into three crucial on-field tests, she said, the players are used to fighting for one another.
“They’ll be together and make a stand together and they’ll work hard together,” Priestman said. “And I don’t doubt that.”
She added, “I see a team fighting for each other, but also fighting for the next generation.”
To make the public aware of that fight, the Canadians may wear their shirts inside out again on Thursday, a public gesture previously employed by the American team during its equal pay fight. Other protests are under discussion, too, though Sinclair and the other team leaders declined to divulge any plans.
Whatever they decide, the Americans said they would be proud to join in.
“We are in full solidarity with them,” Sauerbrunn said.