How The Gender Wage Gap Changed My Soccer Dreams

Estimated reading time ~ 8 min
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Female Soccer Team (CC: Adobe Stock Images)

On International Women’s Day, members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer “accusing the national federation of paying lower salaries to women and subjecting them to more dangerous playing conditions than their male counterparts.” They have been vocal in their complaints for years, describing everything from disparities in field conditions to World Cup winnings. The alleged gap in treatment isn’t for lack of competitiveness: The Washington Post notes that the U.S. women’s national team won the Cup in 1991, 1991, and 2015, while the men’s team has never won and failed to qualify last year. Despite their battle with the League, women are still dominating on the field. They just want to be paid fairly for their contributions to the game.

The conversation about women’s compensation in sports has become a landmark topic over the last several years, with women in basketball, hockey, and tennis also chiming in. These conversations are simmering even below the national level, though. Ahead, Jerica DeWolfe, a 29-year-old senior account executive at Havas, tells Jopwell about her experiences playing semi-pro soccer. She explained the ways that individual financial stability and institutional support can impact players’ ability to succeed.

jerica Jerica DeWolfe playing for D.C. United W League

I started playing recreational soccer at about four years old and took to it immediately. I just loved it. I was very ride-or-die about soccer early on. I started playing on a competitive club team in middle school, skipping school plays to be at practice because soccer took priority over everything else. There was an Olympic Development Program in my area, which involved trying out to be on your state’s team, so I went out for that as well. I wanted to integrate myself in as many leagues as possible so that I could hone my skills and get some exposure. Years later, I played on my high school team, so I became very competitive pretty fast and really young.

My mom was also a former soccer player. She played in high school and took a stab at it in college but didn’t end up finishing school at that time. When she went back in her 30s, she made it onto the women’s varsity soccer team and continued playing on women’s leagues until she was in her 40s. She raised me as a single mom and when I started to get more competitive, she actually became my club team coach for a couple of years. She had a coach’s license and was pretty active in the community, so she was also really invested.

High school is when things started to get really serious. From then onward, I rarely had a day off. Sometimes I did several soccer-related activities multiple times a day. My school team had practice five days a week, interspersed with games, so about two hours each day. In addition to that, I also had my commitments to my club team, which were a different caliber. I had club practice about three times a week and on weekends, so the commitment was enormous for both me and my parents. They had to drive me back and forth when I was too young to drive, and they poured a ton of money into everything. We went all over the East Coast and then had massive tournaments that were elsewhere, sometimes on the West Coast. It was a lot of gas, a lot of hotels, and a lot of equipment, and there were fees associated with being on the club so that the coach would get paid, as well as fees to play in the tournament itself. At different times in my life, I also worked with personal trainers who were wildly expensive.

A lot of the parents viewed it as an investment. Some were hopeful that their kid would get a scholarship and play in college; others just loved watching their kids play. I was lucky enough that my mom could handle the fees, and it probably helped that she was the coach and had a relationship with the club. When I got older, and she decided to stop coaching, she was in a much better financial situation than she had been, so I was never exposed to the financial strains of playing. Some kids’ parents had to decide, “There’s a tournament in Arizona? That’s just one we can’t make happen.” For me, there was never a question of whether I’d participate in everything that was offered.

In college, I was recruited to play on the women’s varsity Division I soccer team at the University of Dayton. Senior year came around and I had one of my best seasons. Once it was over, I spent the last half of my school year focusing on being in college for the very last time. Soccer had been a ton of work so I’d never really focused on what I’d do after graduation. I never recall there being conversations about playing professionally. I had always stayed in the moment and tried to accomplish the absolute most I could at each stage. By the time I graduated from college, the women’s professional soccer league was no longer in existence due to a lack of funding and sponsorship. It’s sad: You put all of that effort into a career only to come out on the other side and not have that opportunity.

When I returned home to D.C., my college coach called to tell me about an opportunity to play with D.C. United Women, a new women’s club team that would be part of what was called the W League. Because of my athletic commitment, I hadn’t done any internships and had nothing to put on my résumé beyond soccer, so I spent a little time working on the Hill as an intern. I also got a restaurant job to earn some income but generally felt like I had very little going on overall. I decided to try out for the team and made it! We practiced about three nights a week and had games on the weekends, usually a full two-day commitment. Sometimes we traveled — but the travel for D.C. United Women was less substantial than the travel I did for college soccer because there weren’t as many teams to play against. It was a small league and a scrappy effort, and there wasn’t much support. I didn’t pay anything to join but I wasn’t compensated either. My financial commitment was gas, getting to practice, and paying for whatever equipment I needed.

All the women who joined the team were really talented — one of my teammates is actually the women’s national team captain now — but there were gaps. You didn’t see some of the faces you were familiar with in women’s professional soccer. The fact that a real, supported, sponsored, and funded professional women’s league had dissipated was, I imagine, a huge loss. Putting themselves in a position where they weren’t being compensated to play might not have been of interest to them.

I played for two seasons and later entered the nonprofit world, working full-time at the Alzheimer's Association. That’s where I was when the women’s professional league came back into play. I had just finished a season with D.C. United Women and learned that our coach had been selected to lead the emerging D.C. women’s professional league. He contacted me about tryouts and what training would look like, which was encouraging. I had a bit of an in because we had spent two seasons together and he was familiar with what I was capable of, so I attended the preliminary tryout in the winter. Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle about 20 minutes into playing. It was fine; we had a while until the actual spring training process began and this was really an interim opportunity to come out and be invited out to spring training. In the end, it was really another problem that prevented me from moving forward.

When the organizers emailed the expected schedule, they explained that we would have two-a-days — practices multiple times a day during the week for multiple weeks all the way out in Germantown, MD. I worked in Virginia at the time and the drive was about 40 miles in a ton of traffic. I talked to a colleague about whether there was any way to make it work but there was little flexibility. She said that I could transition to part-time. The problem is, this opportunity was just for training. I felt pretty confident that I would be selected but I wasn’t 100% sure — and my coach couldn’t make any guarantees. Even if I did make the team, I was sure the compensation would be low and not very sustainable. There’s a legacy of women being poorly compensated compared to the men in sports. If you’re on the women’s national team and you’ve got a huge audience and people are familiar with your face, you’ll have better luck. You’re also probably a much better player, so that’s fair. But knowing I wasn't going to be one of those faces or have the mass attention that other players might have made me less confident that I would be able to survive on the compensation that would be given to me. I recall seeing an ask for locals in the Germantown area near the soccer facility to provide lodging for the women who would be training. That was a pretty good indication to me that they couldn’t afford to put people up and were asking for volunteers.

Ultimately, I made the hard decision to bow out. I’d been in it for a really long time, was struggling with an injury, there were no guarantees whatsoever, and the women’s league could very well could have gone away again after that first season. I was nervous about taking such a huge gap in a traditional career and then trying to get back into it down the road and being at a disadvantage.

I definitely had some regret and beat myself up about it a bit. It’s a pretty small world and seeing a number of former teammates or people that I knew doing what they love — something I loved as well and was really passionate about — was tough. At that stage, my only opportunity to play was in social, recreational leagues, which I found incredibly frustrating. It was hard to see my skill set sink because of the lack of competitive play, training, and exercise. I actually stopped playing for a while because I would get so angry. I’ve learned to be a little lighter about it and now just enjoy the game again. I know that sticking with it wasn’t the right decision for me and I still feel really confident about that.

Women soccer players are badass. They’re wildly athletic and super resilient. The level of effort that goes into preparation for a men’s team is no different than the level that’s going into a women’s professional sports team and they both deserve to be compensated accordingly. Growing up, because I played at a fairly competitive level and was always trying to evolve, I constantly played with boys’ teams. I was lucky to have a good relationship with a number of coaches, so they let me show up to the boys’ practices and play. The girls could definitely hang — and sometimes we came up on top. Obviously, there are some biological elements that separate women and men but on any given team that I’ve been on, in high school or in college, the women were far more successful than the men’s teams were.

Still, the crowd is always smaller at women’s games and it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves even though it’s just as physically taxing. Women are also in the weight room conditioning, sometimes with the men. There’s a perception that women’s sports is a skinnied-down version of the men’s, which is not at all accurate. Playing soccer taught me an enormous amount. Having done it in college, it truly was a second job and gave me the discipline and tenacity I’m grateful for.

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