Abby Wambach's life in the public sphere has been defined by one trait more than any other: honesty.
If we, in turn, are honest, we might admit that Wambach's honesty has made a lot of people uncomfortable over the years.
On the field, she defied soccer conventions seemingly from the moment her professional career began, as referees called her for countless fouls simply because she was taller and more physical than opposing players.
She reached the peak of her stardom toward the end of her career. Because of that coincidence, the virtues of her work were drowned out at times by critics (including yours truly) of a playing style that seemed a step behind her sport's evolution.
Wambach similarly refused to fit into preconceived definitions of what she should be in matters away from the game. Her outspoken manner has long discomforted those who believe female athletes should only be in the spotlight when adhering to rules of engagement that they had no role in creating.
And her willingness to be one of the first - and still most prominent - publicly out athletes did even more to force mainstream American sports fans out of the comfort zones they hold ever more dear.
Yet for plenty of people, Wambach has been a role model with few equals. Many other observers who don't accord her that specific status deeply respect that she is who she is and doesn't care who judges her.
The last few days have presented another test to Wambach's fans and detractors alike. In advance of the arrival this month of Wambach's memoir, "Forward," she revealed to the Associated Press on Monday that the book details years-long battles against depression and abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs. In the days since then, Wambach has also given interviews to a range of other outlets.
By total coincidence, that all happened while I was in the final stages of setting up an interview with Wambach for a totally unrelated reason.
She's coming to Philadelphia on Oct. 6 to speak at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Other notable speakers include Mindy Kaling and Anita Hill. Details on the event, including how to buy tickets, are available here.
To be totally honest, because of so many other commitments this summer I had completely forgotten that the book was coming. So a conversation that I already figured would be newsworthy now became an even bigger deal.
I tried to not spend too much time treading over the same subjects that have been detailed elsewhere. I did it a bit, because it makes sense to in some ways, but I also had questions unrelated to the book that I wanted to ask.
How did your speaking engagement at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women get set up? Did they come to you? And what made you want to be here?
Any conference that has "women" in its title makes me feel like that's kind of a place that I want to be at. Not only because I want to fight for women's equality and rights for women, but I get to sit around tables and listen to some of these other speakers, like Anita Hill and Adam Grant and people who are fighting similar fights, just maybe in different places and different lanes than I am.
The people I can meet might give me more education and more awareness and understanding for my specific fight, and I think that the more we can unite people who are fighting similar battles in different ways or in different lanes, that's just good for everyone.
And I gather that you have a past connection with Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
I do, yeah. Adam and I, we met last year. I went to an analytics conference at Penn. He's a great guy, a really smart resource. I have so much respect for him. I can't wait to hear him speak - and in fact, I think I'm going to help him teach one of his crisis management classes.
I'm sure you had a plan all along to publish your book at a certain time, but when and how did you become comfortable with letting everything out that you've written?
In November of last year, right before I retired, I signed with HarperCollins to write this book. I went on a post-retirement tour, and in the book, you'll read that I was still abusing some substances. I was in a really dark place. So when the DUI happened, I had to go back to the drawing board and basically tell people that this book had to take a different turn than what was previously planned and thought about.
I feel like the DUI was a really great wake-up call for me, not just for my own life but also for my healing through this process of retiring and divorce and coming into my own sobriety. I've been able to really heal through the process of writing this book, and getting into some of the reasons why it [the DUI] happened and processing through them.
Now I can publish it and send it out into the world, and hopefully let people read my story and maybe help them help themselves, or empower them to go ask for help. I'm lucky not only that I'm alive to be able to tell this story, but that I woke up when I got that DUI in April.
Based on that timeline, had the DUI not happened, would you have gone public with all the troubles in your private life that you detailed in the book? From what you just said, the DUI is what spurred you to let that out, but you had the book deal signed before the incident happened.
I wasn't planning on telling the world about my substance abuse problem until the DUI happened. The shaming and the embarrassment that happened was the catalyst for me to be more aware - I knew that I had a problem, but it put me in a position where I wanted to actually do something about it.
And I think that I can only speculate on what could have happened if I didn't get the DUI, but I wasn't planning on writing about this stuff until the DUI happened.
I don't want to spoil what's in the book for readers, but I would like it if you could elaborate a bit on two particular turns of phrase.
The first is in the foreword: "You have been labeled, placed into ill-fitting boxes and told by others what you are and how to be. You have even labeled yourself, blunting your potential with your own words."
The whole thing with the labels, the actual naming of chapters [in the book] - for me, I think I need for people to understand that no matter what was labeled, no matter what I've tried to label myself as, I think the only label that I really can adhere to at this point, these days, is just "human."
We're all human, and we're all going to make mistakes. We're all going to have specific sexualities. We're all going to be certain colors. We're all going to wear our clothes in certain ways. All of that stuff just doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter at all. And I think that's what this book is about for me. That specific phrase in the book - as I'm growing up, I'm learning that more and more every single day.
The second is in the letter you wrote to your friends and family right before your last game with the national team: "Sometimes being in search of something greater doesn't mean it's always out there." What did it take for you to be able to step back and realize that?
I was in a really depressed state at that point. I think that I'm always going to be in search of more, of something. I don't know - I've always felt like there was more out there for me. That I would be a part of not just more soccer stuff, but things that I'm passionate about, things that can help actually change the world.
And I think that quote shows a little bit of where I was when that part got written. Because when I wrote that to my family, I was terrified of retiring, and I was trying to be okay with maybe there not being more on the other side of that sentence, if that makes sense.
Aside from the book, the other big subject I want to discuss with you is your take on the state of the current U.S. women's national team and what you've seen since you've stepped away from the field.
It's really easy to see them not succeed and then come up with all of these reasons why. But as I'm no longer a player on the inside, I can only speculate.
It felt like they needed a little bit more leadership. It felt like the team was searching for its own identity. And I think that shows in the result that happened in Brazil.
I want nothing more than for my former team to find success and to win every championship that it enters, but there's a process by which you get to that place, and you can find that success.
The number one thing is you've got to be able to check your ego at the door. And the way you do that is to truly be accountable for your own actions, and to try to make the person to the right and the left of you better, the best player they can possibly be - without worrying about what it's going to look [like] upon you, or what it's going to take away from you.
There's a selflessness that goes into being a champion, and I hope that they see, that I kind of thought was missing throughout the tournament.
Is there a certain degree to which that gap in leadership is natural because veterans like you, Christie Rampone and Lauren Holiday stepped away? That was the end of an era and the start of a new one - not for the entire team, perhaps, but certainly it opened the way for a new era of leaders to step into the void.
Sure. That's a really great way of saying it - a gap in leadership of, "Now what, and who's going to step up?" That's a thing that I think we're all kind of talking around that was missing a little bit - it's not me or Christie or Lauren Holiday, it's the team needing to find its identity.
And the leadership is something that needs to come from the top. Jill needs to empower players on the team to be leaders, and she also has to empower the other players on the team to follow those leaders.
It's not an easy task by any means, and when you have people that are obnoxious and strong-willed and strong-minded like myself, there may have been a sense of "Who's going to step in and fill that space? I don't know." Now I think they can see the writing on the wall of what needed to happen. Hindsight is always 20/20.
[Side note from me: I did not interpret this to mean that such a transition hasn't happened at all; more that it's not complete yet. But that's my interpretation.]
Off the field, there are collective bargaining negotiations coming soon for the women's national team, and the gender equity fight is ongoing. Obviously, you're going to be a very public voice in advocating for the players' side of things, as so many other people will be.
But once the door is closed and everyone sits down at the bargaining able to sit down and really hammer everything out, what do you think is going to happen? And what do you think needs to happen to make sure that a deal gets done that really improves things for the players?
I don't know specifically what they are going to end up fighting for behind closed doors. I do know they are going to want more pay, they are going to want more fair and equal treatment off the field - whether it be through retirement plans, insurance plans, per diems, hotels, travel. There are so many different factors that go into these contracts, and they're very meticulous.
I think for the most part, the women are going to be asking for equal pay. They want to be treated as equals. They're not asking to be paid more than the men. They want to be treated and seen as equals, as they are. That's it. That's all they want.
You know U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati very well. And you know that a lot of what gets said in public by both sides is as much posturing as anything else.
He has said that he wants to get a contract done reasonably quickly, and that he wants the players to be fairly compensated for what they've done. When you hear him say those things, what's your reaction? And what do you think he wants?
Look, there's been no other president of U.S. Soccer who has done more for the game - for the women's game, especially - than Sunil Gulati. So I have no doubt that he wants what's best for both parties.
He recognizes that the women deserve a raise. How far he's going to go with that is different, because he's also the president. He also has to be mindful of the bottom line of this massive federation that isn't just about the women's team.
He also knows the social responsibility that he has about women and all the other women's groups and the other women's teams that literally look at our team and use us as the example that they try to follow. He realizes the magnitude of the decisions of U.S. Soccer. And he also is literally a professor of finance at Columbia.
So he's super-smart, and he's not going to do something that's not fiscally responsible for the federation. Do I believe that the women deserve to get paid more money? Yes, absolutely. And do I believe that Sunil is ready to do that? Yes. It's just going to be a matter of if they can agree to the fine print or not.
The star power of players on the U.S. women's national team over the years has often transcended women's soccer, soccer as a whole and indeed sports. People like yourself, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, and in past years Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Brianna Scurry and Brandi Chastain. What does it mean to you that you've all been able to do that?
I think that is an amazing byproduct of the things that we can do on the field. It just speaks massive volumes, also, to the fact that we're not just soccer players. You know what I mean?
We're often pigeonholed and put in a position where people just think of us as these dumb jocks. But the reality is we're problem-solving, deep-thinking people and deep-feeling people that have many different opinions about different things, different issues, different things that are going on socially.
That's something that I'm really proud of - that we can actually cross over those lines from just being athletes to actually being people who not just impact but impart social change across our culture.
On Tuesday, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America announced that you have a role in a new instructional course that the organization is offering on concussion safety and heading techniques. What does joining that effort mean to you?
There's clearly a lot of tension and real issues around the concussion debate right now. I'm not going to sit here and say, "Look, I know the exact way how to do it, and if you do it my way, you're kid's going to be safe and sound." Because there's risk involved in sport. There's always going to be risk involved when you're putting your head against a moving object.
I think there's definitely ways we can teach our children to be in more safe positions to head soccer balls, or in football's case in safer positions to make tackles. Brain safety is such an important thing for me - that's why I work with a company that makes headbands that measure the force that people take on from the impact of heading a ball or taking an elbow to the head or whatnot.
So for me, it's an honor to be able to be a part of trying to be not just a solution to concussions, because that's not the goal here, but to be a part of the conversation and to hopefully give people enough opportunity to go out and play as safely as they possibly can.
Here's my last question. I'd like, if you don't mind, to go back to something you did during the Women's World Cup that I've thought about a number of times since then, and have wanted to ask you about for a while.
At the time of the second group stage game in Winnipeg, Hope Solo was facing a particularly high volume of criticism amid new reporting on her past domestic violence charges.
When everyone got to Vancouver, after the first practice session the day you arrived, you stepped up in the mixed zone and said that if the U.S. had been playing on grass, the team would have scored more goals up to then. Those remarks commanded the headlines - and all of a sudden, far fewer people were talking about Hope Solo.
I couldn't help thinking - and I mean this as a compliment - that it might have been an intentional move to take the spotlight and put it on yourself.
Obviously I'm an outsider, so I don't know if that's actually true. But throughout your career you were the most willing of any national team player I've covered to stand in the brightest spotlight, especially at times when teammates either weren't willing to be there or needed to not be there.
Is that reading too much into it on my part? Because even if it wasn't your motivation in that particular instance, I've seen things like it happen enough times to wonder.
Ha. That's a really interesting theory. I appreciate that compliment. I think as a leader, you're willing to do whatever you need to do in order to make sure that your players are level-headed, and going into games feeling confident and strong.
I do believe that there are times in which I've done that. I can't really recall, it was so long ago, in terms of that specific choice. But I do know that the best leaders out there are the ones that are willing to literally fall on the sword in order for the better of the team, to be successful and to be confident going into games. A
t that point, I don't know if I was willing to say *everything* that I possibly could to take whatever kind of criticism. I mean, I don't know if you remember, but I talked about the referees for the first time in my career, and I almost got suspended.
So yeah, there are definitely those times when leaders have to step up and take some of the heat so the other players can just fall into their roles and be able to play.
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