In visit to Philly, Abby Wambach talks about disrupting sports and being a role model
Abby Wambach came to the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Thursday to serve as one of the keynote speakers at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. She had two official engagements - a seminar with some of the event's 9,000 attendees and a lunchtime speech to the full crowd - and spent a few minutes chatting with the press, including yours truly.
Abby Wambach came to the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Thursday to serve as one of the keynote speakers at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women.
Wambach had two official engagements, a seminar with some of the event's 9,000 attendees and a lunchtime speech to the full crowd. She also spent a few minutes chatting with the press, including yours truly.
Most of her remarks were about subjects beyond simply sports, including this year's presidential election (she's a prominent backer of Hillary Clinton) and the fight for gender equality in corporate workplaces. You can read about some of that in this report on the conference as a whole from my colleague Erin Arvedlund.
There was also plenty of conversation about sports matters, and about soccer specifically.
Here are some highlights.
On what it means to her that a lot of female sports fans and a lot of female athletes are finding voices and prominence that they haven't had before, which has caused a lot of disruption in the sports industry, and has left some men in particular a bit uncomfortable:
I'd say hell yeah to that. When women start acting like they deserve to be treated as equals to men, I do think it's probably going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Especially men, because they're like, "Wait, hold on a sec, what's happening here? They're starting to act like us, they're starting to talk like us. They're starting to get more power."
And that's just good, because it's going to put us all on equal playing fields. It means we're going to be talking eye to eye, not that "I can't wait until I get to this point in my career" or "I can't wait until women's sports or women in business have gotten to this level." I think that we have to start taking our own power as women so that we can keep fighting against some of these injustices and inequalities, to make that go away.
On the role the U.S. women's national soccer team and the National Women's Soccer League have played in forcing that conversation:
I think the women's national team has played a massive role in moving the conversation more toward the middle of this equality fight that we're all so passionate about.
We know that we're kind of the role models as it pertains to women in sports all over this country and the world. A lot of people look at our contracts. A lot of people look at the popularity of our team and how we can actually commercialize and then monetize that popularity, much like the men do. So we know that we're trying to set a standard, and other women – not just in soccer, or in sports, but also in business across different lanes – we know that people are looking at what we're doing and are trying to replicate that.
So we know that we have a massive role in continuing the fight. And that's the really hard part. Because when you're in the lead, when you're at the head of the class, you have to blaze this path. And sometimes it's going to be uncomfortable. Sometimes it's going to shake up some people's theories or beliefs. And that's kind of what you need to do in moments of struggle and inequality. You've got to shake things up a little bit.
On seeking role models in sports while growing up:
Michael Jordan was a massive idol. The thing is, that's what so amazing about the generation that's growing up now. They actually have women that look like them, that talk like them, that are playing their specific sport, that come from where they came from. They have people they can look up and see themselves as.
Back in the day, when I was growing up, Mia Hamm was just about to take the scene. I didn't look like Michael Jordan. So I was envisioning and dreaming about something I couldn't really even see.
On how playing soccer as kid gave her a mental strength that would later matter in other areas of life, from telling her mother about her sexual orientation to pursuing gender equality in society:
My first couple of soccer games, I scored 27 goals. And my mom, she goes, "So, Abby, don't you think you should pass the ball?" I was five [years old]. And I was like, "Well, isn't the whole point to score as many goals as you possibly can? If I'm the best one to do it, then I have no problem with this." And she was like, "Whoa."
So as soon as I could get a chance to go play on a boys team that was going to be a little bit more of a game or a little bit more skilled than any girls teams I could find in the area I lived in, that was the right move for me.
It taught me how to fight similar fights to what I'm sure most women in this room are going through, where you might be the one person in the room that's a female. The one person at the table that has to speak up. That might be a little bit scary at first. The one person in your office that's invited into a meeting [where] you might be a minority in that room.
So I think from the time I was 12 years old - this will sound so stupid, but it's how I actually feel - I was learning how to fight against some of these prejudices, and I didn't even know at the time. I got picked last [on pickup soccer teams] back in the day, because there were two captains, and they'd pick teams, and I'd get picked last because I was a girl. Then I'd go beat up on the boys, which was fun, but that gave me a mindset that I could do that. That I could show my power, not just by playing, but by proving people wrong.
That's just a lesson to be learned by everybody, that even now, in 2016, if you're the only woman in the room, the only woman at the table, you have to fight against some of the un-comfort and some of the prejudice that's going to be bestowed upon you. Because if you don't do it, who will? And if you do it, you're going to help the next woman who's [encountering] that.
Parents out there, women that have children that are different from them, that choose a different sexual orientation or even a different sexual identity, gender identity - I think that mothers aren't scared of you, they're scared for you. That's a huge difference. Obviously, you guys know I'm 36 years old, and this was told to me last week. And I was like, "Oh my gosh." Mothers aren't scared of you, they're scared for you. No matter what it is.
Because they know exactly what it's like to be a woman in this world, right? They know exactly what it's like to be prejudiced [against], and to be treated differently, and to be looked down upon. They know exactly what it's like. So to add more to that, to this thing called "woman," my mom probably just couldn't understand that.
I get it. And I think growing up, in my late teens and early 20s, I was just like, "Alright, I've got to own this. This has got to be who I am." The only reason why I did that is because I was scared of the way that my mom was going to react to it. What a valuable lesson that is - when you believe that you are something and there's no way around it, because it's just who I am.
Once you stand there with power and all of your willingness, it's the one thing that I know that makes other people more comfortable. When you're a little bit like, "I don't know" - and I'm not just talking about sexuality stuff, I'm talking about anything - when you stand firm on your own two feet, people are like, "Okay, I'll meet you there."
Men especially. If you stand on your truth and you stand on your integrity men across the world will meet you right there. Because you don't give them any way to manipulate you. You don't give anybody in the world a way of making you feel differently.
On being a famously blunt speaker:
I think that just opening up and talking about our stuff just makes people go, "Oh, yeah, me too. My family is crazy too."
The number one thing between my mom and I was we just weren't talking about it. It's like the big elephant in the room. So it's pretty ironic that as I've gotten older, I've become this person that walks into any room - especially if my mom's not in there - and I'm like, "Look, there's an elephant. Do you guys see the elephant? I see the elephant."
So I'm like an elephant-seer, and I have to talk about it. What I've found is that people are so grateful, because everybody sees the elephant and they just don't freaking talk about it. Everybody knows that it's there.
On her drunk driving arrest this past April:
It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me, but then six months later I can honestly look back and [say] it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think there are a lot of lessons in it, but the number one lesson that I take away is that actually, no matter what happens to you guys - in any life, any community, no matter what - you can always turn the worst thing that ever happens to you into a positive.
It's just a matter of doing a little bit of work [and] it's about being really honest with yourself. It's not going to just turn over and [you say], "Oh, yay, this is really good," because it sucked for a while. But I figured out a way to process through it, and the truth is actually what made it turn into the most positive thing that ever happened to me.
I'm so stubborn that no matter what, if anyone would have tried to reach me, I would have been like, "Whatever." I had some friends that had mentioned things to me, and for a lot of my close friends and family, they were fiercely trying to be protective of me, because they didn't want any of this stuff to get out. Which is kind of weird, but I get it...
There was no reaching me. I was doing what I was doing, and the second I got pulled over and got released from jail, I was like, "Okay, this the time when you're going to decide how your life is going to go. It's going to go one way or another. And I had a choice. This was like a menu, where I actually had a choice of which path to take. And I've been sober for six months now.
Advice to people who see her as a role model and want to emulate her career:
I think [this is] the best piece of advice I can give for anybody, not just soccer players: You can read my book, you can go online and check out all the stats that I put up, all the things that I've done, all the championships I've won, and you can try to literally replicate every single thing that I've ever done, but it won't work out the same. It just won't.
My experience is different than yours. I was brought up in a different place. My parents are different. You're different. So my advice is always: Don't try to be me. Try to be better than me. Try to be the best version of yourself, if that makes sense.
On what it will take for women's club soccer to succeed financially:
Well, I think you have to think about how long the women's national team has had to develop those crowds and develop those fans that we have. Winning world championships helps that. And I think when you can cross over from it being a female-driven sport [that appeals] to other females, to a female-driven sport [that appeals] to other males, then I think you're on to something.
I know that our women's national team has been able to achieve that. Our 2015 World Cup final game was the most-watched game of soccer, male or female, in North American history.* Which then translates over to the business world.
So our women's national team has been able to cross over some massive hurdles and barriers to become as powerful, successful and popular as it is, [and] to garner such attention.
I think the NWSL just will need more time to evolve and develop. And then what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Corporate sponsorship is what helps drive some of this stuff. To get the games on television so we can get as many eyeballs [as possible] watching these games, and then when money is in the league, it can bring better players over. So there's a lot that goes into it.
* It technically wasn't, for reasons that are explained here, but it was the most-watched television broadcast of a soccer game in U.S. history.
On the wider impact of the U.S. women's national team:
After the 2011 World Cup, we came home - we didn't win, even though we scored that really late goal against Brazil [and] everybody thought that we won. Which, I was like, "I don't know, I guess that's alright" [she said this in a sarcastic tone].
But I had this really funny experience with this 15-year-old boy. He runs up to me and screams, and he's in my face: "When I get older, I want to be a women's professional soccer player!" It made me laugh, right?
Then I started thinking, "Oh my gosh, that's something, for a teenage boy to walk up to a short-haired woman and scream this." We were crossing over into something. I also know that no matter if you're female or male, we like winning teams, so... that's all I'll say about that.
On women's rights around the world:
Women's rights, all over the globe, there's no one-size-fits all, in any country. You have different countries all over the world that are at different levels of growth. I just know that there's so much more room to develop, and I think rather than pointing out things that I think, or environments or experiences that I've had... I just look more macro at things.
And I believe that as we get older and grow here in our country, then we can hopefully teach other people - as I said before, our women's national [soccer] team, we're leaders in our little circle. But we also know that we're crossing over as leaders of women in business and as leaders of women in politics, and as leaders of women in Hollywood. We're all kind of fighting the same battle, right?...
Sitting here, I'm not your classic definition of what a woman looks like, but I think that as I go around the country, I'm allowing people to see femininity in different ways. Because everybody here has a different level of femininity. We're all on a spectrum, and no one place on that spectrum is perfect, is right or is wrong, is good or bad. It just is.
On the importance of tolerating opinions and speech that one might not agree with:
We need to take things less personally. In order to actually teach and educate people, we have to be less offended all the damn time.
A concluding remark:
I was really good at playing soccer. That didn't mean that I was good at life. That didn't mean I was a good person.
The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.