Seventeen-year-old Olivia Moultrie, the soccer phenom who successfully sued for the right to play in the NWSL, uses the word “training” to describe the time she spends with her teammates and coaches.
“But my family likes to joke around and be like, ‘Hey, when are you leaving for work?’”
Thorns captain Christine Sinclair, who is 22 years older than Moultrie, sees things through a similar lens as her younger teammate’s family.
“Jokingly, I’m like, ‘I gotta go to work,’” the 10-year NWSL veteran explained. “Even though I don’t think I’ve worked a day in my life. I think we’re very fortunate to work (this job) because I mean, it’s the best job in the world.”
“It’s hard, changing it from ‘I have to train today’… But it’s actually my job now,” said Alex Loera, who just finished her rookie season with the Kansas City Current. “I have this epiphany every week that’s like, ‘Wow, I actually get to do what I love and get paid to play soccer.’ It’s incredible. I’m very thankful for that.”
This word choice — Is it training? Or is it work? — highlights the complexities of playing a game because you love it, and then having that game become your job.
“I don’t think it’s really set in that I finally made it to where I’m getting paid to play soccer,” said Kansas City rookie Jenna Winebrenner. “Soccer is what my life revolves around — for a really long time — but now I’m actually getting a paycheck that cashes to do it.”
Many NWSL players have spoken about how they have been expected to produce an elite product without access to basic resources or workplace protections — all while being told to be grateful for the opportunity. Due to low salaries, many players have historically taken on second or third jobs, a fact the NWSLPA highlighted last year with its No More Side Hustles campaign.
The decision of players to unionize in 2018 and the signing of the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement earlier this year represent a shift, both in the resources available to players but also in how players view themselves.
“I think our union was the first step in creating more of a professional environment,” San Diego Wave and USWNT forward Alex Morgan said following the release of the U.S. Soccer-commissioned Yates report, which detailed how a lack of basic protections and infrastructure led to widespread abuse in the NWSL.
Added Morgan: “Listening (to), believing players, and putting players’ safety first was also a huge step this year that players really demanded by using their voices and sharing their stories.”
“We deserve an environment where we get to go out and play and enjoy doing what we do. And we deserve to be in an environment that protects that joy,” said OL Reign and USWNT defender Alana Cook after publication of the Yates report. “We’ve been the ones arguing for protection and guardrails and safeguards for the entire time.”
The NWSL minimum salary is still low ($35,000 in 2022), though each player is also provided with either housing or a stipend. This year’s landmark CBA also included requirements for playing field conditions, standards for team medical staff, and paid mental health leave.
Crystal Dunn, who gave birth to son Marcel in May and returned to NWSL competition just five months later, said thinking of herself as a “working mom” didn’t happen automatically.
“As athletes, we don’t sometimes put ourselves in the same boat as women who don’t play sports. I think it’s important that we realize like, ‘No, our job is to play soccer, but it’s work.’ I’m a working mom. I have to leave my baby at home in good care, but I have to leave him to go work,” Dunn explained.
Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby said she typically uses the word “training” to describe what she does. “But if someone needs something from me, (I’ll say), ‘I’m working from here to here.’ It’s not just two hours out of the day, like I’m working this amount of time. Training is in there, but it’s not just training — I’m at work.”
Many players also shared the enormous amount of emotional labor they’ve expended as a result of the abuse and misconduct itself, as well as burden of being asked continually about the investigations and reports.
“These women and the women of the NWSL are frequently asked to be spokespeople for major events,” Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson said in her first media availability after the Yates report was released. “And it takes a toll. And people don’t recognize that.”
“For me personally, soccer was like an escape from all the things going on,” Sophia Smith said after leading Portland to the 2022 NWSL title.
The 2022 MVP added: “We’ve gone through a lot of stuff that isn’t in the job description.”
On Her Turf writer Lisa Antonucci contributed to this report.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC