Sports of The Times: U.S. Women’s Hockey Team Boycott Echoes a Fight That Isn’t Over


And the hockey players are not the only United States women’s team in a pay dispute with its federation. The soccer team, the reigning World Cup champion, is more than a year into its own contentious — but far more high-profile — negotiations for better pay and what the players are now calling “equitable” treatment.

Still, something must have snapped inside the heads of the hockey players for them to give up the chance to win their fourth world championship in a row and decide it is time to put their sticks down and take a stand.

“It’s hard to believe that in 2017, we have to fight so hard just to get equitable support,” Duggan said. “We want to do the fair thing, and the right thing — not just for hockey but for all women.”

It is easy to compare the hockey and the soccer situations, but there are crucial differences, not least that the women’s soccer team had this exact same fight nearly 20 years ago.

In soccer, you’ll have to look back to early 2000, to another championship team that had had enough, to find the turning point when female players were so sick of the pay inequality and lack of support that they decided to strike. It did not involve such a high-profile event — the players skipped a scheduled trip to a tournament, not a world championship tournament — but it was the moment that changed the game for women forever, said Julie Foudy, a World Cup and Olympic champion who was one of those players.

That team, like the hockey players of today, was fighting for more marketing, more development money for younger players and, oh, yes, more compensation. The women’s contract that ensued wasn’t perfect — and its successors remain imperfect today — but it was a giant leap forward for the team, and for a generation of players to come.

“The fact that hockey players have had to put up with this for so long is ridiculous,” Foudy said. “Now, sadly, the only way they can get their federation’s attention is to bang them over the head.”

The hockey team’s move comes after what the players — young and old — say has been years of struggling to get the federation’s attention, and after years of subsisting on laughably low pay. Their lawyer, John B. Langel, knows the landscape well. He also represented the female soccer players in their 2000 dispute, and he negotiated the collective bargaining agreement the soccer team is currently fighting to improve upon.

Still, he said: “The women were paid by U.S. Soccer in 1998 more than what the hockey players are being paid today. Like U.S. Soccer back then, U.S.A. Hockey is saying, ‘We are not going to support the women more than we have in the past, in any significant way.’”

So what options do the players have besides a boycott? They could file a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as the women’s soccer team did last year. Or they could keep negotiating, with no end in sight.

Or, with the world championship on U.S.A. Hockey’s doorstep, they could do what they have done: use this perfect opportunity, this maximum leverage, to shine the brightest light they can on their grievances. If it makes the bosses squirm a little at the same time, well, that’s just a bonus.

Jeffrey L. Kessler, a lawyer at Winston & Strawn who has represented players’ unions in almost every professional sports league — including the United States women’s soccer team in its E.E.O.C. complaint — said there wasn’t a right way or a wrong way for players to respond to tense contract negotiations, and he warned that each situation was different and required its own tactics. Strikes and boycotts might not be for everyone, he said, no matter how dire the situation might seem.

The hockey players, we can all assume, have decided they have very little to lose.

“They don’t lose any money by not playing because, apparently, they don’t get paid any money,” Kessler said. “At some point you just have to decide what’s best for you and your family.”

Or what’s good for your sport. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a two-time Olympic medalist, said that the federation spent at least $3.5 million a year on boys’ development and a 60-game season for boys but that it had no equivalent program for girls. For players who have devoted their lives to hockey, that situation stings as much as any paycheck.

“Girls can’t dream of what they can’t see,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “If you put the women’s game out there and fund girls’ development, girls will say, ‘Yeah, I want to be that; I want to do that.’”

Will it be hard to sit out the world championship? Probably more than you can imagine. For U.S.A. Hockey, it may be less painful. The federation, through a spokesman, said it would find replacement players to fill a roster for the worlds if a compromise cannot be reached. The implication is that the top United States team won’t be missed.

That may say more than anything about U.S.A. Hockey’s opinion of its finest female players.

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