Abby Wambach: 'The powerful need to impose fear to stay in control'

The world’s leading international goalscorer talks to Matthew Hall about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, civil rights and whether she would have knelt for the anthem

Wolfpack, Abby Wambach’s new book, is subtitled “How to Come Together, Unleash our Power, and Change the Game” so with that in mind let’s get this over quickly: the leading all-time international goalscorer (men or women), two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and co-captain of the US women’s national team, would have taken a knee.

Wambach retired from playing in 2015 and just missed former teammate Megan Rapinoe’s protest the following year in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Had she still been wearing the United States women’s team shirt, Wambach says she’d have joined Rapinoe, the first white professional athlete to kneel during the national anthem. Wambach acknowledges the complexities of celebrity protest but also the power her status in world soccer gives her. She sees activism by high-profile athletes in recent years as the grandchild of civil rights actions that took place during the 1960s across the United States.

“I know that I talk with my wife a lot about this in the way that we parent our children,” Wambach says. “She was looking at some pictures of civil rights marches with our kids and one of them asked her, ‘Mommy would we have marched with the Freedom Riders?’ She was about to say ‘Yes, of course,’ but then one one of daughters said, ‘No, Mommy, we wouldn’t have been marching then because we are not marching now.’”

Wambach says the question for people with privilege and power is whether you are on the sideline or in the game: “Would you be marching for Black Lives Matter? Would you be supporting or kneeling with Colin Kaepernick? Do I understand what it is like to be a person of color in our country? No. But would I like to hope and think that I would have knelt alongside Megan Rapinoe? You are damn right I would have.”

Wambach, now 38, has not taken a well-worn path for many former athletes as a media pundit (she tried it and didn’t like it) or elite coach (although she has coached children’s soccer teams). Instead, Wambach is chanelling the drive she had on the field into activism, and attempting to redefine what it means to be a role model.

It’s a role that has found her. For a friendly match in February, players on the US women’s national team wore the names of those who had inspired them on the back of their shirts. While some players took to the field with Beyoncé and Cardi B on their backs, others wore the names of civil rights activist and feminist Audre Lorde, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Team captain Alex Morgan? She chose to wear Wambach.

“Alex texted me the day before the game about it and I felt as touched as I had for any award or championship,” Wambach says. “I actually got to watch that game with my parents which was a double bonus for me. It was such a beautiful idea and celebration. Women have a tendency to remember how they got to where they are and that inspiration comes from so many different forms and so many different people. For me, Alex is a symbol of someone who is relentless in her pursuit and I admire her.”

She pauses to consider some of the company she was included with. “RBG, come on!” Wambach says. “Can you get better than her? Have you seen RBG lift weights? She is the baddest out of all of us!”

So whose name would Wambach have worn had she been leading the team’s forward line? “My wife has inspired me probably the most out of my person in my life,” Wambach says before considering the soccer field. “Mia Hamm had a huge impact on my life – not just as a player. When I was new to the team I watched how she treated her teammates. I watched how she interacted with fans. I watched how she dealt with sponsors and her off the field business decisions. Mia was the symbol of the impossible. She was the symbol for women’s sports.”

Abby Wambach in action during the 2015 Women’s World Cup final
Abby Wambach in action during the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. Photograph: Bob Frid/EPA

Wolfpack is based on Wambach’s 2018 commencement speech to Barnard College graduates that became something of a viral internet hit. Her hook is that women were never Little Red Riding Hood. Women are actually the wolves. The rules of leadership were not constructed to benefit women. Don’t lean in - get off the mainstream path and do things your own way.

“You have to ask why women are in fewer leadership positions around the world,” Wambach says. “Why are women still getting paid much less than men around the world? For power to stay in power, the powerful have to impose some level of fear over the people that they are in power over. If you have power, you make decisions and if you make decisions you can probably keep power. So anybody who is going to be threatening the powers that be are going to be a threat to the system: women, people of color, any type of marginalized group you can name. Those marginalized groups are a threat to the powers that be.”

Wambach sees the 2018 US midterm elections – where over 100 women won election to the House of Representatives in record-breaking results – as the country rebalancing itself after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Trump infamously won the presidency after saying he could “grab” women “by the pussy” yet that comment didn’t stop many women - especially white women - voting for him. Yet 2018 saw a female-led political insurgency that, if the broad response to elected representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib is any example, is proving to be an exact threat to the powers that be.

“I think Hillary Clinton woke up a huge demographic of people that felt like they needed to stay silent to stay safe,” Wambach says. “A lot of people don’t understand why women voted for Trump but there’s a direct correlation to that called the proximity of power. If you have any kind of proximity to a white man then you are going to do whatever you can to stay in power.

“But when Hillary ran for office and when Hillary didn’t get elected I think the symbolism of her being so close to the Oval Office woke women up around the world. Women around the world started thinking, whoa, I could be one of the most powerful people on the planet. That force, that symbolism, is priceless. It starts a different kind of consciousness and a different kind of conversation that was really necessary and really needed in our culture.”

It has to be noted that women’s soccer is another highly visible platform for equality. In early March, members of the United States team followed Hope Solo’s lead and sued the US Soccer Federation for a pay deal that matched their male counterparts.

“I do know that women are going to fight for equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment, equal respect,” says Wambach. “At the end of the day that is what all the women on the women’s national team deserve and we need to keep moving in that direction as a country in all the industries and obviously as a world.”

WolfPack: How To Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change The Game by Abby Wambach is published by Celadon Books on 9 April.


Matthew Hall

The GuardianTramp

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