There was a time only a few years back when just playing the game was enough for Crystal Dunn.
But a combination of factors – from the unrest after the shooting of Jacob Blake last year to the pandemic to the national women’s soccer team’s continuing fight for equal pay – have made Dunn intent on speaking out and taking action.
She’s taken a role as vice-president and secretary of the U.S. Women’s National Team Players’ Association and is active in negotiations for a new labour contract.
“When I was a young player on the national team, it was really hard to balance chasing my dreams, wanting to earn my right to be on this team, but at the same time, be as heavily involved as I wanted to be. I think I just matured and came into my own over time,” Dunn said. “Now I’ve been in this space where I can balance both. I can balance being a professional athlete alongside being involved making decisions that obviously are going to better the national team and women’s professional soccer across the board.”
Dunn feels it’s important to speak out as a woman of colour and to use that voice at the negotiating table. But it’s definitely taken her out of her comfort zone.
“I think at times I’ve wanted to just stay behind the scenes and kind of just do my thing, play the sport that I love without distractions and other things going on,” she said. “But I think 2020, like the rest of the world, has made us realize that it’s okay to hit pause and actually focus on other things and narrow in on other things that you’re passionate about.”
It’s been an evolution for Dunn, 29, who was disappointed when she was among the last cuts for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Rather than mope about being left off, Dunn poured herself into her club team, the Washington Spirit, scoring 15 goals in 20 games and winning the Golden Boot award and Most Valuable Player that year.
Jill Ellis, then the national team coach, took notice and named Dunn to one of 18 spots on the 2016 Olympic team. Dunn has been a regular ever since and was on the squad that won the 2019 World Cup final.
With the union, Dunn is having to navigate something way different from playing time. The current collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 31.
She joins players’ association president Becky Sauerbrunn and Sam Mewis, vice-president and secretary, at the negotiating table. The group has three overarching goals: Equality and fairness in compensation, respect in the form of professional working conditions and balance between club and international duties.
“Our PA is incredibly fortunate to have Crystal in a leadership position. She’s forward-thinking, a problem-solver and so respected by everyone in our membership,” Sauerbrunn said. “Having her voice during this critical time is instrumental in our PA’s ability to protect and empower our players.”
U.S. Soccer announced in September that it was offering the women’s and men’s senior national teams identical contracts. The men’s contract expired at the end of 2018. The federation also proposed the men and women hammer out the equitable distribution of World Cup prize money – a big sticking point.
FIFA awarded US$400-million in prize money for the 32 teams at the 2018 men’s World Cup, including US$38-million to champion France. It awarded US$30-million for the 24 teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, including US$4-million to the United States after the Americans won their second straight title.
FIFA has increased the total to US$440-million for the 2022 World Cup. There’s a proposal for FIFA to double the women’s prize money to US$60-million for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, but the event also has an increased field of 32 teams.
The men’s and women’s unions are separate. Under federal labour law, they have no obligation to bargain jointly or to agree to similar terms. The women’s union said the identical contract proposal does not provide for equal pay because the women play more games and have more training camps and other obligations.
Dunn, who plays professionally for the Portland Thorns, is hopeful a new contract can be reached by the end of the year. But it will depend on many factors: In addition to World Cup prize money, the national team’s equal-pay lawsuit also hangs over negotiations.
Players sued U.S. Soccer in March, 2019, contending they have not been paid equitably under their collective bargaining agreement compared with what the men’s team receives under its agreement. The women asked for more than US$64-million in damages plus US$3-million in interest under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A federal judge threw out the pay claim, but the players have appealed the decision.
Dunn views the contract negotiations as much bigger than just addressing compensation. It’s about equality over all.
“It is a process. This is not something that happens overnight. You make a proposal, they come back and then you have to kind of find common ground or just walk away and say, ‘We’re not going to settle for this.’” Dunn said. “I think through negotiations, it’s actually been incredible to make the proper steps forward and actually raise the bar and obviously not settle for anything other than equality.”