PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – When you think of athlete activism and the pursuit of equality, some names leap to mind: Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, Megan Rapinoe.
There are other names that should also come to mind: Meghan Duggan, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel.
It has been less than a year since the U.S. women’s hockey team threatened to strike and sit out the World Championships because of unequal pay and benefits. It was an earthquake in the sport – an American team willing to walk away from a major international tournament being held in its home country. This went far beyond kneeling for the national anthem. This was the equivalent of unbuttoning the chinstrap, taking off the helmet, and sitting down at midfield. It was an enormous risk: the players were putting their dreams in the balance.
There were good reasons for it. USA Hockey didn’t pay the women at all during non-Olympic years, and only $6,000 each in the year leading up to the Games. That money would amount to airfare to South Korea for family members, never mind living expenses and food and shelter for an entire year. By way of comparison, USA Hockey had $42 million in income in 2015, according to the Washington Post, with its executive director making $440,000 annually.
The team got the support of notable sports dignitaries, including Billie Jean King, who tweeted “Being a world class athlete should not be treated as a part-time job.” U.S. senators penned a letter, lamenting that, “While USA Hockey provides its male athletes with a ‘seemingly endless’ supply of hockey equipment, for example, female players are often expected to ‘buy their own.'”
Team captain Meghan Duggan still remembers getting the text from King that said, “I support you, give me a call.” “I looked at my phone and thought, ‘Is this for real?’” she said.
USA Hockey reportedly tried to recruit scab players to replace its elite talent, and it only made it look worse. The nation’s eyes were suddenly glaring at organization executives, and the balance sheet did not reflect well on them. Thirteen days after they announced their boycott and three days before the start of Worlds, the players struck a new four-year deal.
It was an enormous bump in compensation, according to reports: $70,000 per year with the chance to make six figures in years that they win an Olympic gold medal. There were also smaller but still meaningful concessions from USA Hockey, like a per diem equal to the men.
What did it mean in the bigger scheme of things? It was a historic step toward equality, and a blueprint for future women’s sports teams. What did it mean on the ice? We are still finding that out.
“Our team was unbreakable after going through this,” Decker told Yahoo Sports in September. “Only one or two practices into World Championships, and I knew we would be successful.”
They won gold. And now they’re closing in on their first Olympic title since 1998. That championship, should they get it, would result in a performance bonus that the women would not have received under the old agreement, according to ESPN.
Duggan, a captain on the ice and in the locker room, had suddenly become a leader of a de facto labor union.
“It was just about us sticking together, constantly communicating with each other, reassuring each other, talking through things,” she said. “That’s what we do every single day.”
So while hundreds of articles and columns have been written about protests in the NFL, what the women’s hockey team did should never be overlooked as a contribution to the fight for a more equal society. Girls watching the team this week, and girls yet to be born, will benefit from the stand the women took last year.
“Every act of courage is just adding to the fire,” said Kessel. “And it makes that next group have that much more courage. I think we’re going to see a snowball effect. I think we will continue to see women’s sports push for what they believe in.”
The U.S. women are going for gold, but the truer victory is already theirs. And it’s shared with girls they will never meet.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Passan: The inspirational story behind Lillis and his Olympic uniform
• Canadian hockey fans pull off hilarious South Park-inspired jersey joke
• Mystery solved: What happens when there’s a tie in the Olympics?
• Watch: Germans crash bobsled, slide over finish line in gold medal position
• Japan’s Kodaira sets Olympic record in winning 500-meter speed skating gold