Before kickoff, Abby Wambach always gathered her fellow starters on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team in a huddle and delivered wild pump-up talks, cursing and screaming. A towering 5’11” forward, in games she’d fling herself into any amount of danger, earning a reputation for spectacular diving headers as well as her share of battle wounds—a broken nose, a broken leg, a split forehead (naturally, she got stapled on the field and kept playing). She won everything—two Olympic golds, FIFA World Player of the Year, the World Cup. Most memorably, though, she scored goals. Big goals, like the one that clinched the Gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, against Brazil, and the last-second equalizer in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal (also against Brazil). And lots of goals: In 256 games for the U.S., she found the back of the net 184 times, by far the most any player, regardless of gender, has tallied for their country. (Mia Hamm, by comparison, scored 158 in 276 games; Pelé, 77 in 92.)
Given Wambach’s predatory instincts in front of goal, it’s not surprising that when Barnard College asked her to give its commencement address last May, three years into her retirement, she decided to talk about wolves. Her speech, which quickly went viral, told the story of Yellowstone National Park’s decision, in 1995, to reintroduce wolves to its land after a 70-year absence—a move that solved the park’s overpopulation of deer and, in turn, revived its vegetation and ecosystem. Female ambition, Wambarch argued, offered a similar promise. “Women are feared as a threat to our system—and we will also be our society’s salvation,” she said. “Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the ‘other,’ about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless—and these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
That speech is now a book, Wolfpack, out from Celedon on April 9th, outlining eight principles for a new breed of female leadership that’s both fiercely ambitious and committed to the idea that what’s good for the pack is good for the individual. Speaking by phone from her home in Naples, Florida, Wambach discussed pro soccer’s deeply entrenched wage gap, the importance of getting women in the boardrooms of major sports leagues, and her new company, Wolfpack Endeavor, which trains female pro athletes for their second act.
Why do you think your Barnard commencement speech resonated so strongly with people?
When I was creating the speech, we had just gotten a new president, and it felt like there were so many fires happening, especially for women. I thought it was time to put my experiences to paper, not only what I had experienced myself, but also what I had been taught by other badass women. Women are starting to embrace their power, and there’s this hope that’s starting to come alive.
You highlight these pillars for female leadership drawn from your playing career: lead from the bench, create your own path, embrace failure as a sign that you’re playing at a meaningful level. How did you settle on them?
They’re the most important for where we are as a culture. Getting to the bottom of what and how we feel is a lost art for women, especially women who see themselves as only a mother, only a partner, only a wife, or only a businesswoman. We are so much more than the labels we give ourselves. One of the book’s big messages is there are these old rules that we’ve been sleepwalking through, because change is hard. For instance, there’s a chapter about being grateful for what you have and also demanding what you deserve. When you read it, you might not think about 10 different moments in your life where this has happened. But it’ll bring awareness to these moments in your future. You’ll think, “I see what’s happening—I’m not speaking up in this meeting because I’m just being grateful and nervous.” It’s giving women permission to step into their power, to reclaim the power we’re born with. In the patriarchal world, we’ve learned that staying quiet is part of what it means to be a woman. This book is trying to redefine what being a strong female means.
You’ve always brought awareness to the wage gap between men’s and women’s sports, and in your book you point out a depressing fact: When France won the 2018 Men’s World Cup, they received $38 million, whereas when the U.S. Women won the 2015 World Cup, they got $2 million. Do we have any reason for hope?
In the long term, we’re doing better, because companies are starting to pay their women more. They’re seeing that when you pay women more for their family expenses, mortgages, bills—you’re seeing them grow in their power and leadership. Still, it’s bull**** that we’re choosing this grade of capitalism over the humanity of women. It’s still supply and demand, people and sponsorships and revenue—I know all the debates. But if you tell me a woman deserves to get paid less because she has a vagina and she could possibly have a baby one day, that tide will eventually turn. If you aren’t going to pay your women now, your company won’t last a long time. It has to end. And the ways that this can end are: Demand what you deserve. Make failure your fuel. This is a blueprint for women to go into negotiations and put their flag in the ground and say, “These are my nonnegotiables. Let the chips fall where they may.”
Another aspect of the equal pay topic is endorsements. You talk about winning an award at the ESPYs alongside Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, then walking off the stage thinking about the disparity between their bank accounts and yours.
When you talk about male sports, you talk about big contracts—those sports teams are getting massively funded by league deals, and I’m not saying they should give up any of their finances, because they’ve earned them. But I wish I had done more to push—not just for myself, but for the people who are still playing. Women who, in the next 10 years, will retire and still need to create a new career. I spent my whole career being grateful, and I was offered opportunities other women on my team weren’t given. I was given a key to New York City, literally. I wonder, though, if I had brought a couple of folding chairs with me, would I have made more of a dent? Could I have helped the problem more than I did? Absolutely. Women have to look into themselves and how we’ve entertained this idea of the submissive woman. We have to put an end to it.
It’s one of the pillars in your book: Demand the ball. Who else is advocating for this kind of change?
Serena Williams is doing it in an extraordinary way. Not just because of her following and fame. Think about her perspective: She’s grown up in a mostly white community, in terms of tennis. She and her sister are women of color who’ve opened doors for countless kids who might look at the Williams sisters and see themselves in them. Serena has taken a stronger stance since having Olympia, and you can see a shift in the way she approaches the world. With the U.S. Open controversy, watching a woman of color fight for herself and demand to be respected by this white male umpire, who is literally sitting above her in a position of power, there are so many dynamics in this one moment. Did you think she was being a sore loser, or did you think she was stepping into her power as a woman of color and a person who’s been in the spotlight her entire life? Over time, I think people will realize she was doing this not just for herself, but also for her baby girl.
Over the past year, Serena has spoken candidly about how motherhood has changed her. You have three stepchildren now. How has parenthood changed you?
I stepped into how I’ve been meaning to be my whole life. I had a yearning for parenthood, but I knew I had to do something else first. When you get outside of the day-to-day, and you think of your children as human beings, and the impact that your own parents had on you, it becomes the most terrifying and daunting experience. You go from cleaning up laundry to these beautiful moments where you drop your kid off, and you tell them a story, and you have a moment together, and who knows if they remember it, but it keeps bringing you into a truer version of yourself. Our family is one of truth and honesty: We have hard conversations and talk about what matters. I can’t imagine my life before these children.
As parents and as public figures, you and your wife, Glennon Doyle, are very open about your identity, and you’ve been a major advocate for LGBTQ acceptance in pro sports. But do you think there’s still a conventional standard that women—especially female athletes—have to follow to be marketable?
There is an understanding from a female athlete and her idea of “her brand.” Women’s sports have evolved so much over the 40-plus years since Title IX that now you find women who are more prone to authentically embodying who they are. Throughout a portion of my career, I tried to be somebody who’d be likeable across different kinds of brands so that I had more options. And endorsements probably matter more to female pro athletes than to men—it’s a massive component of our income each year. But ultimately, I found brands that believed in me as a person. Brands want to attach themselves to real people so it doesn’t look like an advertisement. Fifteen or 20 years ago, not many companies were trying to illuminate women’s sports. Now, what’s so cool with the U.S. Women’s National Team, you see a lot of different women who fit a lot of different molds.
Would you say there’s a much bigger market for women’s sports now than when you started playing professionally?
We’re still in the infancy phase of women’s sports—development takes time, and we’re in the midst of it taking its sweet time. Bigger picture, I can see a world in 50 years where the women’s game is a hundred times more popular, in terms of eyeballs watching and prize money and women being treated in a way they feel good about.
It’s a dream of mine to get into all the major league sports’ front offices and run my leadership program, Wolfpack Endeavor. Not because women are going to end up in the NBA, but because the NBA has a subsidiary called the WNBA. If there are no women at the table, then how do we know that what decisions get down to the WNBA will be of financial value to those women? The National Women’s Soccer League, though they’ve attached some of their teams to Major League Soccer franchises, has to have women making decisions, not just to help women’s sports, but to have the feminine inside of what has historically been a very toxic male environment. I want our program to be so money and badass that when we get into these major league sports’ offices, they say, “Wow, we didn’t even know we needed this.”
The Women’s World Cup begins in June. How has the game and its culture evolved in the four years since you retired?
It’s faster, and the tactics are changing. That’s what I’m most excited about watching, since it’s evolving not just here in the U.S., but all around the world. I’m the biggest U.S. Women’s Soccer fan. I text former teammates, letting them know that I’m here, that they can lean on me. Early in my career, no one knew who I was. In the middle of my career, some people did. At the end of my career, having won the 2015 World Cup and gone out the way we did, I think I’m a recognizable person, as is Alex Morgan. People buy in, because Americans value winning. That’s helped the women’s national team gain popularity and sponsorships.
Since retiring, you’ve created a corporate leadership training program company called Wolfpack Endeavor. How are you helping these women?
We’ve trained a few of my former teammates so I can employ them, and women from the WNBA and the National Women’s Hockey League, to help them transition to their next career. Between us we had 27 World Cup and Olympic gold medals. We want to be the most innovative company out there—no one is going into the corporate world teaching an athletic mindset. We have more companies knocking on our door to get us to run these programs, so we have to keep training athletes. And I’m praying all my friends retire so they can come work for me!
We keep coming back to the wolfpack theme—how did you decide on this message?
I started coaching my stepdaughter Tish’s soccer team. She was 11. I started to think, What moral do I want these kids to take away from practices? I’m not teaching them to be Alex Morgan. That’s a pretty lofty goal. So, I thought, When you show them this story about wolves, and how they’re part of this ecosystem, you’re telling them a story about themselves that they don’t even know they’re hearing. Writing the Barnard speech, I thought, we women are and have been a threat to the system for so long, but now it’s time to reclaim and unleash our power. In the beginning of the book, I mention it being written from a woman’s perspective, and how women have had to find themselves in books written by men, for men. Yet this is also an opportunity for men to understand what women have been doing. Men need this information because they’re still the ones making these decisions. It’d be a dream of mine to get this book into the public school systems, so boys and girls can hear this message. How great for girls to understand that they aren’t Little Red Riding Hood. They are the wolves.