Michelle Akers laid the foundation for Mia Hamm, Megan Rapinoe
“The game changed” is a Emox News series dedicated to women who are often overlooked, underrated, or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women’s sports history.
Michelle Akers is one of many Americans looking up to Megan Rapinoe these days. About her soccer star, yes, but more about her voice. About their attitude, their activism and their leadership. And really for the entire US women’s national team. Sitting at home in Georgia, Aker’s eyes tickle the occasional few tears.
“Because it’s so inspiring,” she says of the current USWNT. “You create such social change in such a positive way. And still fighting for equality and equal pay. “
Akers is not your average fan, however. Once upon a time, she was in Rapinoe’s shoes. She was FIFA’s “Player of the 20th Century” and the top scorer at the first ever Women’s World Cup. She also fought for equality along the way.
She was seen by some as a “troublemaker”. Others condemned their “greed”. But she now understands that her many battles are some of the reasons why players like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are considered heroines today.
When asked if she played a role in establishing that legacy for the fight for equality, Akers told Emox News, “Yes. Absolutely.”
How Akers made her do it
Akers was born in 1966 and grew up in suburban Seattle, where her mother signed her up for soccer and a variety of other sports. She loved the movement, the physicality and the teamwork.
“I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to play either rugby or ice hockey,” she says. “I think I would have fit in either of those two too. But … that wasn’t a thing [for girls] when I was growing up. “
There weren’t many football opportunities for women either. In the early 80s there was no US national team, no professional path. Akers dived anyway and accepted a scholarship to the University of Central Florida, where she became All-American four times.
She received a place in the inaugural national team in 1985. At that time there was no world championship. Even at the Olympic Games, no women’s football. But there was a small tournament in Italy called “Mundialito”. The American Football Association brought in some oversized, uncolored, shabby men’s jerseys and left the women to do the tailoring themselves. Akers scored the program’s first goal in its second game, a 2-2 draw.
Six years later, when the USWNT traveled to China for that first World Cup, the accommodations were a little better. Akers scored five goals in the quarterfinals – still a World Cup single game record. She scored two goals in the final, a 2-1 win in the US, including the game winner by less than three minutes, and announced herself as the sport’s first superstar. And the world began to notice.
“There was a lot of attention,” she says now. “Just not necessarily in the US.”
The games were not shown on television. Players had to fax updates to family members. Newspapers did not report their triumph. When they came home with a trophy in tow, no one was there to greet them. They, and Akers in particular, were sporting giants. The American public didn’t care because nobody told them to care.
Aker’s campaign for women’s football took her across the country. One of her many stops was an industry conference in Arizona where she asked executives from some of the world’s biggest soccer brands to invest in women’s games. An Umbro employee heard her request. She was, after all, the first woman to sign a football endorsement contract.
The Umbro partnership funded Akers’ career on the national team and took her to high profile events around the world. They recognized male superstars. Some media members flocked to her. But when they opened their mouths to ask questions, the experience turned sour at times.
“Your husband lets you play soccer?” Some would ask questioningly.
“Will you be able to have babies later in life?”
“Oh, it was so frustrating,” Akers says now.
She would sit at tables with FIFA presidents and men’s World Cup winners. She was often the only woman in the room. “You didn’t listen to me,” Akers says of some men. “And they kept saying, ‘You should play with one [smaller] Ball. “Or,” Hey, can’t women’s national teams wear tight shorts and small bras so more men can watch the game? “
She tolerated sexism as best she could. She knew that her very presence was important “to change things”.
“And then at the same time,” she says, “I knew that if I came out on the field with some of them, I could throw them out.”
“Tough as s ***”
Akers enjoyed getting people out of the way. She also kicked the s *** out. At the 1995 World Cup, she suffered a knee injury that would ultimately require more than 30 operations. She suffered concussions and suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. But for a decade she struggled through. “Because I could,” she says.
For years she defeated opponents as a striker, her mighty 5-foot-10 frame slid on and past hitting defenders. Then she returned to midfield, where her toughness dominated the games. “I was tough,” she says. “I still played sick and injured for 15 years.” It anchored the US midfield on the way to a second World Cup title in 1999.
She mastered several positions and won three major international tournaments, although there were none until she was 25. Many women soccer junkies who have followed the sport from its humble beginnings firmly believe Akers is the greatest player of all time.
Does Akers think it is her?
“Yes, I do,” she says. “I do.”
Struggle for equal pay
Akers fought on and off the field. The working conditions in the early days were second class. Many players spent more money playing for the national team than they earned. As one of the veterans in the 1990s World Cup teams, Akers assumed responsibility for public messaging in the event of labor disputes. She and eight other players went on strike ahead of the 1996 Olympics as they argued with U.S. football over bonuses and pay.
Akers also sued US football several times. “I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers,” she says.
“It was just that constant urge to get it right,” she continues. And she is aware that it is still a constant boost today.
But she also notices a difference. “I got a bad story about myself because I did what a lot of women – Rapinoe and Morgan, everyone – do now,” she says. “Now they’re kind of heroic. And there is so much support and so much applause and so much more empowerment. And the sport is so much bigger and it’s about more money, so it makes a bigger difference. “
Akers realizes that she is a reason for all of this. However, she wishes I didn’t have to be beaten up and run over so often in my career. It would have been really nice to see the support they have now and what I was talking about in a different light. “
At the moment, however, she did not feel like a pioneer.
“I didn’t know if I was going to change things,” she says. “I just knew that I couldn’t go to sleep at night and let myself be run over without a fight. And I knew when it happened to me, it happened to a lot of people who were much less influential. So I fought. “
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