The story is causing a Twitter storm as it expands and deepens - it's everywhere in my scrolling feed - the progressing drama surrounding one of England's best football players, Eni Aluko. Here's a link to a thorough article by The Guardian on the latest, but I wanted to write about what I'm learning in regards to the culture of fear around speaking up. Aluko is a lawyer and I assume has a better than average understanding of how grievances work. She spoke up about her perception of comments and treatment from England's manager, Mark Sampson. There was a subtle hint of the story going around the media, but she was not speaking publicly and was quietly letting the Football Association (FA) investigate. The allegations are ugly and please do read the article to get a better understanding of the now sordid situation. The accusations relate to racism and now add to that a farcical investigation by the FA. Aluko spoke out about perceived racism by her manager; she then suffered alleged retributions for speaking up. This is unequivocally wrong. She has said that the players are "terrified" to speak out and that there is an "environment of silence within the FA." She was quickly dropped from the team by Sampson without explanation. Another player, Anita Asante, has come forward to support these claims. The drama is being regularly updated in the media - is this what it takes to get good media coverage for women's football? *update - I just read the drama is escalating, with the brother of Sampson bullying Aluko on Twitter. This is out of control. Seriously, read the article.
There are many examples at the highest level of the game, of players being cautious about shining a spotlight on wrong-doings. Then there's Hope Solo. Solo is not shy about speaking her mind. Solo has been public in her belief that the US National team dropped her due to her advocacy around gender inequality and equal pay. She is often the spokesperson when the US team speaks about the inequality of the pay gap in US soccer. She believes this is the reason she was suspended from the national team.
In 2014, a group of the largest names in women's football sued FIFA for gender-discrimination for having to play the World Cup on artificial turf fields. Several players ended up dropping out of the lawsuit, stating they feared reprisal from FIFA and some said they were threatened their national team spots would be taken away if they continued in the lawsuit. The examples are out there, the fear is real.
Women are afraid of retaliation for speaking up about unfair treatment. The above stories are about national team level players, but what about at the lower tiers of the sport? Many players don't even have contracts or the contract agreements aren't held up. If the women speak up for themselves, they often risk losing their playing time, being dropped from the club or transferred. When facilities are second class or the transportation isn't paid, players are at risk for speaking up in the multi-tiered system. There are coaches, club owners, associations, and federations to consider when thinking about voicing concerns or fighting for your rights. With no chance of making a difference without trouble, many players are leaving the sport prematurely. FIFpro, a worldwide players' union, report that hundreds of top players are leaving the sport in their 20's for a more sustainable career. 87% of players surveyed report they will probably leave their career early. They're not getting paid in full or at all, they often have poor playing conditions, and even the top players in the world say they have difficulties affording to stay in the game. With a culture of having to remain quiet or risk all their hard work, it's heartbreaking and contemptible to know this is going on and players are having to put up with such circumstances.
There are a few organizations and programs attempting to right the wrongs.
Kick It Out, football's third party reporting bureau in the UK accepts tips about inequality, racism, accessibility, or any discrimination. FIFA had an anti-discrimination monitoring system and Task Force, although in 2016 they ridiculously ended the program, declaring the job done. Huh? The previously mentioned FIFPro is representing women players in an attempt at better conditions as well as using education and advocacy to inform players and associations of rights and proper conditions. CONCACAF has an Embrace Diversity program which promotes inclusiveness, respect, and fair play. I'm glad these programs are out there and efforts are being made in both the men's and women's games, but can't help feeling it's not going to be enough. The power and culture at the top of the game are not easily shaken and reformed. It will take brave individuals making a difference at the grassroots level. I'm not advocating for every female player to speak up and put themself, their career, and livelihood at risk. Each individual will have to consider their options and circumstances and possibly seek a trusted mentor to weigh their options about when to speak up and about what. Those in leadership roles must be the ones to do the right thing and affect change in long standing customs and professional behaviors which need to evolve and transform. Here's a short video from the brilliant Moya Dodd, a football official, and former player. She offers great insight into what needs to change and why.