The real victory for the U.S. women: Being on the ice on their terms

The Canadian Press via AP

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Before the Women's Tennis Association was formed in 1973, its founder, Billie Jean King, had to pry many players from their conviction not to fight for its creation. In an interview with former pro and current broadcaster Mary Carillo, King recalled the moment that became the turning point.

"If we do this," one of the players said, "we'll lose everything."

"Don't you understand?" King responded. "You have nothing. You literally have nothing to lose. Can't you see that? What worse can happen that isn't happening now?"

King's response, Carillo told me, won the room and, later, history-a history not lost on the U.S. women's national hockey team, which more than 40 years later resolved to fight too. The women, earning $6,000 every four years with no hefty NHL salary to supplement them, flying coach when the men fly better, were unable to convince their federation that they deserved an equal seat at the table -- a grievance similar to that of the underappreciated women's national soccer team, which finally ratified a collective bargaining agreement after a contentious negotiation with its own federation. And so the hockey players threatened to boycott the women's world championship in what was a basic and remarkable act: They bet on themselves.

On the historical scale of labor negotiations, the players' demands were modest: a raise in pay plus travel and insurance arrangements equal to the men. In response, USA Hockey showed the little regard in which it held the women by its willingness to have America serve as host of the world championship without its two-time defending champions. The federation, likely banking on public sentiment that in so many cases sides with employers, scoured the college and junior ranks, ready to field a team of replacement players to represent the United States. The women, out of insults to take and damns to give, did not wilt and by fighting found allies from the Senate and the players' associations of the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB.

The experience of going on strike also served as a reminder to the players that they are part of a historical continuum of conflict between labor and management, of the power of men versus the value of women. The conflict has been heightened by the current wave of athlete activism and the harsh response -- in this case USA Hockey's draconian reaction -- to any resistance to authority. Team USA confronted what America is today: anti-labor, anti-protest, anti-action, each under heavy assault by law and by custom. As Colin Kaepernick can attest, the mainstream public and media too often place more emphasis on the reaction to injustice than on the injustice itself. While the women received some support for their stance, just as Kaepernick had allies in many quarters, there were those who justified USA Hockey's position because the women's game is less popular and less lucrative. Ultimately, though, the thought of strike breakers was too great of an overstep, an unnecessary instigation.

USA Hockey counted on public antipathy toward mobilized labor -- especially sports labor -- that has defined the country since the 1980s. For once, that stance backfired. The federation and the players reached a deal three days before the world championship opener.

So often the people who have everything to lose become the conscience of a dulled, overindulged nation. So often that conscience is women. The big names -- LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul -- received attention for pleading for police and public confrontations to end, but the players negotiated with the NBA about when and how they would express themselves this season. Asking for guidance on how to protest is no protest. The NBA has 21 players earning over $20 million this season, but they responded to the obvious racism of Donald Sterling in 2014 not with a wildcat strike but by reaching out to commissioner Adam Silver. They trusted the power to protect them. Meanwhile, the WNBA players, most of whom don't earn $100,000 and actually had something to lose, were far more defiant in their solidarity against police brutality than their multimillionaire male counterparts, even in the face of league fines.

The U.S. women's hockey team, now part of King's legacy, stood unified too. The Americans beat nemesis Canada 2-0 to start the world championship and went on to beat Russia 7-0, Finland 5-3 and Germany 11-0. But the real victory was being on the ice on their terms, a message sent to the next generation of women whose bosses tell them to shut up and play.