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In this special interview, Meghann Burke, a civil rights lawyer and former professional footballer, talks to FIFPro's Women's Football Advisory Committee member, Monica Gonzalez, about the evolution of the women's game in the United States.

Burke is one of the driving forces behind the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) Players Association, which was officially launched on May 15, 2017. 

She is also assisting World Players' Union FIFPro in the development of a soon-to-be-released survey about how female players experience working conditions in different parts of the world.

Monica: What are you hoping to learn from FIFPro?

Meghann: I'm here in both my capacity as a former player and an attorney. We previously organised a players' union in the WPS, the former pro league in the United States, and we're trying to take lessons learned for that and figure out how to organise women soccer players moving forward.

Monica: Why did you get involved in starting a union in the US?

Meghann: It became clear in the second year of the (WPS) league that players should be partners in the long-term sustainability of the game. The players' union at that time saw a need to protect not just the players at the top but the rest of the players as well in helping the league grow and be competitive over the long term.

Monica: What were the issues going on at the time?

Meghann: Well at that time there was no collective bargaining agreement (CBA) or minimum standards in place that had been negotiated by the players. They had some minimum standards and rules that the owners had negotiated among themselves but we think it's important for players to have a seat at the table when those decisions are being made.

Monica: What are the some of most important issues that need to be negotiated between owners and players?

Meghann: I think we have a fairly long list of issues that need to be addressed systemically. On the micro level, season by season, I think minimum wages, consistency in training and knowing what kind of conditions you can expect as a professional. There needs to be trainers, physical therapists, adequate training facilities, consistent and predictable schedules for players whether or not they are full-time professional or have other jobs or classes that they're trying to plan their lives around. Female players are like any other competitive, professional athlete or footballer, they want to play at the highest level. In order to do that we need the best conditions to make that possible.

Monica: How is the US unique in women's soccer?

Meghann: It's pretty unique in that we have some of the best players in the world but we've not been able to sustain a pro league - we're now in our third iteration of that, it's in the fifth year though - and so we're hopeful that by players organising themselves, coming together and having a seat at the table that we can be partners with owners in the long term to keep this league around for future generations.

Monica: What do you feel in the United States is one of the biggest barriers to having the game continue to grow and maintain this league?

Meghann: Well I think we can look at what Portland's done. They have been extremely successful in generating a fan base and I think we can replicate that in other cities. The Western New York Flash just moved to North Carolina and so I'm hopeful that the triangle area, North Carolina, can support that team, not unlike the way the Thorns are supported in Portland. They get 20,000 fans a game and that should be a goal for every team.

Monica: How do you think girls today in the US view the possibilities of making football their full-time job?

Meghann: Despite the fact that we are on our third version of a women's pro league there's still no public consciousness around it. We're still trying to get images of female professional footballers in the media and in the narrative. There's no reason why a young girl growing up in the US today can't imagine a career as a professional footballer but it's just not part of the national consciousness, or the national conversation, and we need to make that happen.

Monica: Can you give any examples of when you, as a player, could have used the help of a union in your career?

Meghann: I could start from the very beginning, the first week or two of pre-season with the Carolina Courage in the WSA back in 2003. We had a players' union that had been organised by the national team and at that time if players didn't take a pay cut the league was going to fold that week. We did take a pay cut but nobody fell below a minimum standard. The players at the top made sure to negotiate for the players at the bottom on the salary scale. I'm certain my salary would have been lower, that I would've maybe lost benefits like health insurance, things that at 22 I maybe didn't understand that I needed until later that season when I was injured. I was injured on the job. Thankfully it was only a cut that needed stitches, nothing significant, but I received a workers compensation cheque. I didn't understand what that was at the age of 22 but I was a dues-paying member of the union and my union looked out for me. I could cite countless examples where a union was absolutely crucial in small and big ways to protect me as a player but it's about standing together and without those players on the US national team that had negotiated minimum terms of employment on the front end, there are a lot of invisible things you're not even aware of that I wouldn't have been able to enjoy.

Monica: If you were talking to younger players, just out of college or looking to get on a national team, and they asked you 'what is a union?' what would you say?

Meghann: Your career is only just beginning when you're 22, and in the US we often think of players as peaking in college and that's just not the case. Certainly, it wasn't the case for me, and I think for a lot of people. So they need to know a union can help them prolong their careers, that a union is a way of bringing players together. We have greater strength in numbers. Solidarity is our greatest strength and that's what the union provides.

Monica: In general, in labour law, how important are unions in other industries?

Meghann: Unions are crucial. Any worker standing alone can easily be replaced, but workers standing together in solidarity, you cannot replace an entire team or an entire league. So that's the strength players have, to create one seat at the table as a representative for the entire body of professional female footballers.

Monica: Finally, as a civil rights lawyer, how do you see the game of soccer and role it can play to make a difference on the issue of human rights?

Meghann: I do believe in that. I do. Soccer is the world game. I think the way we play it is an expression of culture and personality. It can also be an expression of politics. I think we see the treatment of players around the world is also a reflection of the way citizens are treated in certain countries. My hope is that by raising consciousness about the condition of female footballers we can also be talking gender equity generally, outside of the soccer world.

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