For a player with a standout legacy and athletic career, Abby Wambach is following a pretty traditional post-retirement path for a professional athlete: She’s becoming a contributing analyst for ESPN. Wambach, who announced her retirement in October 2015 and played her last game with the Women’s National team in December, said on Wednesday that she will be kicking off her time with the network by covering the European Championships in France in June and the Rio Olympics in August. According to ESPN, she’ll also be working with ESPN Films and other shows, like E:60 and Outside the Lines, which is an investigative show delving into sports controversies, societal issues and athletes’ personal stories.
From the unbiased perspective of a female athlete in sports media, this is pretty awesome news for sports entertainment, and, it seems, for Wambach herself. She told the Associated Press, “Talking and reporting on things that I’m passionate about really, really was the selling point to me, because I don’t want the rest of my life to be based on the fact that I played soccer. I want to be able to venture and learn about different things.” This really resonates with me, especially as I reflect on my time at the Review. Even on the comparatively tiny, inconsequential scale of Oberlin’s athletics (sorry, everyone) and the Review’s sports section, the opportunity to write and publish about a topic you’re truly passionate about and the chance to learn about the broader sports world beyond personal experience is one I wouldn’t have traded for the world.
Wambach’s choice is also exciting because she’s breaking yet another barrier as a female athletic icon. She stepped off the soccer pitch for the last time as the top international goal scorer for both men and women with 184 career goals. Now, she’s tackling the ESPN newsroom — a male-dominated atmosphere — as a woman known for fighting for equal rights for female athletes, especially with regard to unequal playing conditions and pay between the men’s and women’s national teams. There’s a reason why the sports world is commonly perceived to be unwelcoming to non-dudes, and it’s because dudes’ voices are heard the loudest and the most and are in total control of commentary and news delivery. It’s a good thing that athletes on the USWNT and Serena Williams have garnered enough grudging respect and popularity from the nation to swing their fair share of advertising campaigns, or male athletes would be universal in those as well. Despite my focus on women’s sports in editorials, most of the quotes, statistics, reports and articles I’ve found have been written by men.
So Wambach is the best candidate I can think of to make waves in sports entertainment’s gender imbalance. Beyond advocating for gender equality in sports, she’s also an activist for LGBTQ rights, which I doubt is a concept some of those ESPN guys have wrapped their heads around yet. It’s 2016, but whatever, guys. It’s fine (it’s not fine). I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to speculate that Wambach is going to make an important difference and bring a lot to the table in August. Fittingly, she’s also working on a podcast called “Fearless Conversation with Abby Wambach,” in which she has promised to confront controversy in both the sports world and her own life.
Even though it’s exciting that she’s infiltrating bro headquarters at ESPN, Wambach isn’t a pure-of-heart role model. Unfortunately, she made another typical post-retirement athlete move and was pulled over for a DUI near her home in Portland, OR, last month, to which she responded by pleading guilty and joining a diversion program for first-time offenders. She also made some pretty shady comments to Men’s National Team Head Coach Jurgen Klinsman about bringing in “a bunch of … foreign guys” in December, arguing against the presence of foreign players on a U.S. national team.
Yes, Wambach has made mistakes, but she’s owned up to them. I’m not trying to excuse a DUI, but Wambach publicly apologized and made a committed step toward improvement immediately after her offense, which is far more than one can say for most other professional athletes with alcohol or drug-related charges. On her podcast, Wambach will address her comments to Klinsman and the question of foreign players on a national team, which she willingly agreed to revisit. Her quote on the issue says it all: “Why not [revisit my comments]? I think people tend to steer away from stuff that has caused controversy in their lives. For me, what better place to start?” This attitude is rare, especially in a celebrity. Wambach is not only positioned to give ESPN a facelift with her politics but with her personality and values as well.
I grew up watching professional soccer and the Olympics on the couch sandwiched between my dog and my dad, hearing male commentators, seeing males discussing games at halftime and watching male-driven talkshows in between game broadcasts (before I got too bored with those and returned to my GameBoy before the next game). I can’t wait to sit on that same couch and watch Wambach between broadcasts this August.