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Changed the Game: The 'tough as s***' Michelle Akers, an OG women's soccer star

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"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Michelle Akers, nowadays, is one of many Americans who looks up to Megan Rapinoe. To her soccer stardom, yes, but moreso to her voice. To her attitude, and her activism, and her leadership. And to the entire U.S. women’s national team, really. Occasionally, sitting at home in Georgia, a few tears will tickle Akers’ eyes.

“Because it's so inspiring,” she says of the current USWNT. “They're creating such social change, in such a positive way. And still fighting for equality, equal pay.”

Akers, though, isn’t your average fan. Once upon a time, she was in Rapinoe’s shoes. She was FIFA’s “Female Player of the 20th Century,” the top scorer at the very first Women’s World Cup. She also fought for equality along the way.

As she did, she was viewed by some as a “troublemaker.” Others condemned her “greed.” But she now understands that her many battles are some of the reasons that players like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are viewed as heroines today.

When asked if she played a role in establishing that fight-for-equality legacy, Akers tells Yahoo Sports, “Yeah. Absolutely.”

How Akers got her start

Akers was born in 1966, and raised in a Seattle suburb, where her mom signed her up for soccer and a variety of other sports. She loved the movement, and the physicality, and the teamwork.

“I often wondered what it would've been like to play either rugby or ice hockey,” she says. “I think I would've fit into one of those two as well. But ... that wasn't a thing [for girls] when I was growing up.”

There weren’t many soccer opportunities for women either. In the early 80s, there was no U.S. national team, no professional path. Akers dove in anyway, and accepted a scholarship to the University of Central Florida, where she’d become a four-time All-American.

She earned a spot on the inaugural national team in 1985. There was no World Cup at the time. No women’s soccer at the Olympics either. But there was a tiny tournament in Italy called the “Mundialito.” The U.S. Soccer Federation fetched some oversized, off-color, hand-me-down men’s jerseys, and left the women to do the tailoring themselves. Akers scored the program’s first-ever goal, in its second-ever game, a 2-2 draw.

Accommodations were slightly better six years later when the USWNT headed to China for that first World Cup. Akers scored five goals in the quarterfinal – still a World Cup single-game record. She tallied twice in the final, a 2-1 U.S. victory, including the game-winner with less than three minutes remaining, announcing herself as the sport’s first female superstar. And the world began to notice.

“There was a lot of attention,” she says now. “Just not necessarily in the US.”

The games hadn’t been shown on TV stateside. Players had to fax updates to family members. Newspapers didn’t cover their triumph. When they arrived home, trophy in tow, nobody was there to greet them. They, and especially Akers, were sporting giants. The American public didn’t care, because nobody had told them to care.

Michelle Akers-Stahl of the USA fights for the ball during a game against Germany in Fairfax, Virginia.  The USA won the game 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger /Allsport
Michelle Akers-Stahl fights for the ball during a 1994 game against Germany in Fairfax, Virginia. (Doug Pensinger /Allsport)

Rampant sexism

Akers’ campaigning for women’s soccer took her all across the country. One of many stops was in Arizona, for an industry conference, where she urged execs from some of the largest soccer brands in the world to invest in the women’s game. An Umbro employee heard her plea. She eventually became the first woman to sign a soccer endorsement deal.

The Umbro partnership funded Akers’ national team career, and took her to star-studded events all over the world. Male superstars recognized her. Some media members flocked to her. But when they opened their mouths to ask questions, the experience sometimes soured.

“Your husband let’s you play soccer?” some would ask, quizzically.

“Are you gonna be able to have babies later in life?”

“Oh, it was so frustrating,” Akers says now.

She’d sit around tables with FIFA presidents and men’s World Cup winners. She often found herself the only woman in the room. “They didn't listen to me,” Akers says of some men. “And they were still saying, ‘You should play with a [smaller] ball.’ Or, ‘Hey, can't women's national teams wear tight short-shorts, and little bras, so it attracts more men to watch the game?’ ”

She tolerated the sexism as best she could. She knew that her mere presence was important, “changing things.”

“And then at the same time,” she says, “I knew if I got on the field with some of them, I could kick the s*** out of ’em.”

‘Tough as s***’

Akers enjoyed kicking the s*** out of people. She got the s*** kicked out of her, too. She suffered a knee injury in the 1995 World Cup that would ultimately require more than 30 surgeries. She sustained concussions, and was plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome. But for a decade, she battled through. “Because I could,” she says.

For years, she vanquished opponents as a striker, her powerful 5-foot-10 frame gliding past and above flailing defenders. Then she moved back to midfield, where her toughness bossed games. “I was tough as s***,” she says. “I still played 15 years sick and injured.” She anchored the U.S. midfield en route to a second World Cup title in 1999.

She mastered multiple positions, and won three major international tournaments, even though none existed until she was 25 years old. Many women’s soccer junkies who’ve followed the sport since its humble beginnings are adamant that Akers is the greatest player of all time.

Does Akers think she is?

“Yeah, I do,” she says. “I do.”

Fight for pay equity

Akers battled on the field, but also off it. Working conditions in the early days were second-rate. Many players spent more money to play for the national team than they made. As one of the veterans on the ‘90s World Cup teams, Akers took charge of public messaging in labor disputes. She and eight other players went on strike ahead of the 1996 Olympics as they squabbled with U.S. Soccer over bonuses and pay.

Akers also sued U.S. Soccer multiple times. “I spent tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys,” she says.

“It was just this constant push to have it done the right way,” she continues. And she’s well aware it’s still a constant push today.

But she also notices a difference. “I kind of got a bad narrative about me for doing what a lot of women – Rapinoe, and Morgan, everyone – are doing now,” she says. “Now they're kind of heroic. And there's so much support, and so much applause, and much more empowerment. And the sport is so much bigger, and more money is involved, so it's making a bigger difference.”

Akers realizes she’s a reason for all of that. She does, however, “kind of wish I didn't have to get so beat up, and run over so many times, in my career. It would've been really nice to have the support they have now, and have what I was talking about seen in a different light.”

In the moment, though, she didn’t feel like a trailblazer.

“I didn't know if I was changing things,” she says. “I just knew I couldn't go to sleep at night letting them run me over without a fight. And I knew if it was happening to me, it was happening to a lot of people who had a lot less leverage. So I fought.”

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