This high school soccer team was penalized for their #EqualPay shirts — here's why they won't back down

The team is earning praise from athletes and politicians, including World Cup champ Brandi Chastain, tennis star Billie Jean King and Sen. Pat Leahy.
Soccer players on the Burlington High School team in Vermont. The team was penalized last week with a yellow card after revealing their #EqualPay T-shirts during a game.
Soccer players on the Burlington High School team in Vermont. The team was penalized last week with a yellow card after revealing their #EqualPay T-shirts during a game.Courtesy of Burlington High School girls soccer team.

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By Erin Delmore

A high school girls soccer team in Vermont is refusing to back down from their fight for equal pay.

The Burlington High School team came under the spotlight last week when senior Helen Worden scored a goal, edging her team to victory with just three minutes to go.

In a rush of adrenaline, she pulled off her game jersey, revealing a T-shirt emblazoned with #EqualPay — a cause she was inspired to rally her team around after watching the U.S. Women’s National Team sue their federation on the issue, just months before winning the World Cup in France this summer.

“We had planned before the game to just lift up our playing jerseys and show the #EqualPay on the front of the shirts that we were wearing underneath,” Worden’s teammate and co-captain Maggie Barlow told Know Your Value. “But in the heat of the moment we got carried away.”

Three of the players followed Worden’s lead as the crowd chanted “equal pay.” Consequently, an official handed down a yellow card for excessive celebration, forcing the four players to step off the field.

Supporters of the Burlington High School girls soccer team in Vermont.Courtesy of Burlington High School team

“The official came over and said, ‘Coach, I had to do it. It’s in the rules,” said Coach Jeff Hayes, who’s been coaching girls’ soccer for more than 25 years. In the confusion that followed, the other team scored, tying up the game with less than two minutes to go.

The girls had asked to bill Friday’s game as an equal pay event, wearing their #EqualPay jerseys for warm-ups and under their game jerseys (a soccer regulation bars them from wearing slogans during a game). They also had previously teamed up with the Vermont non-profit organization, Change the Story to hone their outreach, communication and fundraising skills. They've also been selling the #EqualPay T-shirts to spectators, parents and other sports team.

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Change the Story’s Jessica Nordhaus, the mother of one of the players, told Know Your Value that the girls raised enough money from local businesses and supporters to pay off their own jerseys in 48 hours, and were able to purchase jerseys for the JV team and “heavily subsidize” jerseys for the boy’s team.

The team has been selling the #EqualPay T-shirts to spectators, parents and other sports team.Courtesy of Burlington High School girls soccer team.

“They decided that the boys should probably pay $5, which represents about 16 percent of the cost of the jersey, which is the wage gap in Vermont,” Nordhaus said. The profits will support scholarships for the Greater Burlington Girls Soccer League, where the high schoolers played as children. As of Monday morning, then team had sold about 1,800 jerseys, totaling some $34,000 in sales.

The team is also earning praise from athletes and politicians. Over the weekend, two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Brandi Chastain – who in 1999 famously tore off her jersey after scoring a championship goal — tweeted, “Thank you @bhsgirlssoccer for standing up, celebrating and taking your jerseys off for #equalpay Proud of you! #rolemodels.”

At a women’s economic opportunity conference in Vermont on Saturday hosted by legendary Sen. Pat Leahy, Leahy put up a picture of him and his wife in their #EqualPay jerseys — then posted that same photo to Twitter. “I had the chance to share the story of the game with him and he just shook his head in disbelief,” Nordhaus said.

And on Monday, Barlow may have had her most memorable government class to date.

“I was supposed to be looking at court cases and [champion tennis player and social justice activist] Billie Jean King tweeted about us … Me and my other captain, Maia, were together,” Barlow recounted. “We just freaked out. [The teacher] was like, ‘Guys, I know you’re famous, please get off your phone.’ [We said] we can’t! This is so cool!”

“I still haven’t wrapped my head around the fact that these people who are our role models are talking to us like we’re their role models,” Woden said. She feels the weight of the equal pay fight on her generation’s shoulders. “As I start looking at colleges and start applying to colleges, I realize I’m setting up for my life, and with the thought in mind that if I come out of college and I’m in a job [and] I’m working as hard as a man, I could be paid less just because of my gender, just really makes me very mad,” she said.

Barlow told Know Your Value she was especially struck by a statistic she learned while working on the team’s equal pay initiative: That the wage gap isn’t expected to close in Vermont until the year 2048. “I was like, oh my god. Are you kidding me? That is ridiculous. It’s 2019 and that’s the case? And people know this is happening? I was kind of like horrified by that,” she said. At the same time, she said the reception the team’s gotten around this issue and their jersey sales makes her feel like there’s hope.

One jersey sale brought the team particular joy. A day after the big game, they saw an order form with a note in the comments section: It was the referee who carded the girls, saying he was buying a shirt to support their efforts and he looked forward to wearing it.

Barlow said the team erupted in laughter.

“There was so much anger at the time at [the referee], but we wouldn’t probably have been able to get our story out as much as we did” without him, Barlow said. He “went from being one of my least favorite people to being somebody I will always remember for helping us get this opportunity to share our story.”

On a high from their turn in the spotlight, the team is set to enter playoffs on Wednesday. Once their season ends, they'll be working with Change the Story to further their message in the community and beyond.

Players have already been invited to speak to their local school board and the Greater Burlington Women's Forum. A Change the Story representative also said the Burlington City Council is planning to recognize their efforts as well.

And, in the aftermath of Friday's game, the girls are making one change to T-shirt sales: Future #EqualPay shirts will be delivered with a "yellow card" with the request that purchasers write down a cause they would take a yellow card for, then share a photo of themselves in their shirts on social media.

"During the game, I was furious with myself that I’d taking my shirt off," Worden said. "But after the game I realized, no one’s going to remember if we tied or lost or won.... It's what happened afterward," she said. "I will always remember that game."