By Amy Bass
Editor’s note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.” As the supervisor of NBC’s Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
(CNN) — As mic drops go, this one was epic. “Sorry,” Twitter said. “That page doesn’t exist.” American soccer star Abby Wambach had left the building, but not before she gave us a powerful message regarding our responsibility for the future of her sport.
Wambach deactivated all of her social media accounts just before she took to the field in her final game Wednesday night, a friendly between the U.S. women’s national team and China. Fans were there to witness history. That China broke the United States’ 104-game home winning streak with a 1-0 victory did not seem to matter to those sitting in the stands in New Orleans. It was Wambach’s last game. Standing ovations seemed like the least they could do.
When New York Yankees’ captain Derek Jeter retired last year, his 20 seasons of good sportsmanship, Gold Gloves, All-Star Game appearances and World Series rings seemed far shorter than than the amount of time it took him to say goodbye. All summer, Major League Baseball created pre-game ceremonies across the country every time Jeter donned his pinstripes.
As the season came winding down, it became clear that while Jeter will not go down as the greatest shortstop in baseball history, he was without question one of the most marketable. More recently, LeBron James announced a lifetime deal with Nike, designed to ensure that he remains commercially relevant long after he leaves basketball.
Wambach has taken a different approach. Few, if any, could question her credentials as one of the greatest athletes in the history of soccer, with more international goals than anyone else who has ever played, man or woman. But she has meant more than her stats.
An openly gay player, marrying partner Sarah Huffman in 2013, she made the most of her World Cup title last July, celebrating victory by running to the stands to give Huffman a kiss that was seen round the world. She also has made a lot of noise for FIFA, soccer’s organizing body, to commit to equal support of the women’s game.
Indeed, Wambach led the charge against FIFA after it announced that last summer’s World Cup would be played on artificial turf. While the players eventually dropped their lawsuit, the point had been made. And in the hours before her last game, an interview with Bill Simmons raised more than a few eyebrows when she argued that U.S. men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann should be fired, and criticized his use of “foreign guys” instead of focusing on the talent coming out of U.S. youth soccer programs.
When it came time for Wambach to say goodbye, she took a different route from Jeter. Nike paid homage to the Yankee captain with a range of folks, from Billy Crystal to the Red Sox, tipping their caps out of “RE2PECT” Gatorade featured Jeter in a grainy black-and-white commercial walking the streets of the Bronx en route to the stadium to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
Nike’s commercial for Wambach was the polar opposite, featuring her tearful teammates, not celebrities, telling the camera what Wambach meant to them and, more importantly, what she meant to the game. (And good luck keeping your eyes dry while listening to Sydney Leroux describe her quarterfinals goal at the London Olympics in 2012, in which Wambach prodded her to take the shot herself instead of passing).
In the one-minute Gatorade spot, a contemplative Wambach empties her locker, keeping a picture drawn by a fan, a photo of her reaction after her stunning 2011 World Cup goal, and an article about her turf fight against FIFA. She throws her captain’s armband into her bag. Standing, she takes her nameplate off the locker and walks to the trash. In it goes.
“Forget me,” she says. “Forget my number, forget my name, forget I ever existed. Forget the medals won, the records broken, and the sacrifices made. I want to leave a legacy where the ball keeps rolling forward. Where the next generation accomplishes things so great I am no longer remembered. So, forget me. Because the day I’m forgotten, is the day we will succeed.”
As the commercial quickly went viral, people noted that its starkness, its simplicity, was authentically Abby. While Jeter’s walk through the Bronx was touching, it felt scripted, cinematic — not something that was part of his everyday. But Wambach’s farewell makes sense in the context of her career, her accomplishments, and how she views the role of an athlete once retirement is near.
If the marketing savvy with which she has retired tells us anything, it isn’t just about making sure that records will still be broken and titles will still be won. Wambach wants women to play with the justice and equity — financial and otherwise — that they deserve.
Her plea for us to forget her was made through a sponsor, Gatorade, enabling her to cash in as she closed the door. For women to uncork their potential as athletes, they must play the game — all of the game — from the pitch to (corporate) pitches. Unlike King James and his lifetime endorsement deal, Wambach is looking for someone else to fill her shoes. If she doesn’t take her name off the wall, the Gatorade ad implies, there won’t be room for the next great one.
Abby Wambach has left the building, then, with very specific instructions. “Make them forget me,” she tweeted before her account went dark.
255 caps. 184 goals. 73 assists. Two Olympic golds. One World Cup. Only one Abby. We have our work cut out for us.