For women's pro soccer players, a long but necessary road to college degrees

ISI Photos-Trask Smith

The NWSL draft in January makes it a challenge to finish school, but it's a necessity with still modest salaries.

Morgan Brian had just walked in her commencement ceremony at the University of Virginia. But she almost wasn’t able to experience her big day, one that was six years in the making. It was only the combination of coincidental NWSL scheduling, the willingness to road trip down the Eastern seaboard, and the forbearance of her coach that let her walk.

UVa’s commencement was Sunday, May 21. Brian played 81 minutes on Saturday as the Houston Dash took on Sky Blue FC in Piscataway, New Jersey.

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“I had to drive from Charlottesville to Jersey and then play in the game, [then] drive back, so it was a long weekend,” Brian told FourFourTwo. Google Maps says the drive from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Piscataway clocks in at five hours and change, depending on the route.

Rose Lavelle’s situation was similar. Wisconsin’s commencement was Saturday, May 13. The very next day, the Boston Breakers played the Chicago Red Stars in Bridgeview, Illinois. The relative geographical closeness of Wisconsin’s campus to the Chicago suburb allowed Lavelle to attend her graduation ceremony, then fly out to play in the game for Boston. Her parents were able to watch her do both.  

“They were really happy,” Lavelle said. “They didn’t get to go to my high school graduation either, obviously, since I wasn’t there.”

She paused for a moment, recalling then correcting her story.

“Well actually, they did get to go. My cousin was walking. So they got to go to it, but they didn’t get to see me walk, so they weren’t really happy. And I think there were times they weren’t sure if I was going to finish my degree, if I was just going to go straight to the draft and not finish school. They were definitely really proud and happy to see that moment come to fruition.”

The logistical maze these players were willing to run in order to walk at graduation illustrates what happens when you have to balance earning an undergraduate degree with a full-time job. It’s a balancing act a lot of NWSL players face with a January draft. Preseason starts in March, and the first game kicks off in April, usually a full month before finals and commencements roll around.

For Brian, Lavelle, as well as other NWSL players, like Boston’s Margaret Purce, they found a way. Lavelle’s and Brian’s studies came on top of responsibilities to the U.S. women’s national team, and for Purce, she had responsibilities with the Under-23 national team as well as her coursework at Harvard University, one of the most academically rigorous schools in the world.

They all took different paths. Brian needed six years to graduate in order to handle women’s national team duty at the peak of the last World Cup-Olympic cycle. Lavelle was able to somewhat plan ahead, especially knowing she’d be going high in the NWSL draft. And Purce got drafted by the Boston Breakers, allowing her stay local at Harvard.

“When I realized that coming to Boston meant that I can stay and finish my degree, I was just over the moon,” Purce said. “I knew I had a strong spring coming, and I had no idea what the draft would bring me. I was just going to cross that bridge when I got there, and I was blessed enough to not have to cross a very big bridge.”

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley

ISI Photos-Mike Gridley

“I was in all online classes,” said Lavelle. “I was in three different classes. I had kind of planned it before the fall to load up in the fall and then be able to do [soccer] in the spring so I’d be able to go away. But it was challenging. Just late nights doing homework, having to find the time to get my work done and get everything turned in. But I was also tired from soccer, so it was tough to balance, but I’m glad I kind of grinded it out and ended up getting my degree.”

“When I first came into college, I was heading to the Under-20 cycle for the World Cup,” said Brian. “So I had to take underneath a full load every semester pretty much, and so I was kind of behind as it was. But then I got the call into the full national team my sophomore summer, and after that, it was kind of full time with the national team running into World Cup qualifying, and then eventually the World Cup in 2015, which was my graduating year.”

There’s a different obligation, responsibility, when it becomes your job. There’s a different level of attention that you need to give it.

- Margaret Purce

The logistics of finishing a degree while not physically on campus are, perhaps, easier with the ubiquity of the internet. Lavelle had her online classes, and Brian did her best to pick classes with less weekly work and more weight given to tests. But that just came with a different set of challenges.

“It’s difficult to be away from the grounds and campus where other students are studying,” said Brian. “Now we’re on the road and you have 18 other people who are not in school and want to go do different things.”

It wasn’t just the logistics or the isolation; moving from being a student-athlete to being a student-pro-athlete shifted the balance they’d previously used when they were playing college soccer.

“There’s a different obligation, responsibility, when it becomes your job,” said Purce. “There’s a different level of attention that you need to give it. … I have come to practice in the morning and have looked at Rose, and we both looked at each other and we’re both just like, gassed, because we’ve been staying up late studying.”

“Now this is my job, so I feel like I have to put even more into it,” said Lavelle.  “When I was in Wisconsin, I had my allotted time for classes and all of that, but here I just kind of had to make the time myself while also doing all the other off-field stuff that I need to be doing to make sure that I can stay fit and healthy on the field.”

For Lavelle and Brian, at least, their universities were willing to accommodate them.

“One of my professors that was teaching [my] online class was moving to Boston,” said Lavelle. “She was very understanding and really nice about this situation. She knew I had a lot on my plate, and she worked with me a lot with that.”

“If they hadn’t worked with me, I would not have been able to finish my degree this quickly,” said Brian. “So they worked with me really well, and my degree was in kinesiology, which is kind of a sports medicine degree, so it was great to have professors that love sports and want to work with athletes and are very supportive of the career that I’ve chosen.”

Purce did things a little differently.

“I actually didn’t tell a lot of my professors that I play soccer in the first place, because I don’t want them to look at me differently,” she said. “They can look at you differently when you play a sport. I kind of try to keep it very on the down low and just put my head down and get the work done.”

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

All of them received support from their NWSL teams as they finished their degrees, which included being able to experience commencement. Many professional athletes talk about missed life events – proms, birthdays, weddings – so being able to attend a milestone like college graduation was a gift.

Purce will walk in Harvard’s undergraduate commencement on Thursday, too. “I’m going in the morning, and then I’m going to come hop on the plane with the team,” she said. Boston flies out that same day, heading for Portland to play the Thorns two days later.

Another thing the three had in common was their desire to finish their degrees and the importance of education. For female players, money is not assured. Of course, US. women’s national team players now get a very solid salary based on their new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, and Brian and Lavelle have endorsement deals with Adidas and New Balance, respectively. But it’s rare for a female player to save much money even after playing for a decade-plus, and there’s no guarantee anyone will stay healthy. For women, it’s important to have four-year degrees to fall back on in order to get jobs after soccer.

“Ever since I’ve been a child and growing up, my parents have really stressed school and an education,” said Brian. “My dad and my mom always instilled in me that finishing my degree should be a priority. At one point, [my dad] didn’t want me to leave school and play soccer before I finished my degree, but he came around after he saw that I was kind of fulfilling my dream.”

“School has always been the first priority in my family. Education comes first,” said Purce. “So that’s why I went to Harvard,” she added, laughing.

They’re all done now, although as one might expect of the kind of overachiever who plays professionally while finishing a degree in neurobiology and psychology at Harvard, Purce is now studying for the LSAT. But none of them have to take another test again if they don’t want to, and the relief was palpable in their voices when they discussed it.

“I think it was difficult, but at the same time, anything that’s rewarding is,” said Brian. “It was great to finally have it all come to an end this past weekend and realize all the hard work and effort has all paid off. So I was happy to do it.”

And Lavelle? She let out perhaps the most bone-deep, bottom-of-the-gut sigh of relief possible when asked how she feels about being done with school.

“It’s the best,” she said. “I feel so free. I don’t have anything hanging on my shoulders anymore. I can go, just do what I want, and live a free, happy life.”

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