Julie Foudy during the 1999 Women’s World Cup final vs. China. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY)

This originally was published in Soccer Magazine in 1997

By Michael Lewis

Sometimes in sports, there are more important things than just winning of losing on the field of play.

Sometimes what happens off the field matters, too.

U.S. women’s national team midfielder Julie Foudy mixed both together to be named Soccer Magazine’s Woman of the Year for 1997. She continued to excel on the field as a midfielder for the 1996 Olympic champions. She also showed she cared off the field, journeying to Pakistan to see how soccer balls were made and to make sure they were produced by adults and not children.

“It was something I heard about, but it was something that I didn’t know was such a widespread problem,” she said. “Peter [Moore, Reebok senior vice president] came to me. ‘We’re opening up a new factory. I want you to be a spokesman for the soccer balls.’ ”

After a tremendous furor over child labor producing soccer balls the last several years, Reebok guaranteed its balls were made in factories. In 1997 it began putting labels on the balls, guaranteeing they were made without child labor.

“That was such a strong statement,” Foudy said. “I didn’t want to talk about a guarantee without seeing the product itself. . . . I was kind of skeptical. They got a camera crew, and it became a media thing.”

So Foudy, along with Moore and Doug Kahn, the company’s director of human rights, journeyed to the city of Sialkot in the Punaj province of Pakistan in March 1997.

“The whole thing is a cottage industry,” she said. “There is one city that does the stitching and there are villages around it. They drop off bags of soccer panels and stitches. Nothing is monitored. They literally have their kids stitch to process more soccer balls a day.”

The more soccer balls a family produces, the more it earns. It was estimated that as many as 250,000 Pakistani children work (child labor usually refers to children 14-years-old or younger).

“There were so many,” Foudy said. “We can make sure no children are involved, so everything can be done under one roof.”

Reebok opened a factory where soccer balls could be made. Workers received better pay than working at home and got benefits as well.

“It was pretty bold for Peter to bring me over there,” Foudy said.

For several reasons.

Women are treated as second-class citizens over there. When Foudy and the company representatives had dinner at the house of the factory manager, she asked, “Where are all the women?”

She discovered that women don’t eat the same table as men. They fix the meals and eat in another room.

When Foudy decided to take a jog through the town in her sweatsuit, she turned some heads.

“People were falling off their bikes,” she said, “staring at me. It was funny, the stares.”

Foudy said she also was surprised about the attention she received in the media back home. When she returned to the states, Foudy wound up as the subject of several stories. The Chicago Tribune put her story on its front page.

“They wanted to make me a hero,” she said. “Reebok asked me to go over there.”

Used with permission by Soccer Magazine