On July 7, 2019, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) won their fourth World Cup title, 2-0, against The Netherlands in Lyon, France. The team, which has also won four Olympic gold medals and eight CONCACAF Gold Cups, is inspirational not only for its work on the field but, just as importantly, for its actions and activism off the pitch. The team has been openly vocal on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, the humane treatment of immigrants and refugees and gender equality, particularly regarding equal pay.
The team’s push for equal pay has been ongoing for several years, but visibility heightened during this year’s World Cup. Most recently, all 28 national team players filed a lawsuit on March 8, 2019 — International Women’s Day —and shortly before the start of the World Cup in France, citing gender discrimination based on unequal pay and inferior conditions. The lawsuit alleged that US Soccer has “‘a policy and practice of discriminating’ against members of the women’s national team on the basis of gender” and that the Federation is violating both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It highlighted that a top-tier female player could make as little as 38% of what is earned by a top-tier male player, or about $164,320 less annually.
Despite generating more revenue and higher TV ratings, female players receive less money and inferior conditions, which the lawsuit alleges is solely due to the fact that they are women. The women’s team has seen far more international success than its male counterpart – for example, the men’s highest place finish in the World Cup was third, in 1930, and the team did not qualify for last year’s World Cup. On a larger scale, the 2018 men’s World Cup winner received $400M, while this year the women were awarded $30M. Megan Rapinoe, one of the team’s co-captains, responded after FIFA scheduled two men’s finals on the same day as the women’s World Cup Final, which was especially ironic given that one of the main reasons offered for the gap in prize money is that the men’s tournament creates more revenue. Thus, detracting attention from the women’s final by scheduling the Copa América and CONCACAF Gold Cup Men’s finals on the same day seems particularly counterproductive. Rapinoe argued that “If you really care are you letting the gap grow? Are you scheduling three finals on the same day? No, you’re not. Are you letting federations have their teams play two games in the four years between each tournament? No, you’re not. That’s what I mean about the level of care, you need attention and detail and the best minds that we have in the women’s game, helping it grow every single day.”
The team also took up social and political causes. Rapinoe rejected the idea of going to the White House, and was then angrily tweeted at by Donald Trump. Other US players and sports teams have similarly rejected invitations to visit the White House during the current Trump administration after winning championships in their respective leagues as a form of protest against many of the administration’s policies and outlooks. Rapinoe explained her stance, encouraging “…[her] teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and fight for the same things we fight for.” Indeed, several of her teammates made statements in support of Rapinoe, echoing Rapinoe’s sentiments about going to Washington should an invitation be extended. Teammate Ali Krieger backed up Rapinoe, saying she does not support “this administration nor their fight against LGBTQ+ citizens, immigrants & our most vulnerable,” while players Alex Morgan and Becky Sauerbrunn had previously rejected the idea of going to Washington.
In terms of revenue and TV viewership, at this year’s World Cup the US sold out tickets for its opening, semifinal and final matches — all within 48 hours. Additionally, around 1 billion viewers are estimated to have watched their games throughout the tournament. Fans are listening to and supporting the players’ fight, as evident through chants of “Equal pay!” in the stadium after the final and in New York City during the team’s victory parade. The tournament in general was largely followed, an encouraging sign for women’s soccer overall. Other teams and players, for example Brazil’s Marta, also sent strong messages of solidarity and showed their incredible skill on the field.
The US players have stressed that they are not just female athletes, as seen during Alex Morgan’s acceptance speech for female athlete of the year during the ESPYS, and it is crucial to note that this fight is about more than just soccer. Morgan explicitly acknowledged this, saying that “Investment in women and girls should not only occur on the playing fields but in more storytelling of badass, amazing women who continue to show that we are more than just athletes.” The team’s fight for equal pay can be connected to larger fights for equality both in the US and around the globe, from the #MeToo movement and its various corollaries to the Women’s March and, of course, to equal pay in all professions. The tournament itself has drawn more attention to women’s sports and to questions from equality to combating sexism, with the tournament highlighting collaboration not just among teammates but across the various teams competing.
The US team and its players are taking a stand against inequality in its various forms, against sexism, certainly, but also against racism and homophobia, and using their platform to push important agendas for social justice issues. Outspoken, confident and unapologetic, the USWNT is pushing for change both on and off the field. Beyond serving as role models for young girls in sports, they are also setting an example of how to advocate for equality at various levels.
Written by Corinne Schoch, WAVE Intern
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