The United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT) won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Lyon, France, last week. Their victory was no surprise. The pre-tournament favorites had won three of the previous tournaments and four Olympic gold medals, although they were upset by Sweden in the last World Cup. On the 20th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup where they defeated China in a thrilling shoot-out in front of 90,000 spectators in the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, the U.S. women’s squad dominated the tournament.
But this victory was more than just traditional shouts of “We’re No. 1” and “USA…USA.” Although there was flag waving in the crowd and a ticker tape parade down New York’s Canyon of Heroes for the returning heroes (heroines?), this victory was more political than the previous ones.
The players presented themselves as more than just athletes. In the era where male football players kneel or stay in locker rooms during the national anthem and refuse invitations to celebrate winning championships in the White House, this squad had more than just sports personalities. The tone was set by Megan Rapinoe, the charismatic co-captain with various colored hair styles. Leading scorer and selected top player of the tournament, she elected to not sing the national anthem, publicly criticized the U.S. president, and said she would not go the White House if invited. President Trump duly responded on Twitter: “Women's soccer player, @meganrapino, just stated that she is "not going to the F...ing White House if we win,"' Trump wrote, inadvertently tweeting at a different person named Megan Rapino. Never mind, a woman soccer player had raised the ire of the sitting president of the United States.
But more than just sports, Rapinoe’s personality and Trump’s misspelling, the women raised the issue of equal pay. It became the squad’s political rallying cry as well as the chant of many of its followers during the games and parade, a fitting issue on the 100th anniversary of the International Labor Organization.
The difference between the women’s salaries and those of the U.S. men’s squad is revealing. Despite a recent pay hike, it is estimated that the women earn 38% less than the USMNT even though the men have not won an Olympic medal in over 100 years and last won a medal in a World Cup in 1930. The women’s team filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation citing gender discrimination. The resounding success in Lyon will certainly help their cause.
The ideal of amateur sports belongs to the last century. Most sports have become professionalized. But beyond sports and business, there is a growing politicization of sports. Remember the Black Power salutes at the 1968 Mexico City Games; the radical group Black September kidnapping and killing 11 Jewish members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games boycotts.
The era of Pierre de Coubertin and the ideal of amateur sports, mostly male, being outside politics is long over. The victory of the USWNT was more than just a sport’s victory; it was an important victory for women. The tournament set ratings records in the U.S. and around the world.
The 1999 cover of Newsweek magazine headlined “Girls Rule” after the USWNT victory. The picture of Brandi Chastain exalting in triumph in her sports bra after scoring the winning goal symbolized the importance of a sports game beyond the pitch.
Forget “Girls Rule.” This time the women and their team were most impressive.