Less than one-fifth of Americans call themselves feminists, yet 85 percent of Americans believe in equality for women. The US Women’s National Team has deftly navigated this contradiction. With their popularity soaring after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, players on the US team have spoken out about issues of structural sexism in American and world soccer, all without uttering the f-word.   

Fans of the US Women's National Team at the parade in New York City following their World Cup win. (NYC DOT/Flickr)

Fans of the US Women’s National Team at the parade in New York City following their World Cup win. (NYC DOT/Flickr)

 

At a time when feminism has become a dirty word in mainstream American culture, the Women’s World Cup and the US Women’s National Team have achieved the seemingly impossible this summer: they’ve made structural sexism part of national conversation. During the two-week media blitz after the team’s victory in the World Cup final, talking heads repeatedly asked US players about both the drama of the final game against Japan and international soccer’s unequal pay structure. Someone in a corner office, it seems, decided that America needs to know its favorite daughters weren’t getting paid fairly for their victory. The players, too, were ready to talk about gender discrimination, even as they cautiously strove to strike the right tone for prime time.

FIFA, of course, made it easy for the players to bring sexism into the conversation well before the tournament began, when it announced that the Women’s World Cup would be played on artificial turf. Players protested this unfortunate first for a major international tournament and gained widespread support. US forward Sydney Leroux posted a disturbing photo of her bloodied legs after a game on turf, an image which highlighted the fact that the surface made players more vulnerable to injury. The photo circulated online for months, and eventually made its way to television news programs hosted by mainstream commentators such as Robin Roberts, an enthusiastic and longtime fan of the team, and FIFA-hater/football-lover John Oliver.

Of course, artificial turf would be unimaginable for the men’s tournament, as countless players and critics have noted. There’s too much invested, both financially and emotionally, in the longevity of a player like Leo Messi to have him risking injury on turf. In countries like Spain and Brazil, though, where women’s football seems to pose as much a threat to traditional patriarchy as female priests, the women’s game is given little to no attention. That’s where America differs from the rest of the world. In the US, the soccer pitch is largely a field of dreams for white suburban girls and their parents. The crowds at US Women’s games often sound more like shrieking tweens at a One Direction show, rather than the drunken roar of manhood bellowing through Old Trafford. For Americans, Leroux’s torn and bloodied legs are in appearance less a feminist issue than an attack on “our” daughters.

FIFA’s decision has been a blessing in disguise for the politics of the women’s game. The turf scandal prompted a legal suit by players, which was eventually dropped because it wouldn’t have made it to court before the tournament. The language surrounding the suit, however, had an important effect on American coverage of the tournament. “Gender discrimination” suddenly became one of the stock phrases used by players, who are always carefully groomed for the media. That the family-friendly culture long promoted by the USWNT and its corporate sponsors could not only absorb but even highlight gender discrimination in soccer without damaging the team’s image proved to be a victory as huge as the cup itself. Surely it didn’t hurt that the US Attorney General had FIFA officials arrested a week before the tournament started, making it easy to add systemic sexism to the long list of crimes perpetrated by the highly corrupt – and foreign – governing body.

It was clear from the start of tournament coverage that American soccer culture had developed considerably since the last women’s tournament. As the US struggled through the group stage, former players-turned-commentators talked tactics, arguing that the team’s survival depended on field formations coach Jill Ellis seemed unwilling to adopt. When Ellis finally appeared to relent to those coaching from the couch, thus unleashing the power of the US offense, fans rejoiced in seeing their strategies finding the back of the net. For the first time, America seemed to collectively understand soccer, or at least want to.

Yet, throughout all the excitement of the tournament, gender discrimination was never forgotten. Announcers stated the temperature on the field before games, reminding viewers that even though the weather in Edmonton or Montreal might be a perfect 75 degrees, the artificial turf – a substance made of recycled tires – had reached temperatures as high as 130 degrees. Players’ complaints of blistered feet and heat exhaustion were sympathetically relayed to viewers. By the time the US had the trophy in its hands, headlines declared FIFA’s ultimate crime: the nation’s daughters would earn four times less for winning the tournament than its sons had earned for losing in the first round of the knockout stage the previous year. Suddenly, the whole country seemed to agree on equal pay.

In their post-victory media rounds, the players didn’t let the opportunity go. New national hero, forward Carli Lloyd, who in commentary on game performances can only speak in sports clichés of “journeys” that finish at the proverbial “end of the day” with “standing on top,” became eloquent when asked about the cultural and financial capital the US women could now wield against FIFA. Defender Ali Krieger, who appeared nervous and lost in her own words when deployed with midfielder Megan Rapinoe to the Rachel Maddow Show, could by the next day speak fluently, if carefully, as the lone team representative on a New York City morning show. When asked about the pay difference, Krieger said she didn’t begrudge the men what they had earned, but then quickly noted that the women’s final had more viewers in the US than any other soccer game ever. She and her teammates had “leverage” to begin closing the pay gap, especially now that the team had proved its commercial viability. Players like Lloyd and Krieger appeared both personally invested and carefully coached for the discussion.

It would be naïve to think that the team engaging in feminist politics has nothing to do with the market potential of their success. The corporate sponsorships surrounding the USWNT in this World Cup have been unprecedented. Not only did the US Women’s Team win, so did Nike, Clorox, and Bank of America. I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan to receive a tweet from Alex Morgan promoting Tampax tampons hours before each US game or to doubt that Kelley O’Hara’s physical condition really was “built with chocolate milk.” And certainly, I am not the only fan to purchase an overpriced, authentic Nike team jersey. That’s not to question the players’ motives, their dedication to their sport, or their desire to make professional women’s football viable around the globe. Their feminist aims are limited to a capitalist, market-driven playing field, a fact they are deeply aware of, given that two women’s professional leagues in the US have ended in financial collapse and a third one is struggling to survive. Just listen to almost any interview with Megan Rapinoe, who continually reminds us that both the USWNT and the National Women’s Soccer League don’t offer fans great “games” but a great “product.” Luckily for the players, confronting gender bias in sport and fighting the structural sexism of FIFA is a way to increase the profitability of women’s soccer, and it’s only by increasing profits that these women get to continue playing. When Lloyd or Krieger finally get to air their real frustrations concerning gender discrimination, it’s because someone at US Soccer thinks ending sexism will increase market shares and push more “product.”

In contrast to the profit potential of the fight against sexism, the team’s behavior in matters of race politics has been more cautious. Take for instance the case of forward Sydney Leroux, who is both biracial and bi-national (she holds American and Canadian citizenship). Leroux is often seen as a traitor by Canadian fans because she left Canada and began playing for the US at age 14. In 2012, during an Olympic qualifying game in Vancouver, Canadian fans chanted both the n-word and “Judas” at Leroux. A year later, during a game in Toronto, when the fan chatter against her began again, she celebrated her goal by shushing the audience and pointing to the US crest on her jersey, an action which resulted in a yellow card. She later clarified her aims on twitter: “When you chant racial slurs, taunt me and talk about my family don’t be mad when I shush you and show pride in what I represent. #america” The tweet prompted even more racist attacks against her on social media.

Even though US Soccer publicly supported Leroux following the incident, the organization clarified prior to the World Cup that a tug at the crest would not be a reminder of those past racist incidents, but rather a sign of team pride. White players were photographed making the same gesture, thus avoiding the potential for Leroux to become a figure of racial defiance, like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, should she encounter attacks again in Canada. Someone in marketing seems to have understood that images from a racial incident involving a US player would have been more difficult and divisive during a year of protests against the violent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers.

The difference in the team’s handling of race and gender perhaps is most apparent in players’ use of social media during the tournament. When a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston church on June 17, no players made any supportive statements for the victims of the tragedy. Soon after, however, the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal. Straight and gay players alike tweeted messages expressing their proud support for the historic moment in the nation’s history. Given that midfielder Megan Rapinoe has skillfully managed to come out in a way that popularized her image as a role model both for youth struggling with sexual identity and with the sport’s gay audience, the team’s public support for mainstream gay issues can only help its image. In this light, the players’ public silence on the Charleston massacre shouldn’t be surprising. The motto of US Soccer is One Nation, One Team. Where gender discrimination brought American fans together this summer to vilify FIFA as a common and foreign enemy, discussion of racism might lead the same fans to doubt the illusion of national unity that US Soccer has so carefully cultivated.

Although surprising, the sudden consensus of the US sports community surrounding feminist issues in the wake of the national team’s World Cup victory makes sense in a culture where soccer is a daughter’s game. No doubt, it’s satisfying both to see women athletes celebrated and to hear discussions of structural sexism happening in the mainstream media. The players must also feel grateful for the freedom to criticize a system in which they have all personally had to struggle against gender discrimination. It is naïve, however, to think that any progressive political stance would be taken up by a sports institution in a system that is profit-driven, if that stance didn’t also increase ticket sales, television viewership, and opportunities for merchandising.

 

Magdalena Zurawski teaches English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. She is author of The Bruisea novel, and the poetry collection Companion AnimalShe is on Twitter at @MajorAmerican.