Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
By the time Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final came around, there was almost a sense of déjà vu in the air. The level of competition throughout the tournament had been such that many of the games in the lead-up to the final (Sweden vs. Germany, USA vs. England) had felt like championships themselves – hard-fought battles that spoke volumes about the caliber of competition in the women’s game.
The US team’s 2-0 victory over the Netherlands Sunday was no different, with tough play – head-to-head collisions, literal blood and sweat – and a brilliant Dutch squad turning on the pressure, tactically taking the US out of its early scoring rhythms and keeper Sari van Veenendaal making the net feel hermetically sealed against the American offense.
But after thrilling goals from Megan Rapinoe on a penalty and Rose LaVelle on a strong solo run, at the end of the seemingly endless minutes of stoppage, what for some felt inevitable became reality: the US Women’s National Team took its fourth title, successfully defending its 2015 crown. These back-to-back championships means that fully half of all WWC titles are owned by the US.
1. No, the rest of the world has not caught up to the USWNT. First of all, a handful of the world has been there all along, winning the other half of the titles – Japan (2011), Norway (1995), and Germany (2003, 2007). But even more importantly, take a look at where in the world this year’s final eight teams were from – Europe, Europe, Europe, the US, Europe – you get the picture. As historian Brenda Elsey, co-author with Joshua Nadel of Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America, told me early in the tournament, lopsided scores like the one between Thailand and the US should serve as a reminder to just how little investment much of the world has in the women’s game, with some teams, such as Argentina, overcoming outright discrimination to get to the show. And while it is exciting that FIFA has decided to expand the tournament from 24 to 32 teams in four years, that expansion will mean little without widespread institutional support at all levels, from local to international.
2. Pay them. Now. Speaking of support: It is supposed to drive results, not the other way around. The Dutch team is a perfect example – just 10 years after launching a professional women’s league, they were European champions. But conversations about revenue and ratings have dogged the question of equality in the women’s game, a game in which the most powerful team in the world famously is suing its own federation for equal pay. After the US victory, the team’s fans remained in the stadium for the trophy ceremony, and many of them started a thunderous “equal pay” chant. The ratings have been record-breaking just about every step of the way, with some 7.3 million people tuning in to watch the US down England on a Tuesday afternoon to get to the final, while across the pond the English nailed over a 50% audience share. And it isn’t just the US – more people watched the match-up between France and Brazil in the Round of 16 than any other women’s soccer game in history. As for revenue? Nike – whose slogan is “when this team wins, everyone wins” – says that the USWNT home kit is breaking record after record.
All of that said, merchandise and ratings and, oh yes, championship results should not be driving the question of equality – we cannot fully assess the impact of the women’s game until it is supported, whether by national federations or international governing bodies. Even Congress agrees, and they should know (It’s not for nothing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted after the match in support of equal pay for the USWNT). The success of the US team is driven in no small way by Title IX, put on the table by Hawaiian Congresswoman Patsy Mink in 1972. “If you’re looking for the US Competitive Advantage in women’s soccer,” says constitutional historian Andrew Arnold, “check out the 14th Amendment. In 1972, the year Mia Hamm was born, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act explicitly extended the Constitution’s equal treatment requirement to gender – including sports.” Is Title IX perfect? Nope. But the numbers don’t lie, as it created paths for hundreds of thousands of girls to get their feet on a field, a track or a court. Pay them.
3. Hey, FIFA! Remember the Ladies. Without question, July 7, 2019, will go down in history as a Super Soccer Sunday, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. With two of FIFA’s confederations scheduling men’s finals, including USA v. Mexico for the Gold Cup, on the same day as the women’s final, some diehard soccer fans are in heaven. But FIFA’s “oh we forgot” and “scheduling error” excuses are, at best, lame, because in the lead-up to the Netherlands and the US taking the field, a lot of people were talking about … Messi and his red card. Just as testing out VAR at the World Cup proved to be a stupid (if fascinating) idea, scheduling other finals on the same day as the women is downright disrespectful. Sports journalist Jessica Luther’s radical idea about FIFA – that the women should leave it – isn’t so far-fetched if we think about Billie Jean King and the “original nine” creating the Women’s Tennis Association because their federation paid men 12 times the amount it paid women, when it let women compete at all. Remember the ladies, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband as he worked to create the foundations of a new nation. “Be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”
4. Soccer keeps happening, so keep watching. Love the players on the USWNT? Then keep watching them. Months after A&E cut the National Women’s Soccer League loose from its television deal, ESPN has cut a deal to televise 11 regular-season games, as well as the postseason run. All 23 players on the USWNT play in the NWSL, as well as many other players from other teams we’ve watched over the last several weeks in France. So on Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m. Eastern? There’s a game on, the Portland Thorns v. the Orlando Pride. Don’t miss it. And wear a team shirt – Nike has re-upped its deal with the NWSL too.
5. Sports are political. Stop “accusing” athletes like Rapinoe of getting political. Sports are political. Especially when the White House visit gets dragged in or Golden Boot and Ball winner Rapinoe chats up French president Emmanuel Macron on the victory dais. Just as fans get to chant what they want from stands (and bars), athletes work hard to create the spotlight under which they play, and it is up to them to determine how to use it, whether they are wearing a national uniform or not. Rapinoe says she is uniquely American. A quick read of the Constitution says she is right. These competitions, whether it is the World Cup or the Olympics, present spectacles of stunning athletic achievement, to be sure. But they also provide insight, good and bad, about the world we live in. Bottom line? Sport is not above politics, there is no such thing as a level playing field, and soccer doesn’t allow the world to put its problems on hold. It’s just the opposite: Soccer provides a window through which we can explore our lives in a deeper way. And for these women, for these teams, soccer has become all of our lives for the last month.
So, looking back at the last month of competition, what should we all be saying about this team? What should our final words to the USWNT be?
How about thank you?