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Athletes and activists: The U.S. Women’s soccer team

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In March, 28 members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team (WNT) filed a class-action lawsuit against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF). Spearheaded by veteran players Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Carli Lloyd, their case claims the USSF is in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. They argued that the athletes are under-compensated relative to their male counterparts despite superior performance.

This lawsuit was filed just months before this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was surrounded by messages promoting female empowerment within sports. Nike commercials encouraged young girls to “dream crazier” and push the bounds of what is thought possible. A celebratory commercial released after the WNT won featured the slogan, “This team wins. Everyone wins.” But when Rapinoe made comments about President Trump, one writer for the New York Post called Rapinoe “America’s anti-sweetheart,” urging her to stop trying to make political statements because an athlete’s role is “limited to entertaining the rest of us with their excellence.”

The clamor surrounding the WNT during this most recent World Cup invites reflection on the role of female athletes within society. Are they entertainment performers or can they be political activists? At Stanford, it’s sometimes easy to forget that female athletes are not always widely accepted. With Title IX, equal funding and support are allocated to men’s and women’s sports at the collegiate level, and being an athlete is often a sign of status, even for women. As a member of the women’s rugby team, I, personally, am fortunate to be provided with the same resources as the men’s team, but the same is not true globally. 

Last summer, on a Chappell-Lougee Fellowship, I traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand to research gender biases and stereotypes in rugby culture. I joined a local rugby club where I played rugby and observed and talked to as many people as possible, learning about the challenges female players faced. Some evenings after games, we would be invited back to the clubrooms for speeches, where people of all ages would come together and socialize. The women’s team would sit off to the side, not really seen as part of the club or its traditions. From New Zealand, I went to a quarter abroad in Oxford, playing with the rugby team there. Again, attitudes towards female athletes were less accepting than I was used to. The women’s rugby team was often forgotten and swept aside, their game not even mentioned in promotional materials for one big club celebration.

While we may not face cultural biases against female athletes to the same extent in California, prejudices still exist. Women like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe (both originally from Northern California) have the opportunity to play sports professionally, but are not paid equally as their male counterparts. Arguments against equal pay for female athletes cite lower viewership and revenue for women’s games as justification for pay disparities. Yet in 2015, the Women’s World Cup final became the most-watched soccer game in American television history, and in the 2016 fiscal year, the revenue for the WNT was greater than that of the men’s team. Section 61 of the U.S, WNT’s describes just how skewed this pay disparity is by comparing the performance-based bonuses awarded to players for advancement through World Cup rounds for 2014 (men’s) and 2015 (women’s). Bonuses for the men’s team totaled more than $5 million for losing in the round of 16, whereas the WNT received a total of $1,725,000 for winning the championship.

The financial and compensatory inequality for the WNT is a case of blatant gender-based discrimination. However, this is not a one-off — it is a symptom of our society’s rejection of female athleticism. Women’s sports have the potential to change this, promoting gender equality by campaigning for equal pay, and breaking down gender stereotypes on an international stage. If a writer from the New York Post wants to call Rapinoe America’s “anti-sweetheart,” let him do it. She’s not trying to fit the perfect “girl-next-door” stereotype of femininity, and that’s exactly the point.

Contact Anna Park at alpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.