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Power of the US women’s football team extends far beyond the pitch

Eduardo Munoz, REUTERS | US women football players pose for a picture with the trophy for the FIFA Women's World Cup while the team arrive to the Newark International Airport, in Newark, New Jersey, US, July 8, 2019.

With their unabashedly forceful style of play and celebration, and their unashamed outspokenness on a panoply of hot-button issues, the US national women’s football team is crushing norms both for their gender and for their sport.

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American women have done it again.

In 2018 they took the political world by storm, sending more women to Congress than at any other time -- overwhelmingly women on the political left. Now they have set the sports world on fire. The victory of the US women’s football team, which distinguished itself with its activism as much as its athletics -- will change far more for the sport than the number of shiny statues in the team’s trophy case (a record-setting four).

As one football -- or soccer, as they call it in the US -- blogger put it: “In 10 years, we’ll remember the summer of 2019 as the year that women’s soccer became a permanent fixture in the collective global sporting consciousness.”

For the youngest fans, who are growing up in an era during which the women’s team has been hugely successful since the Women’s World Cup began in 1991 and ranked number one for the past 11 years, and the men’s team has been, well, average, women dominated their minds -- so much so that one tot asked his father this week if boys could play soccer, too.

The proof of the women’s success is in the numbers. The national women’s team jersey, which comes in boys’ and men’s sizes as well, has become the best-selling soccer jersey on Nike.com. Ever. The USA-Netherlands final was one of the most watched football games in US history, with roughly 14.3 viewers tuning in to Fox, either watching on television or streaming on a device. That handily beats the 11.4 million people who watched last year’s men’s final. An average of 1.6 million viewers watched the match on Telemundo Deportes, making it the most watched Women’s World Cup final ever. Global viewership has been high as well, with the matches that the US played against Britain and France the most-watched broadcasts in each of those countries this year.

The business community is waking up to the moneymaking possibilities. ESPN plans to televise 14 of the National Women’s Soccer League’s matches this season, and Budweiser announced a partnership with the league.

Fair pay

The members of the US women’s national team have used their platform to agitate on a number of issues -- most notably, equal pay. In March all the players joined together in filing a discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer, accusing it of “institutionalising gender discrimination”. Not only do they play in conditions that are inferior to the men’s, travel in accommodation that is less luxurious, but the pay gap is enormous. The women will get $4 million for their win this month. The winners of the men’s World Cup last year received $38 million. After winning the cup in 2015, the women were paid $2 million. The previous year the men’s team didn’t make it past the first round but were paid $9 million.

And the women earn money for the federation, which in the 2016 fiscal year was projecting a combined net loss for the men’s and women’s teams of more than $400,000. Those projections wound up being revised to a profit of $17.7 million, largely due to the women’s team, the lawsuit claims.

"These athletes generate more revenue and garner higher TV ratings but get paid less simply because they are women," said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the players in their lawsuit. "It is time for the federation to correct this once and for all."

The team has since agreed to enter mediation with the federation.

Their fans clearly support them in their fight. When they won the final in Lyon on Saturday, the crowd erupted into chants of “Equal Pay, Equal Pay,” and several newspapers have run editorials arguing that not only should the women be paid what the men are paid, they should be paid more.

Soraya Chemaly, a journalist and the author of “Rage Becomes Her: the Power of Women’s Anger,” said that the team is a testament to the impact that Title IX, the 1972 law that protects against gender-based discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance and includes many youth sports.

That law “allowed girls and women to thrive in their own bodies", Chemaly said. “You get on that field and the traditional rules of femininity and feminine interactions fall by the wayside.”

Opening up team sports to girls and women not only enable them to develop their athletic skills but enhances their self-confidence, provides them with networks and gives them an avenue toward leadership. “The socialisation of girls through club sports that Title IX enables is a huge social and political force,” Chemaly said.

Higher purpose

The players aren’t just fighting for themselves. This team is comprised of social justice warriors who have taken on bigger issues. With a lesbian coach and several openly lesbian players including World Cup MVP Megan Rapinoe, and Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, who are engaged to each other the team has become a source of pride for the LGBTQ community.

"I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live, and it's just an incredible feeling," Rapinoe said after the team's victory in the final on Sunday. The team won all seven of its matches, scoring 26 goals and allowing just three.

"Science is science. Gays rule," Rapinoe tweeted on Sunday.

A spokeswoman for the largest US LGBTQ-rights organisation, Matilda Young of the Human Rights Campaign, said the impact of the team's inclusiveness would be profound.

"Young LGBTQ athletes, who all too frequently are made to feel unwelcome, have seen themselves reflected in these history-making champions," Young said. "Having Americans from every corner of our country embrace these women who are unabashedly proud of their country and of who they are sends a powerful message not only to LGBTQ people, but to sports fans around the world that we are here, we are queer, and we just won the World Cup -- again."

Rapinoe has long used her place in the spotlight to draw attention to issues she cares about. In 2016 she was both the first white athlete and the first female athlete to join NFL player Colin Kaepernick in his protest against systemic racism, which he expressed by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games. When soccer federation officials issued a new regulation requiring players to “stand and honor the flag", Rapinoe stopped kneeling but declined to put her hand on her heart or sing the words -- a protest she continued during the Women’s World Cup.

Owning it

Part of the team’s appeal has been that they are unapologetic both when standing -- or kneeling -- for their principles and when displaying their prowess on the pitch. They have been under fire from the first match of the tournament for playing too hard and for marking their goals too vigorously. They were accused of being “arrogant,” “disrespectful” and “distasteful”. Striker Alex Morgan was singled out during the semi-finals after she celebrated her decisive goal against England by mimicking sipping a cup of tea.

“I feel that there is some sort of double standard for females in sports,” she later told ESPN. “We have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate, but not too much or in a limited fashion. You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism."

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