Exploding Joy Dreams US women’s soccer: a modern-day social justice battle

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By Carissa Purnell

I never made it to the Wheaties box, nor did I ever find myself plastered in Nike ads draped across skyscrapers in New York’s Times Square, but I played with girls who did. Despite finding my own passion and purpose in education, soccer was and forever will be a foundational piece of who I am. Soccer built my communication skills, grew my character, and provided me with a family that has shaped me into the person I am today. My teammates are my siblings, their parents are my parents, my parents are their parents, they are family. Soccer undoubtedly made me a good person, and that is why the battle that wages on in women’s soccer is a battle we all need to fight collectively.

On June 11, the United States Women’s National Team defeated Thailand 13-0. With this win the team scored more goals than the United States Men’s National Team in every single World Cup the men have competed in since 2006. The USMNT has never won a World Cup title, did not even qualify to play in the last World Cup. Conversely,  the USWNT has won three of the seven FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments and continues to receive less coverage, recognition, and significantly less financial compensation.

While young people across the United States and young women across the world celebrated with our heroines, the media had a different narrative to cast over our joy. Most major sports outlets continued to only live stream men’s soccer matches. Top news headlines criticized the USWNT for their celebrations, and rather than honor the efforts and celebrate the victory, women athletes again were looked to for an apology for exercising their power, skills and command of the game.

Even our own president refused to acknowledge that these athletes representing our country on the soccer field deserve equal pay by nonchalantly stating, “we’ll talk about that later.” With this, he simply reinforces the gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices in pay that continue to impact women. He said, “big win,” but for so many of us, it wasn’t quite a win, it is a reminder we need to work harder.

Separate and Unequal?

This year 28 members of the U.S Women’s National Team filed a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for “institutional gender discrimination.” The lawsuit followed a 2016 complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission which resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement for the women, but an agreement that still has them far below the pay of the men’s team.

Journalist Bridget Gordon summarized it best when she wrote, “In other words: the women aren’t entitled to equal pay, because it’s not equal work.” She was paraphrasing — mocking — the Soccer Federation argument that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

“…the USWNT and the USMNT are physically and functionally separate organizations that perform services for U.S. Soccer in physically separate spaces and compete in different competitions, venues, and countries at different times; have different coaches, staff, and leadership; have separate collective bargaining agreements; and have separate budgets that take into account the different revenue that the teams generate.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines discrimination in Title VII as follows:

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Despite the federation’s claims of non discimination, the data is clear. The women’s 5-2 win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final in 2015 attracted 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-viewed soccer game ever in the United States — men’s or women’s — by a giant margin. According to John Walter of Newsweek in 2016, “Each player on the USWNT earns $99,000 per year provided the team wins 20 ‘friendlies,’ the minimum number of matches they would play. By contrast, each men’s player would earn $263,320 for the same feat and would still earn $100,000 if the team lost all 20 games. The women receive no extra pay for playing additional matches above 20, while the men earn anywhere between $5,000 and $17,625 for each match beyond 20.” From March 2013 to December 2016, female players made $15,000 for being invited to try out for the USWNT  and making the roster, while men players made $55,000 for making the 2014 roster and would have made $68,750 if they had made it in 2018.

The Crime of Joy

The pay sits at the forefront of the discriminatory practices seen in women’s soccer and, looking deeper, the subtly disparaging remarks and treatment of female athletes is far too common and perpetuates the injustices at hand. Following their victory, members of the USWNT were criticized for their celebration of goals, seen as “over the top” and “disrespectful behavior.”

Abby Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former FIFA Women’s World Cup champion,  took to social media to defend her teammates and directly acknowledged the bigotry in treatment. “Really respecting the game and what you’ve worked for is to do your best at ALL times,” she wrote. “This is a call to @FIFAcom to do more and give more resources for some of these countries. It’s the World Cup folks. Would you say this about the men? Didn’t think so.”

Reuters spoke directly with athletes who agreed with Wambach and refused to have their efforts masked by the critiques, “If anyone wants to come at our team for not doing the right thing, not playing the right way, not being the right ambassador for the sport, they can come at us,” Megan Rapinoe said. “I think our only crime was an explosion of joy last night. If our crime is joy, then we’ll take that.” Co-captain Alex Morgan, when asked about the critical comments, told ESPN that “you can never have everyone love you. For the celebrations — these are goals that we have dreamt of our entire life. I couldn’t have dreamt of scoring five goals in a World Cup.

The Dream Crazier Movement

Despite the “explosion of joy” critique, the ongoing litigation and the media bias, women continue to battle. Women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every single occupation. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research female full-time, year-round workers made only 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2017, a gender wage gap of 20 percent in the United States. For women of color, the disparity is higher. Worldwide, women are paid less than men, in most countries earning on average 60 to 75 percent of men’s wages, according to the World Bank Gender Data Portal.

Through the struggle, women continue to rise, and allies continue to support the movement. In a brilliant advertisement by Nike, tennis champion Serena Williams captures the struggle of women athletes across the globe, “If we show emotion, we’re called dramatic. If we want to play against men, we’re nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, we’re delusional. When we stand for something, we’re unhinged. When we’re too good, there’s something wrong with us. And if we get angry, we’re hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy … So if they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do.”

Our young women deserve better. Our children deserve to see a better example, and as adults it is our moral responsibility to build an inclusive and equitable world where our youngest stars can shine, be acknowledged, be compensated as such, and explode joy in all that they do.

An earlier version of this story first appeared in the author’s blog.

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Carissa Purnell

About Carissa Purnell

Carissa Purnell has a Ph.D. in education. She’s a member of the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System Board of Directors and an activist with a strong passion for soccer and East Salinas.