The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team—A Case Study In The Collective Power Of Women And Doing The Impossible
Mar 4, 2022
It’s been quite the week. We’re still days out from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which isn’t going as expected for the Third Rome. The return of full-scale war to the European continent, on a scale rarely witnessed anywhere since the end of World War II—which, you may recall, forged the modern world—understandably has the world on edge, even relative to the non-stop roller coaster of the last few years. So, rather than subject everyone to even more of the same, let’s take a different tack and talk about something wonderful: women’s soccer. YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - JULY 30: Crystal Dunn #2, Rose Lavelle #16, Christen Press #11, Megan Rapinoe #15 ... [+] and Alex Morgan #13 of Team United States celebrate following their team's victory in the penalty shoot out after the Women's Quarter Final match between Netherlands and United States on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at International Stadium Yokohama on July 30, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
It’s no secret that the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) is one of the most dominant forces in the entire sport—and has been for decades. Indeed, the USWNT was critical in catapulting the popularity of soccer in the U.S. in the 90s when we hosted both the first Olympics to include women’s soccer and the third FIFA Women’s World Cup. To fully understand the impossible feat the USWNT pulled off, one has to understand where it all began. The team first formed in the mid-80s, with a squad of mostly teenagers (including a 15-year-old Mia Hamm). In 1991, it played in and won the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup; though at the time, it was actually called the Women's World Championship for the M&M's Cup—quite a mouthful—as FIFA didn’t feel comfortable associating the World Cup brand with a women’s tournament. The team became soccer’s first ever women’s world champions, and were greeted with a grand total of three fans at the airport upon their return to the U.S. In 1996, the U.S. hosted the first Olympic Games to include women’s soccer. Leading up to the Olympics, however, the USWNT found itself in its first dispute with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) over, what else, but equal pay discrimination—the women’s team wanted the same bonus structure as the men, which awarded bonuses for any medal earned. U.S. soccer refused, only offering a bonus if the team won gold. In a prime example of what can happen when women come together, star midfielder and USWNT captain Julie Foudy called up none other than Billie Jean King who told her the only way to solve this problem was to use the collective leverage they have as a team. And so the squad refused to play, boycotting its Olympic training camp. Responding to the boycotters (which included hall-of-famers Michelle Akers, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Carin Gabarra, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck, and Briana Scurry), the federation said, “ We cannot reward mediocrity ” (sound familiar?). A compromise was eventually reached, and the USWNT took home its first Olympic gold medal. The team’s Olympic victory launched women’s soccer into the limelight, with Mia Hamm becoming the face of women’s soccer in mainstream America. In 1999, the U.S. would host the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time. The tournament was initially going to be played in small stadiums throughout the country, but following the success of women’s soccer at the 1996 Olympics, the venues were changed to some of the largest stadiums in professional sports. The team made it its mission to get as many people excited about soccer as possible (and to fill those stadiums), running youth training camps, staying long after every single match to sign autographs, even selling tickets on the sidelines. Headlines read, “What if They Threw a World Cup and Nobody Came?” And a reporter actually accused the players of lying when strong ticket sale numbers were announced at a pre-tournament press conference. But when the ‘99ers—as they’re called—pulled up to their first game of the tournament at a sold-out Giants Stadium, tailgaters and all, they knew they had pulled it off. The 1999 squad went into that summer’s World Cup with a grassroots campaign—doing its own marketing, staying late after every game to greet fans, and signing every autograph—to drum up excitement and get fans to attend games; it ended in a sold-out Rose Bowl as champions and living legends. Following their iconic victory, the ‘99ers launched the very first professional women’s soccer league, successfully fought for the team’s first collective bargaining agreement with the USSF, and in doing so, made soccer a viable career for women. MORE FOR YOU
The USWNT has a long-standing culture of battling for victory not only on the field, but off the field as well. From the historic ‘99ers to today’s team of icons in their own right, and every step along the way, the teamwork and grit of women forged what has now become a national treasure and thriving global industry. Yet, for the entire era of USWNT dominance, legends like Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, and Briana Scurry, as well as contemporary icons like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, have been paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make. At least until last week, when U.S. Soccer settled a pay discrimination lawsuit brought by the players for a cash payout of $24 million in back pay and a commitment to equalize pay going forward. The settlement is a hard-won victory for women’s soccer, women’s labor, and women’s fight for economic equality. The USSF was not only forced to pay up, but also had a whole lot to make up for in the court of public opinion after it denigrated some of its most popular players and argued that women players were less skilled and worked less demanding jobs—a tall case to make against one of the winningest teams in soccer history, with players who are already legends in their own time. And yet, as absurd as it sounds, that argument nearly worked; in 2020, a federal judge rejected the team’s equal pay claims, ruling that, well, this is what they agreed to, and besides, the star players often get lucrative sponsorship deals so why are they complaining? Nevermind, of course, the double standard it imposes—that, all things being equal, women deserve lower wages than less successful men—and the fact that countless players who aren’t Megan Rapinoe have to make due with what they’re given. The “this is the contract they signed” argument was especially galling considering that there aren’t exactly other options for pro-level athletes; there’s not, say, an alternative U.S. Women’s National Team. Anyone who wants to compete has to take the contract they’re offered or hang up their cleats. Nor, at the time the lawsuit began, was there a well-established professional league for women’s soccer. Women players had few places, if anywhere, to turn, and so they argued in their appeal that, were they under the same pay structure as men, they would have made a lot more money (particularly in regards to their differing bonus structures). From a workplace equality standpoint, it seems obvious: employers can't pay a woman doing the same job as a man less simply because she is a woman. And yet, that is what the USSF was openly doing and arguing; in 2020, U.S. Soccer argued that it was “indisputable science” that women soccer players were inferior to men. That claim ignited widespread condemnation, public backlash, and just days later, the USSF president Carlos Cordeiro resigned. It’s worth pointing out that following Cordeiro’s resignation, the two parties were able to reach settlements under the current leadership of USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone—a former USWNT player, World Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and one of the famed ‘99ers who negotiated the team's first collective bargaining agreement in 2000. It's unsettling that, even in 2022, claims that women deserve less pay for equal work are entertained at all. Here, you have two teams playing the same game for the same organization at the same level. Both are part of U.S. Soccer. Both compete in international games. Both are supposed to represent the pinnacle of achievement and skill. But one team is made up of women, and that team just happens to have a different, less lucrative pay structure. It’s ridiculous, of course, or it would be if it weren’t hand in hand with continuing pay inequality for women generally. And while we should be pleased that Rapinoe and company ultimately came out on top, it should also rightfully infuriate that it took six years of soccer’s leadership arguing that, well, it’s fine because women just aren’t as skilled, don’t work as hard, and don’t bring in that much revenue anyway, all of which are demonstrably false. That’s a profound level of disrespect I have trouble squaring with the notion, so fretted over these days as states around the country ban trans women from competition, that sports are about achievement and merit over everything else. The failure to reward women for achievements that the men’s team could only dream about is injustice on its face. So, the good news is that women won. The bad news is that they had to fight at all. The worse news is just how much resistance they faced for daring to call out unequal treatment. And while the woes of professional sports stars are hardly as urgent as Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine, consider this an invitation to consider something. If sports stars—some of the most visible, celebrated people in the country—face pay discrimination so unrelenting it takes decades and a high-profile court case to resolve it, imagine what’s happening to women without the privilege of a global, public platform who have to survive in the economy sans a sponsorship deal with Wheaties. We still have a very long way to go. But the fight continues, and every victory demands celebration and reflection. While some may see this as a shallow victory—proof that women have to be the absolute best of the best to even be considered as equals—I see it as testament to the scores of women who got us here: a monument to the dogged perseverance and collective power of women that spans centuries. The USWNT carried itself from teenage obscurity in the late 80s to soccer legends fighting for every inch of progress through the 90s and early aughts to today’s worldwide superstars, all while making significant strides toward economic equality for women in soccer, sports, and beyond. That journey—every single victory on and off the field—was hard-fought and earned. And that multigenerational team of women has itself—and the millions of little girls and boys cheering them on—to thank for that. This win affirms what I know to be true: when we work as a team, women can achieve the impossible. Follow me on LinkedIn .