We expect athletes to win, and to abase themselves when they lose. We expect them to play through pain, and to come back from injury in six weeks if the trainers say the time frame is six to eight. We expect them to answer questions thoughtfully, even when those questions aren’t formulated as questions.
When those athletes are women, they’re expected to deal with all that and shrug off trolls who tell them to get into the kitchen. And when those women are on the U.S. national soccer team, the expectations heaped upon them are yet more ludicrous. These players are supposed to beat all comers in every tournament they enter, all while serving as role models to the nation’s children and leading a fight for working women (including themselves) to be treated with respect.
The women of U.S. soccer, in other words, have been set up to fail, which is why it’s so remarkable that they hardly ever do. Both on and off the field, they make the heavy burdens they’re asked to carry appear weightless. The U.S. women’s national team has maneuvered its way through the 2019 World Cup with discipline and joy. They’re playing for their nation, their fans, and themselves, and if you can’t see that, then you don’t understand sports or what it means to respect the flag and the country.
To appreciate what the U.S. women are doing in this World Cup, you first need to understand that the Women’s World Cup didn’t exist when the team’s 30-year-old star Alex Morgan was born. FIFA finally backed an official world championship for women in 1991, though it only blessed the tournament with the World Cup moniker retroactively. (At the time, it was known as the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.) As Lindsay Pieper explains in an excellent overview, the games in that inaugural event, which was held in China, were shortened to 80 minutes—“they were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90,” joked U.S. forward April Heinrichs—and were televised in the U.S. on tape delay on a long-forgotten network called SportsChannel America. The USWNT won it all, beating Norway in the final behind two goals from Michelle Akers. “We’d gone through this incredible thing, and we come home and it’s like The Twilight Zone,” Akers would later tell a reporter. “Nobody knew what was going on.” After that triumph, Julie Foudy was nearly forced to quit the team because she couldn’t scratch together enough money to support herself.
The Women’s World Cup would go mainstream in 1999, thanks to Akers, Foudy, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and their U.S. teammates, who beat China on penalty kicks in front of a crowd of 90,000-plus at the Rose Bowl and a domestic television audience that peaked at 40 million. Five years later, FIFA president Sepp Blatter would say that the game would get more popular if the players wore tighter shorts.
This has been the pattern for women’s soccer: steady progress interrupted by a stream of indignities. Four years ago, the Women’s World Cup was played on artificial turf despite the protests of the participants, while the men’s under-20 World Cup was conducted on natural grass. This year, FIFA has scheduled Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final for the same day as the men’s Copa America and Gold Cup finals, a move that Megan Rapinoe has rightly called “ridiculous and disappointing.”
Even as their accomplishments are diminished and undermined, female players are judged more harshly than their male counterparts—their looks scrutinized, their celebrations policed. “There is some sort of double standard for females in sports to feel like we have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate but not too much,” Morgan said after drawing criticism for her tea-drinking goal celebration during the United States’ semifinal win over England. “You see men celebrate all over the world in big tournaments, you know, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is.”
It’s tough to decide what’s more lovable, Morgan’s original England-mocking celebration or the fact that, in the run-up to a World Cup final, she defended her honor by invoking the phrase “grabbing their sacks.” (Also, Sophie Turner knows what’s up.) Rapinoe, for her part, hasn’t cowered in the face of Donald Trump’s attacks on her patriotism, countering that she’s “very deeply American” because she believes we live in a great country that should “always strive to be better.” She also told reporters, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever. That’s science right there.”
Given the fact that the Women’s World Cup is held just once every four years, it would be understandable for the USWNT to do whatever they possibly could to avoid distractions—or, at least, what the sports media typically labels distractions. Instead, Morgan, Rapinoe, and everyone else on the roster has been defiantly human, speaking their minds about the president and goal celebrations and, uh, the science of gayness. They’ve refused to see a pressure-packed tournament as a joyless slog, one in which they must take a vow of silence as they trudge toward victory.
If they did all that celebrating and talking and got beat on the field, they’d be criticized for losing focus and failing to come through in the clutch. That criticism would be dumb, but it’s the kind of stupidity athletes are subjected to when they dare to be interesting. But at this point, that’s all just a hypothetical. They haven’t lost and show no signs of losing. They’re the USWNT, after all.
The U.S. has made it to at least the semifinal round in all eight editions of the Women’s World Cup, playing in the final match five times and winning three titles. (On Sunday against the Netherlands, they’ll be favored to make it four.) This is an absurd record, one that’s become progressively more absurd every quadrennium. Two weeks ago, Eric Betts argued in Slate that this is the best U.S. women’s soccer team ever, but that it would have to overcome the best teams ever from Spain, France, and England. That’s exactly what the USWNT has done, brushing aside a succession of talented opponents, all of whom were highly motivated to dethrone the reigning champs. “There’s always a target on your back,” head coach Jill Ellis said before her team’s quarterfinal win. “Some teams will visit pressure. But we live there.”
In France, Ellis’ team has looked at home. And back home in the U.S., its exploits have fueled record TV ratings and jersey sales. Win or lose, it’d be nice if these American heroes got the respect they deserved when they returned stateside—not just with a one-off parade, but with equal pay from their federation and a well-funded, well-supported domestic league. But if history is any guide, they should expect much less.
Last month, Rapinoe told the Washington Post’s Liz Clarke about what she called the team’s “double-earn.” “I have to do everything I have to do on the field. Then I have to do everything else to prove to you that that’s enough,” Rapinoe said. “I have to somehow justify myself or convince you that what I just did was amazing. And I already just did it.”
The women of the U.S. national team don’t need to justify anything at this point, and anyone who hasn’t already been convinced of that probably isn’t worth convincing. Actually, let’s forget equal pay. Give them whatever they want, with interest. They’ve earned it, and a whole lot more.