Today the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team will wrap up the first round of the World Cup tournament. The Americans have embraced their role as goliath, shellacking their first two opponents 16 goals to nil. But the score isn’t the only thing that’s woefully uneven, which, in this month’s edition of “A Fan’s Notes,” concerns commentator Victor Wishna.
OK. Today is my daughter’s birthday, and I promised her I’d say so, on the air.
Happy birthday, Vivien.
She’s 8. She loves reading and math and Taylor Swift and mac-and-cheese and "Hamilton." And her favorite sport is soccer.
So it sure was swell of FIFA — or whoever does the actual scheduling for the Women’s World Cup — to pick this afternoon for Team USA’s final first-round match.
If you haven’t been paying attention, the top-ranked U.S. Women’s National Team is the reigning World Cup champ, and the favorite to repeat the feat this month in France. So far the Americans have posted two dominating shutouts with essentially two completely different line-ups. As the British newspaper The Guardian put it, “they are the team that everyone wants to watch lose.” Which is just another way of saying, “the team that everyone wants to watch.”
But there’s more than being better than everyone else. There is something else at stake: being equal. Twenty-eight members of Team USA are currently suing their own national soccer federation, alleging “purposeful gender discrimination” in violation of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. Chief among the complaints is the claim that women, at the highest level of U.S. soccer, are paid roughly 38% of what their male counterparts make.
This, despite the fact that the women are far more successful than the men. The 13 goals in their opening rout of Thailand were not just a World Cup record, but more than their male colleagues have scored in the last four World Cup tournaments combined, including last year, when they didn’t even qualify. From TV ratings to Twitter followers, the women’s team is also more popular than the men’s — and more profitable, too, with three times the net earnings last year. The latest women’s final, in 2015, was the most-watched soccer match in American television history.
It will be months, perhaps, before the lawsuit works its way through federal court. But this women’s World Cup, with its unprecedented media attention, has shined the brightest spotlight yet on the inequities between male athletes and the women who play the same games. It has become a referendum on women’s sports in general.
And look; I understand, no one really needs one more man’s opinion on this matter. But indulge me, as someone who follows sports rather closely, in a little bit of fansplaining.
You see, the U.S. women’s team is among the best in any sport in history — but also more exciting to watch. Forget the scoreboard; each goal was dramatic, each exuberant celebration — for which, of course, they were critiqued — was genuine and contagious.
So, as a fan, these are players I want to keep happy.
And yes, you could argue, “great, but it’s sports, not minimum-wage labor.” Getting paid to play a game that 8-year-olds love? The world has bigger problems.
But this matters because the world is watching — from the stands in Paris, to the couch in our living room. And if this World Cup is a referendum on women’s sports, then it’s a referendum on all of us.
Look, I don’t care if my daughter grows up to be a professional athlete. Frankly, I’m hoping that one day she cures cancer. Or drops out of college to launch a billion-dollar startup. Ultimately, whatever makes her happy.
But I sure as hell don’t want her to come of age in a world where her efforts are valued at a fraction of what a man earns for the same work — especially when she’s better at it.
So, of course we’ll be cheering for Team USA in today’s match against Sweden, and I hope they go all the way. To the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Routs are fun to watch. But any soccer fan, from age 8 to 88, will tell you the most exciting goal, and the most important, in any game is the one that ties it all up, the one they call the equalizer.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.