COLUMN: When sport is more than sport: The U.S. Women call us to a better society

I am not, by even the most liberal definition, a “sports guy.” So, please, do not take this as a sports column.

But, sometimes the games played for our amusement mean something much more. Sometimes, sport calls us to examine the fiber of our society, and to take a principled stand for its betterment. That is the case with the U.S. Women’s National Team victory in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The U.S. Women’s repeat victory and fourth overall title is momentous on its own merits. But what these ladies have accomplished — are accomplishing — is more important than just being crazy dominant in their sport.

The final on Sunday was the most-watched soccer game, men’s or women’s, on English-language television in the U.S. since the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final. Nike has reported the 2019 women’s stadium home jersey is the top-selling soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, ever sold in one season on their website. Seeing men and boys wearing the jersey of a women’s team is a tremendous blow for equality, and against our society’s gender barriers.

But, their impact extends far beyond the pitch, to shine a light on our nation’s systemic inequality and the gender pay gap. Some take offense at the team using their World Cup win as a platform for such advocacy, but we should remember they are following a long, hallowed tradition of athletes advocating for justice and equality.

Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Games will always be remembered more as a rebuke of Hitler and Nazism than as just a great showing on the track. Jackie Robinson was a great ballplayer. He was a far greater man for breaking down race barriers in our divided country. The same can be said for Kathrine Switzer for breaking the gender barrier in the 1967 Boston Marathon, Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to Vietnam the same year, and Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ raised-fist protest during their medal ceremony in the 1968 Summer Olympics.

There have been countless others. And yes, we should include among them Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling protests follow the example of the 1973 Brown University cheerleaders and Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996. Teams shied away from both Kaepernick and Abdul-Rauf after their protests, and in 2001 Ku Klux Klan symbols were found at Abdul-Rauf’s home after it was burned to the ground.

Speaking out in favor of the marginalized and oppressed always draws the ire of the powerful and advantaged. I suspect U.S. Women’s captain Megan Rapinoe, an outspoken advocate for LBGTQ rights and gender equity, knew that long before vandals spray-painted derogatory slurs on posters bearing her image after the team’s ticker-tape parade in New York City on Wednesday.

Reflecting on the backlash surrounding his protest, Kaepernick said, “To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” For Rapinoe and her teammates, LGBTQ rights, pay equity and social justice in general are bigger than fútbol. And they aren’t looking the other way.

They underscored their focus on equity and justice during their parade on Wednesday, with a banner on one of the team’s floats, which read simply: “Parades are cool; equal pay is cooler.”

Equal pay would be cool. But it is an elusive goal for American women. On average, American women are paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to men — just 63 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for black and Latina women. The gaps are even worse for the USWNT women

The total prize money from FIFA for the 2019 Women’s World Cup was just 7.5% of the Men’s World Cup prize in 2018. As the champions, the USWNT were awarded $4 million in prize money, compared to $38 million for last year’s men’s champions.

The USWNT has reportedly filed suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over the pay gap. That suit is expected to go into mediation, according to The Wall Street Journal. In the meantime, these amazing athletes have inspired women, girls and (far too few) men to take up the fight for equal pay, for all women, everywhere; to take up the fight for LGBTQ equality; to take up the fight for equality and social justice in general.

For inspiring us in this way, the women of our national team have made themselves into everything misogynists hate: they are women, they are successful, they are outspoken, and they refuse to kowtow to a patriarchy that seeks to deny them equal pay and equal treatment under the law.

But, the champions of the World Cup aren’t sinking to the level of those who would keep them, and so many others, repressed. No. They inspire not with hate, but with love, and grace and an indomitable spirit that demands we strive for a more just, equal and peaceful society.

Megan Rapinoe captured their spirit succinctly at the parade on Wednesday, in what should be the rallying cry of all who want to see our society transformed for the better.

“This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better,” she said. “We have to love more and hate less. Listen more and talk less. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.”

Neal is a News & Eagle columnist and staff writer. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com, on Facebook and Twitter @JamesNealwriter and online at jamesrneal.com.

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