I’d like to say that sports are divorced from politics or from social issues in general, but the truth is they’re not. They never have been. Sports are a cultural phenomenon in that they motivate groups of people to carry out communal gestures and engage in agreed-upon behaviors and actions specific to that group (sorry to go all anthropological on you there). But political or religious groupings are the same—that’s why sports are just as much a part of the social fabric as rallies, parades, and all the rah-rah-America stuff we just spent dealing with this past week.
That’s why the USWNT winning the World Cup yesterday matters. Because this isn’t just dominance on the pitch, although that alone deserves to be celebrated. This is the wage gap come to life in the starkest manner. It proves that women must still be twice as good to even have the chance to be paid equally. And in this case it’s more than twice as good—pick a hyperbole to describe the difference between the men’s and women’s sides. The USMNT made it to the Gold Cup final this year, but they certainly haven’t come anywhere close to four fucking World Cups, including two consecutive. Need I remind you of their last World Cup debacle?
And these women had to bring their employer to court to even have a shot at equal pay, which, if THEY can’t receive equal pay for equal work (I’m being generous in that definition), then what hope is there for the rest of us? Their success at their job is undeniable, and they’ve met all the metrics their employer supposedly uses to determine compensation, yet they’ve been denied pay equity. At least they have the benefit of international acclaim and legal recourse to a class-action lawsuit, neither of which most women can say. The worst part, however, is that it still may fall through. One would like to believe that, especially given this current performance, they’ll win their lawsuit and force their employer to comply with the law since that employer wouldn’t do so in the first place, but given where we’re at today, even that victory is far from certain.
What do I mean by “where we’re at today?” I mean the general worsening of civil rights. When states across this country pass bills banning women from determining medical decisions about what is going on inside their own bodies—that’s where we’re at today. When the point of those laws is to deprive all women in every state of that decision-making power—by fiat of a handful of people including two accused sexual predators—that’s where we’re at today. Don’t think for a second that these ever-so-ironically named “heartbeat” bills are about protecting babies in Georgia or Ohio or any certain state…the entire point is to have them struck down so that appeals can reach the Supreme Court and challenge Roe v. Wade.
And if/when this dehumanization of women becomes the law of the land, women will die because of it. I don’t know if you know what an ectopic pregnancy is, but women will die from them—both in the short-term due to these laws and in the long-term should Roe be overturned. They’re not survivable, for the mother or fetus, and if the fetus isn’t aborted, the mother dies. That’s it. And that’s just the most immediate medical threat, not even broaching the larger subject of a person’s right to determine what happens literally inside of you. We’ve been reduced to pussies to be grabbed in the national discourse, and had male-dominated legislatures pass laws requiring doctors to penetrate us with medical equipment against our will, before we even got to the aforementioned bills. It’s all an assault on bodily autonomy and the basic freedom to live your life.
That’s why this win matters. This is a victory by women who are unapologetic about their greatness. Women who are funny. Women who demand to be treated equally. Women who won’t deign to let yet another accused sexual predator take credit for their achievements and make it all about him with a stupid photo op at the White House. It’s women who have the balls to do what some male athletes won’t do when it comes to standing up to a bully for that photo op. And it’s women who are unquestionably more successful at what they do than their male counterparts, but who are at risk of losing not just an equal wage but equal rights, thanks to political developments in this country. This victory comes at a time when we’re losing so much, and stand to lose even more, yet it reminds everyone of what women can and do achieve when they’re free to pursue what they want with their lives.
Sports are an escape from this miserable world, and it hurts to be reminded of their political implications sometimes. It would be so much easier to separate the two, but it can’t really be done. And in every historical period, any loosening of social and legal restrictions on women inevitably came with a reactionary backlash (see: late Renaissance/Counter-Reformation Europe and post-WWII America for starters), so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the same reaction now, post- the supposed “women’s liberation” movement of the late 20th century.
But that means there’s no getting around it here: this USWNT matters, not just because of what they’ve won, but because of how they symbolize the opportunity and respect that we all deserve. Because of how they stand up for women’s and LGBTQ rights under threat. Because young girls whose mothers voted for Trump need to see another side of this society. And because of how it occurred with the backdrop of our achievements and our progress being in such danger now.