As you may have witnessed, yesterday the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) won their third World Cup. I am proudly a part of the generation who came of age when the 1999 USWNT survived an excruciating set of penalty kicks to cinch its second World Cup Title. I was ten, but I remember it all – Michelle Aker’s hair; Mia Hamm’s dry-fit uniform shirts that, like every other clothing item in the 90s, was way too big for her; and, of course, the Brandi Chastain kick and subsequent shirt ripping heard around the world.
Yesterday, the dream of the 90s was alive (not too far from Portland) in Vancouver. By now, you’ve probably watched the endless vines of all five USWNT goals. You’ve probably marveled at Carli Lloyd’s sick hat-trick at the 16 minute mark, resulting in the second best sports-related Wikipedia page edit ever* when her position of “Midfielder” became “President of the United States.”
And yes, you’ve probably already read the subsequent, very justified outrage from outlets like Jezebel describing the jarring disparity in pay between male athletes and female athletes. The argument goes like this: The 2015 Women’s World Cup Final posted the largest television ratings of any World Cup game but women still get paid substantially less than men to play the game. Cue the ridicule of the FIFA World Cup Champions (not even the men’s World Cup Champion because the male game is normative!) being paid 35 million relative to the paltry women’s purse of 2 million dollars. Much of the analysis seems to insinuate that we should pay female athletes more, like, right now.
Well, hold up platonic girlfriends. Let’s back it up. Look, I’m a sports-watching feminist who spent my morning run pretending I was Carli Lloyd while listening to Ricky Martin’s La Copa De La Vida and the NBC Olympics theme on repeat (literally). But, we’re heading into some simplistic, Dubya-esque territory if we think that equitable pay alone will resolve our collective attitude around women’s sports. The issue of equitable pay for women in sports is a band-aid to the bigger issues we consistently fail to address – how we watch sports and foster sustainable viewership for our female athletes.
Pro-Tip 1: Let’s be More Than Just Fairweather Female Sports Fans
For all the discussions about how popular the final game of the Women’s World Cup was, let’s also keep in mind the circumstances – it was a final round, taking place on a holiday weekend, with the odds heavily in favor the Americans, featuring teams that we both fought against and allied with during World War II (England, Germany, and Japan). It’s the bait of bandwagoners, the stuff memes are made of.
What has not been discussed is how, aside from World Cup Tournaments, women’s soccer leagues have had a difficult time gaining traction in the United States. Little millennial girls like myself may have rushed to Mervyn’s for a pair of Umbro soccer shorts and a black sports bra we had yet to grow into, but since 1999 there have been three attempts to establish a women’s professional soccer league – the Women’s United Soccer Association (which folded after two seasons), the Women’s Professional Soccer League (which folded after five seasons), and currently the National Women’s Soccer League (founded in 2013, still in action). The culprits of league demise is a vicious cycle of low attendance and a subsequently resource-strapped league.
In many ways, the first step to increasing a female athlete’s salary is for all of us to show up to games slathered in the most obnoxious body and face paints from start to finish – not just when Carli Lloyd hits three goals in less than 15 minutes during the biggest show in women’s sports, but when her team, the Houston Dash, are in town to kick it (pun intended). The same can be said about the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), whose season is vastly truncated compared to their male counterparts. But, how can I complain about length when even a die-hard basketball fan like myself has yet to attend a WNBA game?
Pro-Tip 2: Let’s Change the Way We Think About Sports
If you think about what is generally considered the most interesting parts of games, much of it has to do with physical might – the home run in baseball, the hail mary pass in football, the slam dunk in basketball, the off-the-block-world-record –breaking-six-second flash of the men’s 100 meter dash. Defense wins games, but it’s fucking boring and oohhh, look at Blake Griffin do a 360 layup!
The argument has been oft-posed is that women’s sports is vastly less interesting (and therefore less popular) because women are slower, weaker, and it’s not a dunk, Brittney Griner, until you mindlessly do it over an entire gospel choir and a Kia. In this line of argumentation, women’s sports is a failed institution because the intent of sports is to showcase the strongest, the fastest, and the most powerful.
Even if women are generally slower and weaker than men (at this juncture of history at least), one of the failings of this logic is that power, strength, and speed alone is enough to win a game. If this were true, Colin Kaepernick would be the superior quarterback to his dough-ier brethren, Tom Brady and ROTFLMAO at that sentiment. Arguably, much of sports is about strategy, intelligence, and technical skill – a chess match-like series of adjustments that you can’t necessarily see. And, strength itself isn’t inherently entertaining. In a sport such as tennis, the men’s and women’s competitions are equally popular despite the slower serve speeds of female tennis players. With slower serve speeds, women rally more, creating a game just as entertaining as watching one dude serve at 100 miles per hour while the other dude stands there as dumbfounded as Rick Perry during a presidential debate.
In other words, let’s change the idea that sports is just all Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger, says the Olympic motto) and amend that with “I’m also smarter, bitches.”**
For those of us who aren’t professional football players, gymnasts, golfers, or ice skaters, our translators of sports nuance and technique are adept television color commentators. In sports commentary, there are two types of commentators: the play-by-play, black-and-white announcer and the color commentator who adds layers to the viewing experience by contributing analysis, background information, historical context, and a breakdown of strategic decisions. The latter contributes “colorful” flourishes that can really add depth to the sports watching experience.
If you ever want an example of how great color commentary adds appreciation to the game watching experience, think of every Olympic ice skating program you’ve ever watched. You’ll probably hear Scott Hamilton’s voice and his commentary on a supposedly mundane twist of an ice skater’s foot – pointing out that this skater probably took 5 years to learn that shit and was worked like a Romanian gymnast until it was painfully perfected, so yeah that move is fucking hard. I couldn’t see it, but now I know.
Great commentary and women’s sports go hand-in-hand in showing us what we don’t see, what weshould appreciate, and emphasizes the often incredible historical circumstances these women are operating in. Take, for instance, the oft-mentioned 5-4 penalty kick shoot out in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. I would advise watching the entire 15-minute clip embedded below if you enjoy tingly nostalgic feelings running through your body, but if you’re strapped for time, pay attention to the comment made at the 8:31 mark.
It’s all about placement, says the commentator about saves in the women’s soccer game. Female goal keepers are not athletic enough to make saves on the far right or left netting. But, that is what makes the save from Briana Scurry so incredible – she’s not depending solely on speed, but rather a reading of the opposing player’s placement.
Pro-Tip 3: Let’s Talk About Women’s Sports Publicly
Each morning on my daily commute, I flip between NPR, yelling at inept drivers, and 95.7 The Game – a San Francisco-based sports radio channel that I love, love, love. I listened for about two hours today on my day off – it was less than 12 hours after the World Cup win and not a single mention of the win. The talk of the town was the sixth straight loss by the Giants. Are you kidding me? Six straight losses overshadowed one huge global win for the United States.
During the day, I flip through the aggregate sports news site Bleacher Report occasionally for the day’s stream of sports happenings. We are less than 24 hours removed from the World Cup win and here’s the top news for BR:
That’s right – DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul aren’t BFF and didn’t sign HAGS in their yearbooks, so Jordan peaced out. Really? The USWNT wins the World Cup and it is second to the literally fourtharticle written about how Chris Paul didn’t high-five DeAndre Jordan enough – seriously, that’s what all these articles are about.
On my feed for the Grantland Sports podcast by ESPN, there was a podcast created on Thursday, July 2 specifically about the impending trades during NBA Free Agency, but absolutely nothing yet on the Women’s World Cup. The sight of a bunch of rotund white men sitting by their phones and faxing contracts to one another to fill out their rosters is more exciting to the general population than the Women’s World Cup win.
In sports, money is tied to advertisers, who anticipate viewership, which is often directly correlated to media coverage. It may not be in this sequence of connections, but media coverage matters significantly. But, it’s men that consistently call-in to their favorite sports shows on the radio, thereby dictating what is talked about. It’s men that write a majority of what is published in sports media. It’s mostly men that do the interviews, that write in the comments section of Bleacher Report articles, that host the podcasts and the radio shows.
Let’s go to the games, but let’s also do what women do exceptionally well – talk about sports like it’s a bottomless mimosa brunch on a Sunday morning of a three-day weekend and one of your girlfriends just got dumped. Talk so that others will listen, engage, and will feel compelled to watch.
On a slightly related note, I’d really like to put a moratorium on a rather stupid statement used far too frequently in sports media and fandom: “[Insert shitty player here] plays like a girl” i.e. “Dwight Howard plays like a girl.” The statement is, in the words of George Orwell, a dying metaphor that has “lost all evocative power and…[is] used to save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” After all, how can playing like a girl mean playing horribly when we have women like Serena Williams and Mone Davis? That’s just lazy writing.
Pro-Tip 4: Let’s Play Sports.
There’s no better way to love sports more than playing them. I follow professional basketball from the day of the NBA Draft, through the regular season, and into the deep, deep playoff runs because I love the game. It’s a love that I’ve had since the age of five – deepened with my first regulation sized leather basketball, to all those adolescent summer hours spent in my garage teaching myself to spin a basketball on my index finger, to my first team game in middle school where felt the scratchy mesh of a maroon and white jersey against my skin.
I love the hollowed out way a basketball sounds when it hits a wood floor. I love the constant feeling of heat during a game – the sweat dripping down your face as you stand by the sidelines, the air conditioner hitting you with one last spurt of air as anxiously stand waiting for the time to enter the game. I love the screeching sounds of frantic rubber soles looking for a space in the lane or an open stretch of court for the perfect, nothing but net jumper.
I love all of these things and feel so intimately tied to them that I always feel, though I’m not very good anymore, that I’m a part of the game, constantly on a team with other women, fighting for the win. And I write about my personal experiences not to say that I have an authority over the subject, but because I know other women who have also spent their formative years entrenched in the glorious, painful, and wonderful world of organized sports. Let’s*** play so that we can cheer, and watch, and comment, and be represented and show that our love of the game is not lesser because of our gender. Let’s play and participate because that’s one of many factors that will sustain women’s sports and open the door to equitable pay.
*The best sports-related Wikipedia page edit ever is when LA Laker’s coach Bryon’s Scott’s page described him as a “retired American basketball player and the worst coach of all time.”
**Not sure how to translate that into Greek. Sorry, kids.
***The second person plural call to action in this piece is a call to both men and women.