Ask a casual soccer fan to name a handful of players from the United States Men’s National Team, that woeful organization treading water a tier or 3 below Mexico on the FIFA totem pole. If the person happens to tune into the English Premier League on Saturdays and Sundays, she might know of Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic. That’s about where the men’s team’s mainstream celebrity begins and ends as of 2020.
Meanwhile, I’m going to guess there are thousands of Americans who never watch a soccer match and can still name members of the USWNT. Alex Morgan is familiar to anyone who shops for Coca-Cola or Chapstick. Megan Rapinoe has had more photo-ops with U.S. presidents than Arnold Palmer did. Heck, goalkeeper Hope Solo is still somewhat of a household name, and she’s retired.
At this point, just about everyone who reads the news knows which of the 2 teams is paid more. Often a lot more…to suck most of the time.
In midst of polarizing times U.S. Soccer has now found a way to look ignorant, corrupt, and stupid no matter who you are or what you believe. To a social liberal, U.S. Soccer’s refusal to pay a commensurate wage to its superstar women is a travesty because women always deserve equal pay. A conservative would (or at least should) contend that the more-successful women’s team should be rewarded for its superior performance and commercial marketability. Heck, even the hammer-and-sickle wing of socialists on Twitter must admit that, while maybe it’s a shame the USWNT wasn’t kidnapped in childhood by the People’s Ministry of Sports (to Make Glorious Benefit Of United States), so long as the wicked scourge of humans choosing careers and succeeding at them exists, a group of exceptionally-talented women deserve an equitable crack at it.
It’s hard to say which is more disgraceful – Judge R. Gary Klausner’s pro-U.S. Soccer ruling or the federation’s blatantly sexist trial arguments. What jumps off the ugly spring transcript is U.S. Soccer’s contention that men’s teams are more skilled than women’s teams, betraying either a basic misunderstanding of women’s sports or a willingness to say literally anything to make (or keep) a buck.
Lawyers can argue that a less-marketable men’s team should receive higher pay because male athletes are bigger and faster than female and trans-women athletes. That makes them jerks. But when they argue that the USA women’s side (which must utilize additional skills to overcome the lack of brute force) isn’t as good at passing, defending, and dribbling as the sorry USMNT, well, that’s just whack-a-mole insane.
USMNT soccer has been a running joke for decades. Even if there were men’s footballers more skilled than the USWNT in some way, the U.S. men’s team is not where such players could be found.
I’m optimistic that Pulisic and Sebastian Soto can help the men’s squad improve and gain popularity, but for now, it’s essentially the same outfit that lost to Costa Rica by 4 goals. Meanwhile, the USWNT is a 2-time defending World Cup gold medalist and the undisputed best FIFA side of an entire gender-division. Even the team’s loss to Sweden in the 2016 Summer Olympics is considered a fluke of a result.
The argument that the men’s team occasionally “produces” a higher ticket gross or TV rating is also based on a fallacy. Not only did more Americans watch the 2015 Women’s World Cup than the 2015 NBA Finals, making the contention tenuous at best, but it’s the USMNT’s opponents who are the real draw in men’s fixtures. If the struggling men’s squad plays a friendly against itself, almost nobody cares. The same kind of intramural exhibition from the USWNT can keep supporters on social media lit-up all day.
So where do we go from here? Is U.S. Soccer so chauvinist, so corrupt, and so handsy with the judicial system that there’s nothing for the women to do but play on?
Actually, the answer may be to not play on. Not for a while, anyway.
A Bedtime Story From the Back Pages
Americans like to shrug-off international hockey, and they really like to shrug-off women’s international hockey. More’s the pity. The formats of IIHF and Olympic pond shinny alone are refreshing, to say nothing of the clashes of styles found outside the homogeneity of club leagues. NHL playoff battles are settled mano-a-mano, so to speak, between franchises. Those who lose the crucial head-up series are eliminated. International play is another kind of obstacle course, in which a squad can take a pounding on a given day or week and still rise to win gold.
Besides, if you’re from the United States, your national women’s hockey team rocks. The distaff Yanks have collected IIHF and IOC golds like so many dollar stamps in the 2010s, and anyone who saw the epic World Championship medal round in 2018 knows it’s not because the women’s field is weak or because the Canadian club league folded. Helsinki showed that the worldwide sport is catching up to the U.S. women like Men’s Basketball teams have caught-up to Team USA, except that the ladies ice a “Dream Team” in just about every tournament game and still do not always win.
In 2017 the United States Women’s Hockey Team took a brave risk to protect its own financial viability. The WWC was steadily growing with flourishing nations getting newly-involved in the women’s game. But the USA Hockey paychecks and benefits (or lack thereof) stayed the same all-too often, even as the product soared through the roof with success and put yet another Men’s organization to shame. The U.S. Men’s Hockey Team – despite passing superstar after superstar through its ranks – won its last Olympic gold medals in 1980.
A boycott was organized in late winter, prior to the World Championship set to begin in late March. Women’s players in the hunt for a Team USA roster slot did not actively discourage other players from taking part – rather, participation grew organically, leading to some unexpected outcomes much faster than even the starting-22 itself may have imagined possible.
— HuffPost (@HuffPost) March 19, 2017
USA Hockey got off to a poor start in the negotiations. A series of scab-recruitment emails were sent out to every Yankee hobby player who’d had a cup of coffee with a women’s hockey club, including service workers who’d dabbled in minor college hockey or junior ringette.
Would USAH really have gone to the Worlds with a scab team in tow, losing to Norway and Russia in a half-hearted attempt to buy time and withhold another year of fair wages? Maybe not, but it wasn’t worth the effort anyway. Sometimes the words “bad look” fail the sports blogger completely – USA Hockey had metaphorically pulled its pants down in front of the IIHF and an angry fan base.
All players but a handful declined to replace the boycotting Team USA stars, with all hold-outs joining the boycott following advice from club leadership.
The federation faced a public-relations nightmare. USA Hockey also stood to lose its only #1 ranking in the sport with a forfeit-relegation loss or an unpopular “scab” team. The debate on social media helpfully underscored that women’s pond shinny is not inferior so much as it is different – the women play a non-contact finesse game and are comparable to Judo fighters vs the “MMA” of Men’s hockey. Kendall Coyne-Schofield is a coveted forward in the summer Chicago Pro Hockey League, which is closer to women’s rules than men’s in game-play. Yes, a number of female skaters have missed the score sheet when guest-starring in men’s minor league contests with full-contact rules, but speed and skill can be nullified in those circumstances.
There’s no faster featherweight skater of any gender in the world than Coyne-Schofield, who like Alex Morgan must learn finer skills than a male sniper of wider girth and physical stature in order to withstand hits. Nobody says Sugar Ray Leonard was a poor boxer because he couldn’t have knocked out “Big” George Foreman, and thus it is always weird that the broader public whiffs on the same principle in a gender-awareness context. Success and bragging-rights are as crucial to a national ice hockey program – a good one – as overall ticket-grosses and TV ratings and so on. Therefore, the women’s success had earned a fair reward on merit in addition to progressive ethics. (Sound familiar?)
Then the U.S. Men’s team – or its committed candidates to skate for Team USA in May of 2017 – joined the cause in solidarity.
— WNY Girls Ice Hockey (@WNYGirlsHockey) March 26, 2017
It would be overstating the obvious to recap which side caved-in first. In terms of historical warfare, the U.S. Men’s Team refusing to play in the World Championship was like Russia attacking Japan in 1945.
The final straw that moved USAH to come forward with a better offer may have been based partly on convenience. Not every Team USA superstar is consistently available and interested to play in the men’s hockey WC, potentially the #1 factor in why the United States only wins important medals in women’s ice hockey. But some frustration among the men’s Red, White & Blue roster is also to be expected. Off-season motivational issues are a problem for unsuccessful teams across the board – try homesteading a losing cause for 4 decades running.
For the U.S. women it didn’t matter how or why they had the men’s team’s support – they had it. Now USA Hockey could choose to generously re-negotiate or-else disappear from the world.
The USWNT & USA Hockey agree to a new contract to avert the players' boycott of IIHF World Championships. https://t.co/sHj5GIKOte
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 29, 2017
The women’s squad backed-up its winning poker hand with another world title. That’d be a trick Morgan, Rapinoe and the USWNT could look grand pulling-off 1 of these days.
I submit that the burden-of-proof is on the naysayer to prove why the women’s soccer team cannot learn from recent history and forge a boycott of its own.
All the ingredients are in place for a well-timed boycott to force U.S. Soccer’s shaky hand. A boycott by the women’s team and ensuing media firestorm would cast the USMNT as heels if the men’s roster did not follow the men’s hockey team and join the cause. That mysterious, magical “ratings advantage” supposedly held by the USMNT would come to a sad end…if it ever existed at all in any way. A federation with no gold medal hopes, no popularity for its 1 active senior squad, and 0% effective PR is an organization ready to bargain…even a soccer organization.
As marquee international stars, would the women’s footballers have more to lose with a sit-out strike, as opposed to the professionals of lesser fame on the pond? Maybe. But another slew of factors would likely fall in the athletes’ favor, including the very weird calendar of 2020.
Time to Make it All Mean Something
Guerrilla warfare is about turning your weaknesses into strengths. USWNT members like Rapinoe, who have been around long enough to remember when the United States wasn’t always a prohibitive favorite in the next match, can vouch.
To turn the likely argument against an all-competitions boycott around, it would gain quick momentum for the strike to have been voted into protocol by well-respected leaders of a prominent team. There would be no long, slow burn as was the case for several days during the USA Hockey vs Team USA impasse. A refusal to play from the USWNT would be headline news in hundreds of nations across the globe.
There are always concerns about veteran player X missing out on 1 more chance at the Olympics or World Cup, should a contentious negotiation spill onto prestigious weeks of the cycle. But the next Olympic Games won’t happen until 2021, if at all, and the FIFA women’s cycle is in its New Moon phase following the USWNT’s demolition of another WC field. U.S. Soccer – if faced with a women’s team boycott – would be in the awkward position of scheduling “grand” returns to the pitch for its international squads while not knowing if 50% or even 100% of the athletes would be there.
It’s time for veterans of the USWNT to turn their wild success into something bigger, to become stateswomen of the game. Nobody can do more than speak-out on behalf of a gender or a sport right now anyway.
For instance, Carli Lloyd is 37 years old and nearing retirement. But recently, she took a 6-game loaner with Manchester City and score, oh, just a couple of goals from the midfield position, before returning to kick arse for a 3rd decade in North America. As Mike Greenberg would say, competitively speaking, she has eagled the hole of life.
It’s not the blogger’s place to say Lloyd has already “done it all” in soccer. Whether or not the dynamic veteran is satisfied as a competitor is her agency to decide, but it sure feels like there’s an opportunity to add something special to a legacy by agreeing to stop scoring goals for a few months. Perhaps even the ticking-clock vets of the USWNT would be up to parade on the picket lines in strange times. (6 feet apart, mind you.)
Which brings up another big reason 2020 is the perfect time for a USWNT boycott.
Fair Wages for Gold-Medal Champion USWNT: The Ultimate Silver Lining
Don’t look for WagerBop to diminish the importance of self-care in a national quarantine. But because self-care is so easily converted into entertainment in the social-media age, we’re too-easily lured into thinking COVID-19’s silver linings are limited to personal-growth opportunities.
By forcing hyper-competitive teammates to step away from the national team (and club soccer) for an extended period of time, the scenario could also prompt USWNT leaders stepping out into the spotlight with an ultimatum.
The women cannot simply go on getting taken advantage of – something has to break soon and it’s not like there’s a match next weekend to worry about. For once – just once! – there’s no “U.S. Soccer schedule” or “FIFA schedule” of venues and fixtures. Any hard-and-fast scheduling of matches would have to occur after the USWNT announced its intentions. That’s another important foothold for the team.
If conversations can move beyond the “let’s stay mentally focused for summer friendlies” phase, a bolder new strategy for dealing with U.S. Soccer clownish lawyers and negotiators could emerge.
Striking athletes – especially a group which has dominated the world several times over – would have an advanced daily platform to speak about the unequal playing field it has had to overcome in doing so. If U.S. Soccer expects to rake in any serious cash in the next, oh, 5 to 10 years, it would be well-advised to tack toward the strikers.
A boycott by the USWNT would make excellent use of an otherwise bummer, tragic period in cultural history, and likely come to a fast, gainful resolution.
Take it from a proposition-odds handicapper – it’s (-200) that the FIFA champions would be back on the pitch in summer of 2021, boasting brand-new guaranteed benefits and smiles as wide as Tokyo.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.