Some watching felt a sense of unease with the lopsided score. Others were put off by the U.S. women’s continued celebration of their later goals, particularly by veteran players. Former Canadian national team members called the U.S. team’s actions “unnecessary” and “disgraceful,” suggesting that the players had erred by not pulling back on offense or by failing to temper their enthusiasm for scoring goals.
But the U.S. women didn’t really misbehave on Tuesday. The backlash to the final score — and the lopsided score itself — is a product of the way we treat women’s sports differently from men’s. Many of the traits valued in sports are violations of the qualities we expect women to embody. The result is that women athletes face a double standard: People still react negatively when women express the competitiveness and aggression that are routine in men’s sports.
This has been the case since long before the World Cup began. University of New Mexico soccer defender Elizabeth Lambert made the news in 2009 for a foul that would never have merited media attention if committed in men’s college soccer. Tennis star Serena Williams’s behavior has frequently been the subject of unfair evaluations: In 2009, she was fined $10,000 for cursing at a judge during a U.S. Open semifinal while Roger Federer’s similar language two days later received less public notice and a lower fine. Celebration, too, has come under scrutiny. Just over a week ago, Oklahoma State softball standout Samantha Show received both praise and condemnation for a decisive bat flip following a home run in the women’s College World Series. Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s Elijah MacNamee hit a three-run home run on Sunday to clinch his team’s trip to the men’s College World Series. He triumphantly flipped his bat to nothing but acclaim.
Women cross the line into what’s decried as “poor” sportsmanship more quickly than men — and they face greater sanction for similar actions. Women, far more than men, are asked to rein in their emotions and demonstrate “class” as they compete in sport. These demands go well beyond the boundaries of fair play; instead, they reflect powerful gender expectations of women’s friendliness, nurturance and humility. Ultimately, the backlash against the U.S. women’s soccer team represents a form of social control that protects the long-standing perception of sport as somehow a uniquely masculine endeavor most appropriate for men.
And these gender expectations don’t just circulate in social media reactions to a lopsided win. They are also a central part of how the Women’s World Cup is being marketed. Commercial advertisements produced by FIFA and Nike highlight how the players inspire girls, for instance by featuring players holding hands with girls and encouraging them to “dream with us.” What these videos communicate is that the value of women’s soccer lies as much in connecting with youth as in athletic excellence, a framing of women’s sports that draws upon gender stereotypes. These ads reinforce the idea that women are ubiquitously devoted to children.
My research has found that many U.S. women in professional soccer embrace outreach to youth as a meaningful part of their jobs. But why is this a part of their jobs at all? Although certainly many kids admire the talents of male professional athletes, “role model” is fundamentally not the major selling point of major men’s tournaments. And as recent allegations of rape against elite male players like Brazil’s Neymar and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo make clear, we would do well not to present men’s stars as examples for youth to follow.
But beyond the goal celebrations, the goals themselves in the U.S.-Thailand game also reflected how women’s soccer has been treated differently than men’s soccer internationally. Women around the world have received persistently low investment and disparate treatment from FIFA and from national soccer federations, whose practices clash with their nonprofit statuses and missions to grow the sport. Sexism in FIFA is certainly nothing new. In 2004, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter suggested that women could wear “tighter shorts” to generate interest in their play, and he made a similar argument in a podcast interview this year. Women’s games were scheduled on more dangerous turf fields through the 2015 World Cup. And although FIFA has doubled the total prize money for the women’s tournament to $30 million, increases in men’s World Cup prize money have only widened the prize gap since 2015.
The U.S. women are fighting an ongoing, high-profile battle for pay equality, filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation before the tournament. But other women’s teams — like Thailand’s — have received even less overall investment on the part of their federations. The Thailand women’s team exists in part due to the support of a benefactor outside of the Thailand soccer federation entirely, a reality also true for the “Reggae Girlz” of the Jamaican women’s national team.
The New York Times surveyed over 100 players appearing in this Women’s World Cup. Thailand women reported earning between $159 and $6,345 each year in U.S. dollars, in contrast to earnings of $167,500 to $350,000 reported by U.S. women. The United States’ opening game of 2019 generated such acute discomfort for many viewers because of this very obvious uneven playing field. It was all the more jarring because the game was played under the logo of the organizing body that contributes to these conditions.
In the postgame news conference, U.S. forward Alex Morgan brought attention to resource deprivation for many women’s teams and called for FIFA’s more active involvement in driving change. “Not every federation gives the same financial effort to their women’s side, and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “My hope is we eventually have 32 teams, but also that encourages FIFA to put a little pressure on their respective federations to put more effort into their women’s side.” Beyond pushing the federations they oversee, FIFA also has the opportunity to more directly increase parity by using some of its reported $2.7 billion reserve to better support women’s teams who lack training and competition opportunities outside of World Cup and Olympic years.
So far, the 2019 Women’s World Cup is garnering higher television viewership numbers than either the 2015 or 2011 tournaments. This is good news — women’s sports receive less than 5 percent of mainstream mass media coverage in the U.S., even though women are 40 percent of all athletes. This spotlight on women’s soccer has shown us moments of athletic brilliance, from France’s strong opening performance to Argentina’s first-ever point in women’s World Cup competition. Unfortunately, no matter how good the games have been, it’s also reminding us of just how much sexism still looms over the sport.