The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 2021, women’s sports still provide more outrage than empowerment

Carli Lloyd of Gotham FC signs a young fan's arm after an August match. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)
3 min

In November, after we voted in the first woman as vice president of the United States and when the fallacy of female empowerment was at its peak, the National Women’s Soccer League posted a photo and message on its Facebook page.

It prominently featured Vanderbilt soccer player Sarah Fuller, who got a call to try out for the football team as a kicker and became the first woman to play in a Power Five college game. Framing this image were tweets from NWSL players and teams. The league added the clever caption: “Empowered women empower women.”

Such a nice thought. Cute and melodic, even. Too bad the league doesn’t believe its own catchphrases.

In the NWSL, women have been treated like poker chips in a game dominated by male team owners and decision-makers. To describe the money they make as a living-wage salary would be an insult. They have no power to enter free agency and decide their career paths. The teams own their rights. And this twisted version of a “no girls allowed” fantasy league — in which women are the playthings for others to control — has placed all of the power in the wrong hands.

Megalomaniacs disguised as coaches have been accused of doling out verbal abuse and calling it instruction. And in the most extreme and disturbing of cases, one sleazy coach allegedly leveraged a player’s minutes on the pitch with having sex with him.

NWSL players speak out amid abuse claims: ‘Burn it all down’

A rotting septic tank can go undetected for only so long, and finally the league is doing something about the stench. On Friday, the NWSL announced that no games will be played this weekend in light of recent damning reports from the Athletic and The Washington Post. The league will go dark as its players refuse to perform and demand accountability.

This historic player protest should be inspiring, but anyone ready to claim this as a victory for women should politely have a seat. Maybe the one next to Lisa Baird, who did the right thing and resigned as league commissioner Friday night after using her post to protect powerful men and not the players. Even in the NWSL — a seemingly progressive league created for women, which is supposed to respect and celebrate women — it’s a man’s world.

The discouraging truth is that it’s more than two decades into the new millennium and it still sucks to be a woman in sports.

In March, when Division I women’s basketball teams entered the NCAA tournament bubble in San Antonio, they discovered a weight room equipped with a couple of yoga mats and a single dumbbell rack. But over in the March Madness bubble in Indianapolis, the men’s fitness center looked like an Equinox on steroids.

During the summer, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team wore blue shorts instead of bikini bottoms to make a fashion statement: Let us wear what we’re most comfortable in to play the sport. The European Handball Federation fined the team for its “improper clothing.”

Then on Thursday, after his team evened the series against the Chicago Sky in the WNBA semifinals, Connecticut Sun Coach Curt Miller disclosed that the team’s 20-plus-member travel party had to take three separate flights from two airports to avoid having to plop players in middle seats.

NWSL commissioner, under pressure from players, resigns after abuse claims

Twenty-five years into the WNBA branding itself as a league of empowerment — “Boss Woman” — its players still have to fly commercial.

Nearly 50 years after Title IX, mothers raising athletic daughters who have goals of playing in college can expect their girls to face inequity similar to what they did a generation ago.

We watched a jubilant Brandi Chastain rip off her jersey and celebrate her winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup in just her shorts and sports bra, and we thought that moment would lead us to a future that is female. Yet throughout the years in the NWSL — the only U.S. pro women’s soccer league that has shown a chance of survival since that seminal moment — strong and self-sufficient women had been conditioned to remain silent about their conditions. Only now are they rejecting the company line of being grateful for scraps. Only now are they showing their backbone. Their outrage, however, does not guarantee that systemic change is coming.

Away with the alliterative slogans and rations of progress. Until female athletes seize the power in their own sports, these leagues and governing bodies will remain a hellscape for women. If and when that happens, maybe there will be legitimate hope for little girls who dream of athletic greatness. But it will take more than a cute mantra to get there.

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