The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. women are part of a movement. They won’t be the only female athletes to speak up.

Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the United States’ first goal during its quarterfinal match against France.
Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the United States’ first goal during its quarterfinal match against France. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)
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Last October, Harry Edwards introduced a future already hidden in the present. Women, the noted sociologist predicted proudly, would lead the next wave of athlete activism.

He articulated his theory during a San Jose State program honoring John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the golden anniversary of their 1968 Olympic protest. As the organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights that inspired Carlos and Smith, Edwards has an intimate understanding of the power and history of social movements in sports. In American athletics, he will take you through four waves of activism, dating from Jack Johnson becoming the first black heavyweight boxing champion at the turn of the 20th century and struggling in his fight against racist Jim Crow laws.

Women always have been an essential part of the sports world’s ability to prompt change or spark conversation about society’s shortcomings. They are embedded in every victory for progress: Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, Martina Navratilova, Kathrine Switzer, the 1976 Yale women’s rowing team, WNBA players protesting for Black Lives Matter. Those are a few of the well-known examples.

But these movements rarely have been focused on women’s rights and issues. That is about to change because, in Edwards’s estimation, the most significant and unified female-driven era of sports activism is gaining momentum. And he’s not the only one expressing that. This belief is crystallizing in the minds of many historians, sociologists and deep thinkers.

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“It’s going to be one of the most powerful movements ever to take place in American society,” said Edwards, 76, the professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. “And women are going to be in the forefront. The main thrust of it is still in front of us.”

Now, think about the U.S. women’s national soccer team in that context. Think about these amazing, defiant and relentless women as part of a potentially watershed period for both their sport and gender. Think of them drafting off the impact of #MeToo, being further galvanized by the political threats against abortion rights and Planned Parenthood and strengthening their determination over time to put up an even greater fight against the attitudes, sexism and unfair business practices of a male-dominated sports system.

As the Americans compete against the Netherlands on Sunday in the World Cup final, the allure of this team isn’t novelty. A victory would be the fourth title in eight Women’s World Cups for the United States. It has won the gold medal in four out of six Olympic Games. This is a three-decade tradition that has cycled through different generations, created and restocked legends and won with the various playing styles and preferences of six national team coaches.

The allure isn’t unprecedented greatness either. While the current team has made a few new footprints with its dominance during this tournament, the history of the program is too incredible to engage in “greatest ever” chatter. This is a continuation of greatness, an extension of far-reaching impact.

So what’s the allure? Besides inevitable feelings of patriotism and the timing of the event around Independence Day, the longevity of excellence resonates. More than that, the players’ audacity coupled with their ability to back it up thrills, divides and fascinates us. They are not America’s sweethearts. They are America’s badasses.

It’s not merely because of the Megan Rapinoe vs. President Trump sideshow. The team is carrying U.S. Soccer while also suing the organization for gender discrimination. The players want better pay, and they don’t want to have to beg for it. They don’t want to have to smile in gratitude for incremental progress toward fairness. They demand a much more urgent brand of change, and while it’s bigger than a single event, they have used this World Cup as a reminder of their importance to the sport.

It shouldn’t mean that everything is riding on the final against the Netherlands. To some, it might be that simple. But just as the legendary 1999 World Cup triumph didn’t remove all roadblocks for American women’s soccer, a second-place finish 20 years later wouldn’t make the players’ points about fairness any less valid. Still, the stakes seem so high because of the emotional equity to be gained from making the nation feel all warm and superior inside.

They are charming, but more than that, they are fierce. Before his team lost to the United States in the semifinal round, England Coach Phil Neville admired his opponents’ “ruthless streak.” They don’t just want to win; they have to win. Their relentless nature led to a 13-0 humiliation of Thailand to begin this World Cup, a run-up-the-score annihilation that included Rapinoe celebrating the ninth goal of that match as if it were the first. Naturally, the Americans were criticized for the blowout. It made people feel uneasy. It led to arguments about sportsmanship and, annoyingly, the worth of a sport still working toward ideal competitive balance throughout the world.

To hear the players talk afterward, the result seemed to be an unintentional consequence of their dogged sense of mission. It looked like their accidental version of Muhammad Ali punishing Ernie Terrell during the infamous “What’s my name?” fight. Ali’s beatdown was personal; he wanted Terrell and the world to respect that his name was no longer Cassius Clay. But in its own way, Team USA needed to show the world its power.

It’s jarring to witness the full force of this power, and it’s impossible to explain to children why their idols did a very savage thing. Sometimes sports are cruel; all the time, the world is more cruel. It might be best to show grace during most of these fights, but viciousness has its place.

Understand the diabolical opponent the women are fighting when they ask for equality, justice, fairness. There is no end to this game that they must play. There is no time for complacency or reflection or excessive celebration because there is no time, period. Defeating the competition comes naturally; achieving fairness necessitates an endless fight.

Of the struggle — for women, for African Americans, for all minorities — Edwards says: “The oppressor sees every victory by the oppressed as the final concession. The oppressed sees it simply as the next step.”

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And so the athletes compete, on the pitch, in the courts, sometimes beyond public consciousness. Right now the women’s soccer team has the spotlight. Sometimes it is Serena Williams or Maya Moore or Aly Raisman. The U.S. women’s hockey team won a gold medal during the 2018 Winter Olympics while proclaiming its desire to be treated better. WNBA players have similar demands. All female athletes demand greater protection from predatory doctors.

This is their time. With every bold act, with every display of strength, with every exhibition of excellence, the intensity of a new movement increases.

“We’re not going to be everything that we can be and we’re not going anywhere without women in the lead,” Edwards said. “We’re going to fall in line. What we’ve seen, these are simply the first salvos of an emerging, long-overdue movement.”

The nerve of the U.S. women’s soccer team is part of something that has been building. If you’re looking for quiet and docile female athletes who accept progress at a snail’s speed, you might as well ask for directions to Mayberry, too. Change isn’t coming. It is already here.