Among other things, I’m known around the REACH office for liking and playing soccer. I have more than once coordinated a World Cup watch party during lunch hour(s) in our training room and I often talk about the weekly Wednesday night games I play with my coed soccer team. I began playing when I was a young child. When I was a little girl, my dad was my coach. He coached just about every sport I played, but to me he was first and foremost my soccer coach. When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional soccer player when I grew up.
During the height of my formative soccer playing days, we got season tickets to the inaugural season of the Boston Breakers, the Boston team in the newly created women’s professional soccer league (WUSA at the time, now NWSL). I had to switch off games with my sister, but I remember so vividly driving to Boston University stadium with my dad and watching these women on the field. My favorite player was Kristine Lily. My number was 13, just like Kristine. One day, her father sat next to us to watch his daughter play professionally. Watching these women, who used to be little girls like me, sprint, tackle, and pass the ball week after week, I caught onto a dream.
During the World Cup which ended just a couple of weeks ago, I again caught onto the dream. Throughout the tournament, advertisements caught my breath and held it in the deep part of my chest. Sometimes (read: often) my eyes would begin to tear up. Sometimes the tears would not stop. I saw images of little girls aspiring to be strong women and working to achieve a seemingly impossible dream. One of the times I feel most alive, powerful, confident, and free is when I am playing soccer. I’ve been reconnecting with soccer lately through my team, whether we are playing, watching games, or just being together. Seeing strong women and girls – both on the pitch and in ads – inspired me deeply. I was overwhelmed with feelings of pride and motivation.
Yet these feelings of inspiration had to compete with alternate messages of who these women were, who this team was, and who this sport belongs to.
As the tournament started, violet haired Megan Rapinoe was criticized for being too outspoken. The team was being discussed because of their efforts to legally ensure equal pay; some fans shouted “equal pay” instead of “USA!” after games (Ebbert, 2019, A1).
After they won their first game 13-0 against Thailand, they were blamed for scoring too many goals, being too proud, celebrating too much, and not showing mercy. This frustrated me, as a player. What were the storylines after Germany beat Brazil 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals? Was it, well, maybe Germany should have been a little more compassionate? How blatantly did this argument fall in the realm of restrictive female tropes? What narrative was being told? What messages were being received? What were the expectations placed on this team? Nagging feelings of would this be happening if…? started interrupting moments of pure joy.
Soon, overwhelming feelings of inspiration and pride were tempered by conversations about money, marketing, equality, and financial viability. I kept hearing: “they don’t have the same ratings and number of viewers, so why should they be paid equally?” Well, when viewers are deciding between three major football tournaments that are happening at the same time (Copa Oro and Copa America, regional men’s tournaments, happened at the same time as this World Cup), maybe the viewership will be a little lower. Competing for viewers was just one way the teams had to prove their worth.
That’s the other argument that kept being asserted: the need to earn equality. These players had to prove they were good enough. And not just good enough – they had to be exceptional. In order to be considered for equal pay, women had to win the entire tournament (which they do, and did). This version of exceptionalism trains people to believe that only one type of a person is worthwhile. Exceptionalism makes us sort through intersections of race, gender, ability, and all of our complex identities and designate who is “worth it.” We have to be the perfect version of our gender, the acceptable version of our race; exceptional is all that is deemed worthy. Where does that put the rest of us?
There were times throughout the tournament when negative messages seemed to outweigh the positive. Things were said or written that infuriated and deeply saddened me. People posed the hypothetical “who would win if…?” and some said a men’s college team could beat them. Some said that a good high school boy’s team could beat them. That they’re not comparable. Comments like those punched me in the gut. To me, and to so many of us, these players are the epitome of strength.
As someone who identifies as an athlete and who is proud to be strong, I began asking the question: what does strength look like? Sometimes strength means being pushed down and getting back up. Sometimes we get up on our own; sometimes with the help of teammates. Strength can mean resilience in the many forms it takes. Sometimes strength means excelling. Sometimes it means surviving. Yet who can define what our strength is, other than ourselves?
Feelings of personal power – empowerment and voice – are what I eventually took from the tournament. We own ourselves. Whether it is through sport, artistic creation, natural exploration, or how we care for others, we have power within ourselves. This strength, this personal power, is what we see in these players and in ourselves. It’s a power that inspires us; a power that shines. It’s a power that shows our next generations that what we want to do, and who we want to be, is unapologetically and fiercely possible.
Ebbert, S. (2019, July 13). Once dormant, ERA gets a kick-start. The Boston Globe, p. A1.
Jenkins, S. (2019). The USWNT is after something far more subversive than better pay. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/soccer/the-uswnt-is-after-something-far-more-subversive-than-just-better-pay/2019/07/01/1671d770-9bfe-11e9-9ed4-c9089972ad5a_story.html?utm_term=.5f97c4901d03