This post has been updated.
When Brandi Chastain’s shirtless torso became an international symbol for the dominance of US women’s soccer—of American female athletes, really—I was a fidgety 11-year-old with a penchant for basketball. My younger brother and I watched the World Cup final against China—a scoreless, nail-biter of a match ultimately decided by penalty kicks—huddled together in my parents’ back bedroom. (Women’s world cup matches were carried by major American TV networks back then. Yes, really.)
Even though I was only in elementary school, I knew something momentous was happening. I watched Mia Hamm and Brianna Scurry and Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy celebrating in front of 90,000 screaming fans packed into the Rose Bowl and I knew, for perhaps the first time in my life, that their gender hadn’t automatically relegated them to the “B team.” In their shadow, playing like a girl didn’t seem like an insult anymore, it was high praise. Yes, really.
Tonight, the US national soccer team takes on Germany in the semifinals of the 2015 World Cup. (Sorry—the Women’s World Cup.) A record 5 million US viewers tuned in to watch Abby Wambach and company defeat Nigeria in the Round of 16. The record for most US TV viewers in a women’s world cup match ever is 18 million, from the 1999 Cup final. (If those numbers still seem low to you compared to, say, the average US viewership of the NFL Super Bowl, the men’s World Cup or even the NBA Draft, keep in mind that a new study by researchers from USC and Purdue University found that the ESPN’s marquee sports news program SportsCenter only devoted 2% of its airtime to women in 2014. In fact, according to the researchers, the breadth of women’s sports coverage today is actually worse than it was in 1989. Yes, really.)
It’s been sixteen years since that July day when I sat with my nose pressed to the screen of a humming color TV set and felt that maybe, just maybe, I really could do anything. More than “just a game,” sport has perhaps always had the power to inspire, transcending the physical limits of the pitch or court to teach, to motivate, and to instill hope. Now, of course, I know better. I know better because last week I woke up to yet another male sports writer, in this case Sports Illustrated NFL analyst Andy Benoit, tweeting his belief that women’s sports generally are simply not worth watching. (Yes, in 2015 another white man really did say that, leading to this near-perfect SNL-inspired rebuttal from Seth Myers and Amy Poehler.)
A number of journalists more eloquent than I have written about the value and importance of women’s sports recently, and the rampant sexism still endemic throughout. Maggie Mertens of the Atlantic argues quite convincingly that women’s athletics is an often-overlooked feminist issue due to the opportunities it offers women. The Nation’s Dave Zirin, meanwhile, explains why FIFA’s gross mismanagement of its women’s players involves a nasty cocktail of sexual objectification, homophobia, and basic hypocrisy.
Passionate, well-reasoned arguments all. But after sixteen years I am frankly tired of the talking points—so accurate, so obvious, and yet so often brushed aside by fans who would rather watch a brutal game than a beautiful one, by a collective sports media that would rather devote weeks of breathless coverage to a boxing match that ultimately lasted 36 minutes and was won by an unapologetic wife beater.
I am tired of having to explain that I’m wearing a women’s national team jersey because, news flash, the World Cup is upon us. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Yes, the women have one too. And by the way, that No. 20 number emblazoned across my back just happens to belong to the greatest goal-scorer in the history of women’s soccer.
Most of all, I am tired of feeling like every four years the very legitimacy of women’s athletics goes on trial, again. I am tired of watching World Cup games in sports bars where the TV screens are split between three other games and bartenders turn the sound off at halftime.
I am tired of waiting in bathroom lines as men, seemingly blind to the athleticism on display, rank the women’s players on the way they fill out a uniform.
I am tired of pointing out that while gay American football prospect Michael Sam made international headlines for his as-yet-unrealized goal of making an NFL team’s final roster, the US soccer team is anchored by two proudly lesbian players (and a dozen more lesbian or bisexual women have already competed so far in World Cup knockout matches).
I am tired of having to remind people that yes, there is still a women’s professional soccer league in the US, it’s called the NWSL. (Even if the league’s athletes, which include national team stars Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Hope Solo, are paid so little they have resorted to using host families to subsidize player housing costs.)
But most of all, I am tired of feeling like every four years the very legitimacy of women’s athletics goes on trial, again. With the exception of maybe tennis and a handful of Olympic events, we have not achieved gender parity in professional sports. Not by a long shot. So while Mia Hamm may have once been mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jordan, the US women are tasked with the burden of proving that they—and by extension women athletes in general—deserve to be recognized as second-tier professional athletes, by being the best in the world.
And if that’s not a perfect metaphor for modern-day sexism, I don’t know what is. America’s women and girls (and boys) deserve better. Really.
Update (7/3/15 1:15pm): Although all World Cup games previous to the semifinals were only available on cable, the semifinal matches were broadcast on FOX. According to the network, the game’s 8.4 million views make it the most-watched women’s World Cup semifinal game ever and the third most-watched women’s soccer match of all time.
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