In the United States, there’s a euphoria that swirls around the U.S. women’s national team during major tournaments that is difficult to comprehend, especially when juxtaposed against the relative lack of euphoria that exists between tournaments.
It’s almost like a long-term relationship where you only tell someone they really matter on birthdays and Valentine’s Day. They know they’re being taken for granted, waved in front of friends and colleagues like a trophy in a beautiful dress, selfishly celebrated only during moments of triumph with the faux-zest of someone who likes to look like they care when the light is shining. Few would question if they decided to walk away. But they can’t, because let’s face it, they’re in love with the game. And so we continue to use them for their love.
The U.S. women’s soccer team is the only legendary national program in U.S. soccer. That is, if legendary status is a product of consistent dominance against the world’s best. They’ve won four gold medals and a silver at the Olympics since 1996. They’ve won two World Cups since the inaugural tournament in 1991 and have come in second or third place during every other World Cup. Given the team’s historical dominance and their immense profile over the years, their inability to consistently exist in a meaningful way outside of major tournament play is not just baffling, but telling of our societal stance on women in sports.
Something is off. Over the years it seems more and more like we’re all go-get-em-girl when they get up and dance on an international stage, entertaining us as we craft our cute “Hey, they’re just like men, only cuter” stances, only to give “the girls” a pat on the behind when all is said and done and wait for Hope Solo (probably Alex Morgan this time) to take her clothes off in the next ESPN The Magazine Body Issue.
And the go-get-em-girl pack is growing by the tournament. It’s jazz hands-level exciting, right?
But part of it feels wrong, as if the women are getting treated exactly the kind of way you wouldn’t want someone to treat your sister or daughter. In fact, if the members of the U.S. women’s national team were your sisters or daughters, you might be considering fighting someone after the confetti finally reaches the ground.
What I’m saying is that the U.S. women are in an abusive relationship: they’re used when needed and then ruthlessly discarded until we want to feel good about ourselves again.** And really, who better to make us feel good about ourselves than the team we can rely on, the team that consistently entertains us by capturing gold medals and World Cup trophies, a team so consistent and reliable that you take them for granted like someone who always cooks you the most delicious meals and folds your laundry in a timely fashion.
You’d think we would treat them better, treasure their unparalleled contributions to the U.S. soccer trophy cabinet. But we don’t for a host of complicated, interwoven reasons that have nothing to do with a lack of ability to play or entertain. Those reasons are (forgive me) wives tales. Rather, it feels as if a major reason these players are ill-treated is because they are women in a world busting at the seams with entrenched male sentiments and sensibilities — sentiments and sensibilities that still stand on reflex no matter how many times they are proven to be outdated. The fact is, and always was, that these women can play, and the games they play can be very entertaining, if you like soccer, of course.
It’s confusing if you want to be bothered to think about it.
Determining why there is no thriving women’s professional game in the United States doesn’t just involve an advanced degree in economics and marketing; it also requires a sociology degree. Few would argue that saturated sporting landscapes, naive, greedy and egotistical owners, and flawed marketing plans do not significantly contribute to a marginalized women’s game. But something feels off when logistics dominate the conversation and the enormous elephant in the room goes unacknowledged. And that elephant is this: How can one talk about the state of women’s soccer in the U.S. without addressing the state of women in the U.S.?
The public “state of women’s soccer” discourse habitually dances around discussions of how we view women. Instead, the focus tends to be on the logistics of why things don’t work — ownership groups, financing, facilities, tension between individuals — ignoring our communal wiring.
As a society, are we ready to make it work even if the ownership groups, financing and facilities are all in place? I’m not so sure. If the sporting discourse around race and sexual orientation are a barometer, real talk in public is hard to come by, which makes finding solutions even harder. For instance, most people will admit that sexism, racism, and homophobia exist, but miraculously, when it comes to public discourse, those who harbor these feelings are as elusive as Bigfoot. And it’s hard to have a conversation about something that people won’t publicly admit exists. Rarely will you see pundits discussing how real, underlying attitudes impede the development of a sport, even though few would argue that these attitudes have long been prominent impediments to development. So logistics become the easy piece of the puzzle to discuss. And boy do we love easy conversations.
Until we’re ready to collectively address how our society views women in an honest way — in groups that don’t involve just women — we’ll continue to have half-conversations about the disconnect between a wildly successful women’s program during tournament time, and why these women virtually disappear from our sight lines and collective conscience the minute the lights are dimmed on their final appearance on the Today Show or Letterman.
Ultimately, if robust, honest answers are wanted, a full discussion is required. But we haven’t been having it. Judging from the past, we’re sadly just dancing around during the feel good moments until we reach the “IGNORE” stage.
** Yes, it’s true. Many athletes are discarded post-big stage success; it isn’t just women. But there are two distinctions to be made: 1) Gymnasts also suffer from a precipitous decline in attention. But the nation has not already accepted gymnastics as a mainstream sport. Men’s soccer, however, is on the map. So the question remains, why not women’s soccer? It certainly isn’t the sport. The same argument can’t be made forÂ gymnastics. 2) The drop in profile for the women’s team is dramatic. They go from Oprah, Barack Obama tweets and Costas-swooning, to invisible overnight (from a national profile perspective). You almost forget that they’re famous for their athletic ability – ability we rarely get to see in comparison to players who can rely on the presence of established leagues. When other athletes who repeatedly mesmerize the nation in sports that have a national profile finish their late night high-five circuit,Â they can slink back to lucrative careers playing the sport that brought them fame. Something about the disconnect between what success looks like for these women versus what success reaps for others with different genitalia is unsettling.