Sexism in Soccer: What’s Holding Female Players Back?

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Issue 9, Volume 113

By Helen Mancini 

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Soccer doesn’t usually have a huge fan base in the United States, but this year’s performance by the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) at the World Cup excited many American fans. It also teased the possibility of the U.S. men’s team rising in the ranks of international soccer teams. Recent polls have reported a rising interest among Americans in men’s soccer, with more and more young people playing in high school and continuing to love the game as they get older. This increased popularity became obvious after the U.S. vs. Iran match just last month, when Christian Pulisic’s heroic winning goal and resulting pelvic injury flooded social media feeds. The match sent the USMNT to the knockout rounds, where they lost to the Netherlands, but there was still an outpour of support for their achievement in America.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has been consistently high-performing without achieving the same level of recognition. The women’s team has won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals in the past 35 years, but the players only gained equal pay from the U.S. Soccer Federation this year after a bill was passed by the House. Soccer teams earn prize money based on how far they get in tournaments. Under the new payment deal, all prize money earned is split equally between the men’s and women’s national teams. This bill has made a huge difference for the women’s team, because the prize money for their tournaments is remarkably lower. The USWNT earned only $6 million in total for its successive World Cup wins in 2015 and 2019. This year, by just making it to the knockout stages, the USMNT won $13 million. Now that the prize money is being split, the USWNT will get half of that amount, more than they made from winning two World Cups. This remarkable difference in prize money comes from the difference in the revenue generated by the respective World Cups, a manifestation of both the sexist attitudes and the structures that limit women’s soccer.

Equal pay was a necessary step forward for American soccer, but the International Association Football Federation (FIFA) remains a deeply sexist organization. Not only does FIFA invest much less in women’s soccer, but its leaders have also been blatantly misogynistic. Former president Sepp Blatter once suggested female players “wear tighter shorts” to get more attention on the sport. His comment is just one example of how the international soccer community does not take women seriously as athletes and easily objectifies them. Within FIFA, there are not nearly enough women in positions of power to counter sexism in decision-making. Less than one percent of the voting power in FIFA Congress belongs to women.

Furthermore, the Women’s World Cup is treated with much less importance than the Men’s World Cup. FIFA was accused of sexism once again in 2019, when many things went wrong at the tournament, namely a ticketing disaster that scattered fans who had bought tickets as groups. While many played it off as a mistake, some fans of women’s soccer found the incident to be another example of how FIFA takes women’s tournaments less seriously, claiming that something so careless would not happen at the Men’s World Cup. It is easy to say that FIFA invests less in the Women’s World Cup because it generates less revenue, but that position ignores how the two are connected. Without investment or active attempts to center women in decision-making, stereotypes about women’s soccer are able to continue in soccer culture, and many stay closed off to watching the Women’s World Cup.

The USWNT is particularly beloved by its fans, but among some male soccer fans, attitudes toward women playing the sport can be hostile. Arguments about athletic ability are often used as a way to disguise and excuse misogyny and homophobia toward the players on the USWNT. Captain of the USWNT Megan Rapinoe has been the subject of a great deal of hate that often targets her lesbian identity and outspokenness about social justice issues. This treatment is worsened by the fact that despite being a phenomenal athlete, Rapinoe is not respected for her ability nearly as much as the top male players are. The nature of the extreme and personal scrutiny Rapinoe faces is reflective of how women are subjected to disproportionate amounts of criticism in society, especially in the media.

When discussing the World Cup with my male friends and family this winter, I expressed annoyance over how the Men’s World Cup is prioritized so much more than the Women’s World Cup. They immediately began to spew reasons why women’s soccer would always be worse, claiming that it is watched less because it is of lower quality. The favorite empirical example of this argument seems to be the story of the under-15 (U15) boys’ team in Texas beating the women’s national team in 2017. Not only is this example overused, but it is also entirely misrepresented. The game in question was a scrimmage, not a match, designed to help the FC Dallas boys’ team improve. U15 boys’ teams often participate in the U.S. Soccer Federation “Development Academy” programs. The USWNT is committed to helping all U.S. soccer teams improve in the federation, and these types of scrimmages are normal because the women’s team has so few teams at their level to practice against in the U.S. The loss was not seen at all as humiliating for the USWNT until it began circulating on the Internet and misogynistic social media circles. It became an easy headline for people who already held sexist beliefs about women’s soccer to latch onto. After the USWNT 2019 win, many were quick to bring up the loss to “humble” the women.

Women’s and men’s soccer are the same. Their games have the same rules and the same times, yet our culture and FIFA refuse to treat them equally. This disparity needs to change on a systemic level with FIFA and by instituting equal pay in other countries, but it also needs to be addressed on a social and interpersonal level. Biological differences between men and women do not change the fact that both World Cups are full of incredible athletes playing soccer at its highest level. It is imperative that we realize that there is no logical basis for liking men’s soccer over women’s and that insulting women’s athletic ability with out-of-context evidence and sexist generalizations can no longer be acceptable. At the very least, I implore those who have been closed off from watching women’s soccer to try watching this summer’s World Cup. American sports culture is changing rapidly through the leadership of pioneering women like the players on the USWNT, and it is time for everyone to pay attention.