I hate US sports. The women’s football team is making it more difficult

From taking on systemic racism to winning the battle for equal pay, the USWNT is an inspiration that American girls need.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 22: Sophia Smith (C) of USA celebrates with teammates after scoring her team's first goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group E match between USA and Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023 in Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Sophia Smith (C) of the US celebrates with teammates after scoring her team's first goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup match against Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023, in Auckland/ Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand [Buda Mendes/Getty Images]

When I was in the ninth grade in Austin, Texas, I got it into my head that I wanted to join my high school football team – by which I mean American football and not the sport that most of the rest of the world calls football and the United States calls soccer.

It was not that I had any sort of talent for or even understanding of the game; I was simply irritated that only boys were permitted to play.

The team coach laughed at my proposal and told me I was not physically strong enough, and I became a cheerleader instead.

Jump ahead a few decades to the world of international football – yes, what the world calls football – and the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) has been rather more successful in combating gender discrimination in sport.

The favourites to win the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup currently under way in Australia and New Zealand, the USWNT made headlines last year when the US Soccer Federation agreed to pay both the women’s and men’s national teams equally and to award the women’s team $22m in back pay. The Federation also announced the “equalisation” of World Cup prize money.

Despite consistently outperforming their male counterparts, the female players had been earning considerably less money – business as usual in a country that forever flaunts itself as a bastion of equality and other noble virtues. According to the Washington, DC-based Economic Policy Institute, the gender pay gap in the US widened from 20.3 percent in 2019 to 22.2 percent in 2022.

So much for the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which turned 60 this year. The Center for American Progress calculates that, since 1967 – the first year for which relevant data are available – “working women have cumulatively lost $61 trillion in wages”.

The fact that the USWNT’s fight for equal pay paid off makes the team a potentially valuable source of inspiration now for countless American girls, particularly at a time when women’s rights are being rolled back across the United States.

On June 24, 2022, for example, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, removing federal protections for abortion and, effectively, women’s jurisdiction over their own bodies. Then there’s the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was first proposed a full century ago, in 1923, but has yet to be enshrined into law. The ERA guarantees equal rights for all people regardless of gender, a seemingly elementary concept that is somehow still too extreme for the world’s self-appointed greatest democracy.

In a 2019 Jacobin magazine article published in the aftermath of the USWNT’s World Cup victory that year and in the midst of the team’s battle for equal pay, Liza Featherstone observed: “This week we learned just how awesome the players who make up the US women’s soccer team are… But women shouldn’t have to be this awesome to be paid as well as men” – most of whom, she noted, were “just okay at their jobs”.

She went on to quip: “The rest of us losers deserve equal pay, too.”

These were valid points coming from the author of Selling Women Short, Featherstone’s 2005 exposé of the Wal-Mart retail chain’s systematic discrimination against female employees in terms of pay and promotion policies. At the time, she highlighted Wal-Mart’s lack of a unionised workforce as enabling the gender wage gap and other workplace oppression.

Speaking of unions, the USWNT’s equal pay victory last year came about as a result of new collective bargaining agreements between the US Soccer Federation and the labour organisations representing the women’s and men’s national teams.

For those of us American women who cannot aspire to on-field awesomeness then, the USWNT’s track record still offers some valuable off-the-field lessons in collectively demanding rights in a country where divide-and-conquer capitalism wants you to think you’re all alone.

For the duration of my adult life, I personally have viewed most US sports teams as anathema, associating them as I do with gung-ho patriotism, entitled arrogance and other pathological conditions tied up with global hegemony.

And so I was delighted to stumble upon an NPR interview from 2020 with USWNT star Megan Rapinoe, the openly gay midfielder now playing her fourth and final World Cup.

In the interview, Rapinoe was asked to reflect on what the US flag meant to her. And in doing so, she offered a far more useful account of history than I ever received growing up: “First of all, the country was founded not on freedom and liberty and justice for all… [T]his country was founded on chattel slavery and the brutal and ruthless system of slavery. So let’s all be really honest about that.”

To be sure, such honesty is key to understanding institutionalised racism and the foundations of enduring inequality in the US. Under Rapinoe’s lead, the USWNT took up the Black Lives Matter cause, prompting team forward Sophia Smith – herself half-Black – to comment: “It’s really cool to see the older players here taking a stand and using their platforms and using their voice to really initiate… change.”

Smith, now 22 years old, scored two of the US’s three goals against Vietnam in both teams’ opening World Cup game on July 22.

I watched the game on a friend’s laptop here in Turkey, where I am presently continuing my two-decades-long quest to avoid the US at all costs. I had watched last year’s Men’s World Cup on the beach in Mexico, where I had rooted for Mexico and Morocco and had cried when the US beat Iran.

And while I fully intended to support the Vietnamese women’s team in the July 22 match, for a split second there I found myself in the most unfamiliar position of rooting for my own country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.