The following is an excerpt from Raised a Warrior: A Memoir of Soccer, Grit, and Leveling the Playing Field by Susie Petruccelli. In it, star athlete Petruccelli shares her trailblazing account of triumph in the face of sexism, self-doubt and injury, gives a remarkable global tour of the women’s soccer world, and presents a stirring call-to-action to secure equal pay and conditions.
According to FIFA, there has been an 85 percent increase in the number of soccer associations around the world running grassroots programs for girls and women in the last five years. Yet there’s still a long way to go. Women are still being held back and disrespected, on and off the field.
In 2016, Harvard had to cancel its men’s soccer team’s season after news broke that its players had been ranking women’s team members based on their physical appearance and likely preferred sexual positions.
In Italy, women’s teams’ players are still considered amateur athletes, unlike their professional male counterparts, and receive only a per diem instead of a salary, if anything.
Four months before the beginning of the 2018 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Team decided they had to do more to fight for equal pay and filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. They filed on International Women’s Day.
News was coming in at a steady pace that women’s national teams around the world were being vocal and asking for equity from their federations. The women’s national teams in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Australia, Ireland, England, Nigeria, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica and more were standing up and drawing attention to the lack of support from their federations.
Each time they speak out, they risk not being invited back to national team training camps. But with the aid of social media and growing connections and support, these women’s stories of protest are not as isolated and easily overpowered as they once were. There is a coalition forming that is pulling various groups together, fighting for women’s soccer in order to quickly mobilize media support, advocates and lawyers.
There was vast room for improvement in terms of ticketing, marketing and match-day experience at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. And the gap in prize money between the men’s and women’s FIFA World Cups is still growing despite the success of the latest women’s tournament. For the next set of World Cups, in 2022 and 2023, the gap between the prize money for men and women will increase from $370 million to $380 million. That gap exists despite FIFA’s $2.7 billion cash reserves and their tax-exempt status, which has as one of its guiding principles to “promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all.”
One of the most common arguments against equal pay is that women’s soccer doesn’t bring in the same revenue as men’s soccer. At first, this point seems hard to argue. But Becca Roux, the president of the USWNT Players’ Association, succinctly explains why it falls short: The popular metric for revenue is commonly known by the acronym ROI, which stands for return on investment. It’s a formula that is calculated using two numbers: the value of the investment and the cost of the investment.
During a panel at the Equal Playing Field Summit in Lyon, Roux said: “There can’t be an R without the I.” In other words, there cannot be a return on investment without the investment. Women players are being told they don’t deserve more investment because they don’t produce as much revenue. But basic economics refutes that argument; the investment must come first.
Looking at it from another angle, national federations around the world, which are nonprofits, are different than for-profit club teams. They are mandated by their own by-laws to invest equally in men and women to grow the game of soccer inclusively. As businesses, club teams don’t have that same obligation, although there is certainly a moral argument to be made about valuing public interest over private profits.
As veteran soccer journalist Grant Wahl tweeted on September 24, 2019:
“FIFA and US Soccer are nonprofit organizations that get huge tax write-offs as a result and are charged with growing the sport for everyone (men & women). Professional teams/leagues are for-profit companies. If you don’t understand that fundamental difference, you’re nowhere.”
There’s another analogy that Julie Foudy credits to U.S. women’s national team goalie Briana Scurry. Scurry said to imagine two gardens side by side. One garden is watered, nurtured and taken care of. The other one is not water or nurtured but told to grow. The watered garden blooms and the other fights for survival. It’s hard to build a market when given no water or nourishment.
Long-held perceptions feel impossible to change. Sexism in sports is so normalized that we don’t see it. When the kids and I were discussing the Juventus women’s record-breaking game in the car one day, Armando interrupted us: “The reason the women never played in the stadium before is because the men’s team didn’t want them to ruin the grass.”
It hurt to hear those words come out of my husband’s mouth, the man who had shared Ohiri Field with me at Harvard. I sat dumbfounded in the passenger seat. For years, he had stepped over the piles of my books scattered around our house, he knew I was at events with women’s sporting heroes and learning from equality activists, he had swiped through the photos of me with Billie Jean King and Julie Foudy on my phone. He knew how much equality in the game—and in general—means to me, especially for our daughter and her generation. I reminded myself that he had always respected his sisters and Bing and Mink and Stauffy and our team as players, as equals.
But doubt was in the air—my certainty went from black and white to gray.