A Social Movement That Happens To Play Soccer

A salute to the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team for keeping its eye on the goal: equal pay

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(L-R) Sam Mewis #3 of the United States, Adrianna Franch #21 and captain Megan Rapinoe #15 with their tops turned inside out as part of the team’s equal pay campaign before the SheBelieves Cup match against Japan at Toyota Stadium on March 11, 2020 in Frisco, Texas. The U.S. beat Japan, 3-1. (Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

Update May 18, 2022, at 7:39 a.m. PT: For years, U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team players have repeatedly complained that they’ve been getting as little as 40 percent of the salary their male counterparts get—especially considering the women’s team has four World Cup titles and the men’s team has … none.

In February, the players reached a $24 million settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation over their equal pay lawsuit. The bulk of the settlement is, in fact, back pay—a “tacit admission that compensation for the men’s and women’s teams had been unequal for years,” wrote the New York Times. 

In May, after a long battle, the women’s team finally struck a labor deal that will close the pay gap between them and the men’s team and ensure equal salaries and bonuses, including for the World Cup.

The article below , which ran in the Fall 2019 issue of Ms., outlines the fight.


The 2019 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team will be remembered throughout the annals of history as a social movement that happened to play soccer. Its impact will be measured not in World Cups won, but in laws and lives changed.

This is a team that has joyously embraced the mantle. The players have shown themselves to be more than willing to not only work their way to a World Cup triumph, but also to continuously raise the issues of equal pay and equal rights in a fearless and appealing manner that’s just devastating to defenders of the status quo.

What these political buccaneers of the pitch have done is take a struggle that women have painstakingly agitated around for decades—the seemingly simple concept of equal pay for equal work—and turned it from a moribund talking point into a cause célèbre.

Their protest for equal pay stems from their own lived experiences: a set of circumstances deeply entrenched in the structural sexism that defines soccer’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). The numbers are a slap in the face, especially in the wake of the team’s titanic triumph in France. For the 2018 (men’s) World Cup, FIFA gave out $400 million in prize money. This year, the total purse for the Women’s World Cup was $30 million. That’s a 13:1 pay disparity.

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The know-nothing naysayers, like President Donald Trump, argue that this is because “you’ve got to look at the numbers.” In the U.S., that simply is not true. It’s a talking point as dead as the 19th-century idea that women should not be allowed to play sports at all.

Here in these United States, the women have the No. 1-selling jersey ever sold on Nike.com in a single season and the larger following. And according to The Wall Street Journal, since winning the 2015 World Cup, they’ve been generating more revenue than the men. An estimated 1 billion people watched the Women’s World Cup, making the tournament like a steadily ringing cash register: a license to print money.

Despite that, U.S. women earn, according to the lawsuit they filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation, about 38 cents on the dollar compared to what the men make. This is why, as the women basked in triumph following their finals 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, it wasn’t a chant of “U.S.A.” that rang out in the Stade de Lyon but “equal pay.” It is why, when they took their victory parade at the Canyon of Heroes in New York City, thousands of people arrived with homemade signs with slogans calling for gender and economic justice, like “Equal Pay for Equal Play” and “FIFA: Explain Yourself!”

These grassroots demands for equal pay have people looking well beyond the world of sports, connecting the clarion call to workplaces across the country. It’s generally reported that U.S. women earn 80 cents to a man’s dollar—but this understates the true magnitude of the gap. The “income” gap is a better measure because it takes into account not only wages, but also benefits including life and health insurance, pension contributions, bonuses, stock options and other forms of remuneration that accrue di proportionately to men. Using this more inclusive measure means the disparity between women’s and men’s earnings is significantly larger.

As the women basked in triumph following their finals 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, it wasn’t a chant of “U.S.A.” that rang out in the Stade de Lyon but “equal pay.”

This soccer team of outspoken women has burst the complacency that settled around this issue and put it on the front burner of the collective consciousness. It inspired Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to tweet, “The @USWNT is #1 in the world & contributes higher revenues for @USSoccer than the men’s team, but they’re still paid a fraction of what the men earn. Women deserve equal pay for equal (or better!) work in offices, factories, AND on the soccer field.”

Attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who is representing the team in its lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, com- mented to PolitiFact that Warren’s statement is “entirely accurate.” He added, “The women earn more revenues than the men, are world champions and make substantially less. It is legally and morally wrong.”

The team is moving beyond the mere call for equal pay and looking for legislative remedies. As World Cup Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe put it, “Everyone is kind of asking what’s next and what we want to come of all of this. It’s to stop having the conversation about equal pay and are we worth it.” She added to Rachel Maddow, “If you’re not down with equal pay at this point … you’re so far out of reality and the conversation that we can’t even go there. I think it’s time to go to the next phase.”

That “next phase” is now being seen across the political landscape. We are witnessing the members of the political class—who frequently operate at glacial speed—seizing upon the political benefits of this issue. This has included the welcome sight of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signing two bills to promote pay equity in New York State just before the team was set to hold its Canyon of Heroes parade.

  • The first expanded the list of “protected classes” (such as gender, race, sexual orientation) that cannot be subject to pay discrimination.
  • The second bars employers from asking prospective workers for their salary histories (previous salary is one excuse employers give for unequal pay).

That next phase has included seeing the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin—a man who voted for Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court—introduce legislation to deny federal funding to FIFA for the 2026 World Cup (due to be held in the U.S., Mexico and Canada) unless equal pay goals are in fact met.

That next phase has included an invitation to the women’s team signed by all 25 women members of the U.S. Senate—Democratic and Republican alike— for a meeting to discuss the issue. The team has also received tweeted invites from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to celebrate the team’s victory and take a tour of the House of Representatives. These accepted political invitations exist alongside the invitation the women conspicuously rejected from Trump’s White House. As Rapinoe put it on Anderson Cooper 360°: “I would not go, and every teammate that I’ve talked to explicitly about it would not go. I don’t think anyone on the team has any interest in lending the platform that we’ve worked so hard to build, and the things that we fight for, and the way that we live our life—I don’t think that we want that to be co-opted or corrupted by this administration.”

Until people with the most privilege … put our own skin in the game, then things aren’t really going to change.

Megan Rapinoe

They will not be co-opted. They will not be used for photo ops. They will not be positioned as some symbol of national unity during these deeply divided times. They are not calling for peace. They are calling for justice.

Those who—like the scolds on Fox News—are shocked by their brash impatience are not understanding the ways that the passage of time has marked this team. The players are done with waiting.

Commenters have referred to them as the children of Title IX. In one sense that’s true. In another, it doesn’t do justice to this moment. It is certainly true that without the landmark 1972 law, women’s sports, and in particular women’s soccer, would be a sclerotic dead zone, smothered by the sexism and absence of access that defined women’s athletics for most of the 20th century. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), two out of five high school girls were playing sports by the end of 2016. Before Title IX, that number was one in 27. The most recent data shows that more than 215,000 women play college sports. Before Title IX, it was fewer than 30,000.

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Fans hold signs during the game between Ireland and the United States in the first game of the USWNT Victory Tour at Rose Bowl on Aug. 3, 2019 in Pasadena, Calif. (Harry How / Getty Images)

As WSF’s first president, Donna de Varona, said, “Since 1972, thanks to increased funding and institutional opportunities, there has been a 545 percent increase in the percentage of women playing college sports and a 990 percent increase in the percentage of women playing high school sports.”

Women who play sports, according to one study, have reduced risks of smoking, underage drinking and illegal drug use. In other words, this is a reform that has literally improved the quality of life for tens of millions of women and girls around the country. But the law was signed almost 50 years ago. Members of this 2019 team are not the “daughters” of Title IX. That was a generation ago. The daughters of Title IX were the famed 1999 World Cup soccer victors led by Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain Title IX’s triumph in this critical fight for access was exemplified two decades ago when Chastain ripped off her shirt in a moment of iconic joy. These 2019 women—led by Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath—are the grandchildren of Title IX and they are done waiting. They are not content with mere access to their sport, not content to be the subject of puff pieces about how far they have come. They want to know where they are going. They don’t want a feel-good narrative about how much progress has been made since 1972. They would rather drive a discussion that asks greater structural questions about institutionalized sexism and pay inequity.

What makes this team—and Rapinoe in particular—so dynamic is that equal pay is hardly the only issue on which it speaks out. This is a squad of women who live the politics of intersectionality, connecting their fight against sexism with the promotion of LGBTQ rights and the struggle against racism. They proudly embrace their LGBTQ teammates, including coach Jill Ellis, in a way that feels unforced and normalized. As Rapinoe said after a game in which she scored two goals, “Go gays! You can’t win a championship without gays on your team—it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there!” (That off-the-cuff quote also made its way onto signs in New York City.)

They also speak about racial justice. Rapinoe was the first female athlete to take a knee in support of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick. She said to Time magazine about her support for the quarterback blackballed over his anthem protests against police violence, “I am in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in trying to continue a conversation. It’s no secret that we still have very tense race relations in this country. I don’t think everybody is as free as everybody else. Until people with the most privilege—and I would consider myself in that group—put our own skin in the game, then things aren’t really going to change.”

It is no surprise that one of Rapinoe’s heroes is the great poet and activist Audre Lorde. Rapinoe even once wore a jersey with Lorde’s name on her back as tribute. It was Lorde who famously once said, “I began to ask each time: ‘What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?’… Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.”

The world—despite the shock of some conservative commentators—certainly has been altered, and this team has only just begun. These women are tactical thinkers and serious activists. They are stepping into a vacuum during a terribly difficult political moment, bereft of inspiration. Just as Muhammad Ali changed the conversation in the U.S. around the war in Vietnam, their leadership is altering all discourse about equal pay. They are on to the “next phase.” We would all do very well to join them.

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About

Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports editor, is the author of 10 books on the politics of sports, most recently, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” Zirin is a frequent guest on ESPN, MSNBC and Democracy Now! He also hosts The Nation’s "Edge of Sports" podcast.