Why the U.S. women's national team's cultural meaning transcends soccer

Megan Rapinoe, a member of the United States women's national soccer team, speaks to reporters during a media day in New York, Friday, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
United States women's national soccer team winger Megan Rapinoe speaks to reporters during the team's media day in New York. (AP)

In a lot of ways, there are two United States women’s national teams.

One plays on the field, composed of dominant women pursuing ever more wins and silverware, battling a rising tide of the global women’s game, staying ahead of most of the pack, but only just. They fight for the best playing conditions possible. For the money they feel they deserve. Sometimes they move to oust a coach. There’s scandal on occasion. They’re a team like any other, in that sense.

The other version of the national team is more of an idea. It exists in ethereal places, as a paradigm as much as a collective of players. To many, mostly those who don’t actually watch the team very often, it’s a manifestation of women’s rights and feminism and the legacy of Title IX. To them, the team serves as an inspiration to the ever-present and self-replenishing constituency made up of “all the little girls out there.”

The national team is both a band of competitors and an ideal; a set of ambitious but flawed personalities and an institution.

It’s a delicate balance, forever trod by players not only expected to win but also to behave in a certain way. That also goes for coaches and staffers, tasked with enabling the best performance, but also maintaining a carefully cultivated image.

“Playing on this team comes with a certain weight when it comes to being in the public eye,” says veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn. “It’s also one of the blessings of being on this team, that you have a chance to impact and to inspire.”

It’s that platform that moves the players to fight for causes of gender equality.

“There have been women who have pioneered and paved the way for me to be able to sit here and to have a platform,” goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris says. “And it’s my job and my duty to continue to push the boundary for equality on all spectrums. I wouldn’t be doing my job, or holding myself to that standard that I see fit, if I just shut my mouth and played the game.”

They’re tricky things to reconcile, even if the players seem to come by their social awareness honestly.

“We are a team. We play soccer,” says defender Kelley O’Hara. “But yeah, there’s an extra responsibility with the position that we’re in, but that’s a privilege at the same time. I think I would be doing it in my own personal life anyway, if I wasn’t playing on the national team – getting involved in issues in my community and my life.”

This unusual dichotomy of competitor and pioneer is what made the Hope Solo situation so fraught. The goalkeeper was, during her long and transcendent national team career, a lightning rod for controversy. Through some combination of a combustible personality, an unsettled private life and lack of a verbal filter, trouble just seemed to find her. For a male athlete, this would have been fine. Plenty of stars in men’s sports have been difficult characters. On the women’s national team, however, it was a problem, because all that bad press rankled on a team expected to be above that sort thing.

But this phenomenon also works in reverse.

In the players’ long-running fight for equal pay, there are valid arguments to be made in favor of the federation’s standpoint that no comparison can be made. After all, the women are on a very different pay structure, with benefits and mostly guaranteed salaries and a collective bargaining agreement they entered into voluntarily – whereas the men are paid entirely in bonuses.

None of that is to say that the women don’t deserve to be paid the same – because they do – but the point is that reasonable people can disagree and side with the federation’s view that the women’s supposedly lower revenue should be a factor.

In the court of public opinion, however, U.S. Soccer will never win this fight. The optics are terrible for the governing body. The women’s team knows this. That’s why it’s sought out publicity for its fight at every turn, making highly-polished appearances on major media outlets to proselytize for their cause.

The team’s equal pay fight has become the national battle for gender equality in the workplace writ small. Just as everything about this team eventually becomes about something bigger than itself.

Its 1999 Women’s World Cup victory wasn’t just a second title, it was vindication for Title IX legislation, as the first generation to benefit from it coming good. The gains the team has made in pay and playing conditions are also about women’s rights. A lack of media coverage of women’s soccer reflects gender an imbalance in both the newsroom and the boardroom.

The arguments get made, anyway.

The women’s national team never plays for just itself. It is shackled to larger causes, whether it likes it or not.

“Sometimes we go to the extreme, but I also think in a lot of cases we need to go to the extreme and we want to be on the right side of history when it comes to these fights that we’re a part of,” says Sauerbrunn. “We’ve been very privileged on this team to have this platform, to have a voice that gets heard. A lot of these issues are near and dear to our heart. And so when we fight for these things, and we ask for certain things, it’s very authentic to us. It’s not really a job to do both. You’re part of both of those things and you take the responsibility and weight of both of those things.”

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Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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