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The last send-off match before the US women’s national team begin their Olympic campaign was pretty standard fare for the best team in the world. The USWNT beat Mexico by 4-0 and, as is usually the case, they looked good doing it, setting themselves up as the favorites to win gold in Tokyo.
It was the day after Independence Day, and a World War II veteran named Pete DuPré played the Star-Spangled Banner on a harmonica before the game. This was also usual – the USWNT have often taken opportunities to honor those who fought for their country, like when the team took time away from 2019 World Cup preparations in France to visit the site of the Normandy invasion and speak with US veterans who fought there.
But the next day, when everyone presumably should’ve been talking about how strong the USWNT looked against Mexico, I received a reply to one of my tweets about the team: “Our families will never support women’s soccer until there is an apology to the 98-year-old veteran and the US military! No class to turn your back on the flag and an American hero! Shameful!”
That was when I was abruptly pulled into an alternate universe – a bizarro world with its own narratives and set of facts around the USWNT, designed by right-wing propagandists and built on outrage.
The claim? That the unpatriotic USWNT turned their backs on DuPré during the anthem in a show of disrespect. The reality? The players – all standing, many with their hands over their hearts – had turned to face the flag directly in a show of respect as the flag is placed at the end of Rentschler Field.
Even faced with it, many propagandists refused to acknowledge reality. Sean Spicer, who is most famous for repeatedly lying on behalf of Donald Trump as White House press secretary, left up his original tweet spreading the lie without a follow-up. Another former member of the Trump administration doubled down, changing the lie every time he got fact-checked. Fox News ran a segment on it, and declared it will still be a story as protests occur at the Olympics, despite acknowledging the truth, which the right-wing network framed as a he-said, she-said.
How did the USWNT end up in this strange place?
The USWNT have a history of outspokenness on everything from challenging gender norms on the soccer field to fighting for better treatment off of it. They’ve ruffled feathers before. But only in 2019 after Trump tweeted at Megan Rapinoe did the disinformation-fueled bizarro world fully take shape around the USWNT. Apparently hurt by her suggestion that she wouldn’t visit the White House if the US won the World Cup, Trump scolded Rapinoe to “never disrespect our country, the White House, or our flag.”
Quickly, the right-wing echo chamber followed his lead. People who had never heard of the USWNT were suddenly trying to undermine the team. People who couldn’t correctly pronounce Rapinoe’s name dredged up stories of her past protests during the national anthem, falsely claiming it was to disrespect the military and the flag.
Rapinoe had already stated that she kneeled to highlight racial inequities in America, writing: “…It is because of my utmost respect for the flag and the promise it represents that I have chosen to demonstrate in this way. When I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom – because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country.”
To anyone outside of the bizarro world, there’s an absurd irony to lies designed to paint the USWNT as lacking American values. There are few athletes who can say they have won as many trophies on behalf of the United States as the members of the USWNT. These women – who are not a monolith, have views across the political spectrum and in some ways mirror the diversity of America itself – have single-handedly done more to demonstrate America’s greatness than any of the right-wing trolls who try to discredit them.
Perhaps that’s why such noise and nonsense has never bothered the USWNT much.
During the World Cup in France when the players were asked about distractions, from Trump or anyone else, the players mostly shrugged it off. They talked about their ability to compartmentalize and their self-made “bubble” where they ignored outside chatter – and they simply continued to do their jobs.
That’s no truer than in the case of Rapinoe. Trump made her the target of his loyal fan base, but she was unflappable – two days later she scored twice to lift the USWNT over France in the World Cup quarter–final. She would score again in the final, which the USWNT won in a story of American greatness.
And that’s when I first stumbled into the USWNT bizarro world of right-wing disinformation.
When Fox News Radio asked to speak with me the day after the final, I didn’t think much of it – I had recently published a book about the history of the USWNT and, in promoting it, I had done dozens of radio and podcast interviews with various outlets before and during the World Cup, all of which were fun. The Fox News producer told me they wanted to talk about the game. Turns out, he lied.
The host mostly wanted to talk about how unpatriotic Megan Rapinoe was and how her teammates must be sick of her, neither of which was true and I easily debunked. The host also zeroed in on a moment where USWNT players accidentally dropped the flag while celebrating as proof of their disrespect for America – an overblown moment I had to look up after the interview because no one outside of bizarro world was talking about it.
The host then pulled out a popular lie about the USWNT and women’s soccer: the men’s World Cup earns more money than the Women’s World Cup, thus the women don’t deserve more prize money. I explained that such information isn’t just wrong, it doesn’t exist: Fifa bundles revenue for all its World Cup events and doesn’t know the individual revenue generated by any of them. (Commonly cited numbers are the result of a Forbes editor misreading a chart and publishing misinformation.) The host did not care, and I could tell she was annoyed by me debunking her talking points.
As soon as the World Cup ended, a new disinformation campaign emerged. The Christian Broadcasting Network interviewed Jaelene Hinkle, a USWNT prospect who refused a call-up in 2017 because she didn’t support the team’s initiative to raise money for an anti-homophobia sports organization.
“Apparently, the US women’s Football team is not a very welcoming place for Christians,” the viral tweet claimed, setting off outrage among conservatives.
In bizarro world, the USWNT is hostile to Christianity. In the real world, many of the players on the USWNT are Christians, and they huddle together and pray before games.
Before the 2019 World Cup, for instance, Julie Ertz spoke about Bible study with her teammates, telling a Christian sports magazine: “These Bible studies really help me grow and keep me accountable. It brings me closer to my teammates – we continue to grow as players and persons.”
USWNT manager Jill Ellis later explained that Hinkle ultimately didn’t keep earning call-ups because, as a one-dimensional fullback in the NWSL, she was behind the USWNT’s other defenders. “If you look across the back line, all of those players can play at least two positions,” Ellis said.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that as the USWNT embark on another big tournament, this time the Olympics in Japan, the team is facing disinformation again. The more this tough, strong-willed group of women wins, the more some so-called patriots root against the United States.
Just don’t expect it to affect the USWNT much – after all, they exist in the real world, where they are the best team on the planet, and there’s no outside pressure greater than what the players put on themselves. As Ellis once said: “People tend not to realize the US team lives in pressure. There is always a target on your back. The players are built for this.”