Lisa Senecal

Lisa Senecal

It was an incredible game, but it was so much more than that.

Throughout the history of sports, there have been iconic moments and achievements that were felt far beyond the field or the court. These moments have raised our collective conscience, been a call to action, moved social and political change forward, and caused some to cheer for the success of those they had never cared about before.

Athletes have received a good bit of recent criticism for drawing attention to issues important to them by using the platforms they have earned through their blood, sweat, tears and talent. They have essentially been told that their value lies merely in their ability to entertain us and that their political speech doesn’t belong in sports.

This is, of course, mostly disingenuous, as those making the criticisms are doing so in large part to score political points and drum up political support.

This is nothing new. Not only is driving social change through sports not new for the athletes, but governments have long used athletic events to make political statements and create political pressure. In 1948, the Olympics were held in London, but Germany and Japan were not invited to participate because of their roles in World War II. The U.S. led the boycott by 66 nations of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

But it’s the bold steps by athletes and teams that have had the most profound impact on who we are as a nation.

In 1936, Hitler sought to use the Olympic Games in Germany as a demonstration of white racial superiority, only to have Jesse Owens dominate the games, winning four gold medals. Owens’ German rival in the long jump, Luz Long, took the brave and defiant step of befriending Owens in front of the Nazis and the world.

The silent protest against human rights abuses and racism in the U.S. by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 games created the iconic image of the two men, heads bowed, medals resting on their chests, and fists raised as America’s National Anthem played.

Recent NFL seasons and the courageous actions of Colin Kaepernick have highlighted how very far we have yet to go.

And then we have the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the U.S. Women’s National Team — and what a team they are: back-to-back World Cup winners and four-time champions! Ultimately winning the championship game against the Netherlands, these women dominated and were undefeated in World Cup play and made headlines beyond their soccer prowess along the way.

Feathers were ruffled all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as these bold women, led by team captain Megan Rapinoe — dubbed “purple-haired lesbian goddess” by Deadspin — continued their push for pay equity for female players.

Arguments against pay equity have been made for years with various justifications and a bar that keeps moving as these women lay waste to excuse after excuse for paying them a quarter of what the U.S. Men’s National Team earns. Due to its talent and efforts, the U.S. Women’s National Team now draws bigger crowds and generates more revenue than the men’s team — and the women win a whole lot more, too. And yet, the women have been forced to sue their governing body for a second time in an attempt to be paid as much as the men. Those negotiations resume next week.

FIFA, never to be outdone in inequitable and corrupt conduct, has agreed to double the purse for the next Women’s World Cup and will increase the men’s payout by only 10 percent. That sounds like a tremendous step forward for the women until you learn that this Women’s World Cup paid out only $30 million in total prize money, while last year’s men’s tournament was worth $400 million. Doubling the women’s winnings to $60 million still represents an increase that is one-third smaller than the men’s net increase. With the women’s final last Sunday drawing millions more viewers than the men’s final last year, perhaps FIFA will reconsider.

Both U.S. Soccer and FIFA are under increased pressure to address the pay discrepancy, as evidenced by the chants of “Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” that rose from the stadium after the U.S. women won the final.

Love and support for these women and the team have been demonstrated in another, and perhaps more important way; jerseys bearing the names of USWNT members are the highest-selling soccer jerseys in U.S. history — not only to women and girls, but to men and boys, as well.

Throughout the World Cup, these women were criticized for everything from their LGBTQ status to simulating sipping tea. They were told they were too loud, too out, too proud, too outspoken, too celebratory — just generally too much. But millions across genders and around the world saw something quite different. They saw strength, tenacity, smarts, and the power of coming together to work toward a common goal. In short, they saw role models.

It was an incredible game, but it was so much more than that.

Lisa Senecal is co-founder of The Maren Group, a writer, and chairs the Vermont Commission on Women. She lives in Stowe.

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