How the U.S. women’s soccer team offers a cultural story, not just an athletic one

How the U.S. women’s soccer team offers a cultural story, not just an athletic one


JOHN YANG: The women’s World Cup kicked off
in Paris this weekend. And once again, as Lisa Desjardins returns
to tells us, the Americans are favored to win it all. LISA DESJARDINS: The U.S. team takes the field
tomorrow against Thailand in its opening match, with high hopes of hoisting the cup about
a month from now. The Americans have won three World Cups since
the women’s competition first began in the ’90s. But the competition may be closing in. France, England and Germany are all considered
threats. For the U.S., there’s also a most unusual
backdrop. Members of the team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation
this spring over longstanding allegations of gender discrimination and violations of
the Equal Pay Act. To help unpack all of this, I’m joined by
the great Christine Brennan, a sportswriter and sports columnist for USA Today. Christine, welcome. CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Thanks, Lisa. Great to be here. LISA DESJARDINS: Let’s start with this World
Cup. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes. LISA DESJARDINS: All right, the U.S. team
has dominated since there were rankings at all. What are their strengths, what are their possible
vulnerabilities this year? Tell us about this team. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Lisa, this is a veteran
team. And I think for every viewer who remembers
Brandi Chastain going back 20 years now, Mia Hamm, this is the next generation. And they are strong, and they’re ranked number
one in the world. And they should win the World Cup. Not saying they will, because competition
— it’s the greatest day in women’s soccer today, until tomorrow, in terms of the level
of play. And that’s just around the world, not just
the U.S. But this is a veteran team, 12 returning players
from the 2015 team that won the World Cup in Canada. The names are Alex Morgan. You have got Megan Rapinoe. (CROSSTALK) LISA DESJARDINS: Yes. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You have Carli Lloyd, who
was the star of the 2015 team. Megan Rapinoe is someone who actually took
a knee in support of Colin Kaepernick at one game. So, you have got someone who is also very
socially active. She is an out athlete and she was the first
openly gay athlete to be on the cover of — on “Sports Illustrated” in the swimsuit issue. So you have got story lines galore. LISA DESJARDINS: Who’s the biggest competition? CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Without a doubt, it’s France. I mean, obviously, they’re the host. Lots of pressure on them. They have never, ever gotten to the level
where they would win either a World Cup or an Olympics. Interestingly, if the U.S. does what it’s
supposed to do, France does what it’s supposed to do, they will meet in the quarterfinals. One of the top two teams, three teams in the
world would go out in the quarterfinals. LISA DESJARDINS: What I love about this team,
they can strike from up close, but they can strike from crazy far away, like the middle
of the field. I will put in a word for my favorite, number
9, Lindsey Horan, who I’m watching. But let’s talk more about this cultural story. Tell us what these women are trying to do. It is the entire team that has sued U.S. Soccer,
saying that they are not given the same treatment as the men and not the same pay. In some cases, they say half the pay, yet
they play more games. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Right. This is a story line that’s been going again
really since ’99, because right after they won that World Cup, and were the only story
ever in the history of stories to be the cover of “TIME,” “Newsweek,” “People,” “Sports Illustrated,”
all the way back 20 years ago, in the Rose Bowl that beautiful day, July 10, 1999, not
that I remember. But then, within a few months, they were striking. And this has been a constant battle with their
Federation over travel conditions, over pay conditions, over the opportunity to market
themselves, and missed opportunities galore. LISA DESJARDINS: And the turf, even at some
— they sometimes were playing on not as good, Astroturf. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Four years ago, Lisa, absolutely. In Canada, the men would never play on artificial
turf. The women were forced to play an artificial
turf, which you can get more injuries. It’s just a tougher surface to play on. So, women have been second-class citizens
in soccer from the get-go. And in this case, they’re very busy right
now focusing on soccer. But when they get back, that conversation
about gender equity is going to keep coming up. And then — and the gap is extraordinary between
what the men make and what the women make around the world. And, of course, the U.S. men are nowhere near
as good or obviously winning as many titles as the women are. LISA DESJARDINS: U.S. Soccer has said that
these are different groups of players with different contracts and doing different jobs. The women say that’s not true, that they’re
doing the same job, in fact, sometimes working harder. But, also, you hear sometimes U.S. Soccer
officials say, listen, women do not bring as much revenue in, and that’s why that they’re
not getting paid as much. They don’t always make that argument, but
they have. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Sure they have. LISA DESJARDINS: How do you see that? CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes. Well, what the women’s say in return, Lisa,
is that they’re not getting the opportunities, the Federation is not marketing them, and
not thinking of ways to market them. And so, if you’re not marketing them, then
you may not be making the same kind of money. Certainly, worldwide, soccer is that last
bastion of male supremacy, and the ingrained sexism and misogyny in European soccer, in
South American soccer is extraordinary. And that is exactly the world that the U.S.
Federation is in. They have done some good things. But I think, because they are in the U.S.,
they’re getting the kind of scrutiny that they should get and that an American audience
demands, especially in regards to how we treat our daughters, our sisters as they grow up. And I think that’s — that’s the reason this
conversation — but there — this is a team that wins. This is a team that wins all the time. And that should mean something, I think, in
this conversation. LISA DESJARDINS: Christine Brennan, always
good to have you here. And we will watch another U.S. team that could
make history on a few levels. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Absolutely. LISA DESJARDINS: Thank you. CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thanks Lisa.

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