Starting on July 20, 32 soccer teams from across the world will gather in Australia and New Zealand to play in the month-long Women’s World Cup, a competition that has assembled every four years since 1991. As players take to the field and vie for gold, there’s a longer and harder fight these women are trying to win. It’s a fight to advance equality in sports.
“There are many, many countries that — despite having women's soccer and appreciating it — are nowhere near gender, race/ethnicity, or pay equality,” says Sociology Professor Judith McDonnell, who teaches Bryant’s “Sociology of Sport” class.
With the goal of leveling the playing field between women and men in sports, the soccer world is making advancements that have caused ripple effects in equality.
“For the United States, we are closer than we were, but it’s still not close enough,” McDonnell says.
According to McDonnell, sports are important for many reasons: they can be community builders, teach values and roles, unite groups, provide an outlet for body expression, be a source of entertainment, and act as an avenue for upward social mobility. Yet for generations, sports have been a masculine endeavor, resulting in women and trans athletes’ continual fight for full inclusion.
A few months before the 2019 World Cup, members of the United States women’s national soccer team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against its federation concerning unequal pay — a measure of activism that ended with a landmark agreement of $24 million to women's soccer from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
“Other countries and athletes saw that and pushed for equal pay agreements in their respective countries,” says McDonnell.
Stemming from the lawsuit, the United States House of Representatives also passed the Equal Pay for Team USA Act, which requires all athletes representing the United States in global competition to receive equal pay and benefits in their sport. Advancements continue into today with this year’s Women’s World Cup prize pool totaling $110 million — a major increase from 2019’s $30 million prize pool.
“It would not have happened without courageous activists worldwide who were threatening to withhold their participation,” McDonnell says, though the value is still significantly lower than the 2022 Men’s World Cup prize pool of $440 million.
The fight for equality in sports also lives on locally. At Bryant, women were pioneers in athletics and began playing sports in 1924 but did not compete at the varsity level until 1976. The 1972 passage of Title IX was instrumental in leveling the playing field for men and women by banning sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. When Bryant’s women’s athletic program started, four sports were offered: volleyball, tennis, softball, and basketball. Today, the university hosts 13 Division I offerings for women — including soccer, which kicked off its inaugural season in 1979.
Standing at the helm
Many soccer players are advocating for equality in sports across the globe, according to McDonnell. In America, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, and Megan Rapinoe are three athletes on the United States women’s national team who are leading today’s charge.
“Megan Rapinoe's role is without question pivotal and at the forefront of these changes,” McDonnell says. “She would not back down, and she followed in a long line of activists in sports, both women and men.”
Rapinoe, who will retire in October, is one of the few white athletes who kneeled during the National Anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many Black and Brown athletes fighting racial inequality and police brutality. She has also been vocal in the demand for equal pay and an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights after coming out as gay in 2012. Recently, she’s focused on trans-rights advocacy.
“I am so sad this will be her last World Cup; she has helped to define soccer. Each generation needs and often finds the voice that will both energize and direct activism,” McDonnell says.
The work toward equality is far from over; differences remain in salary, benefits, facilities, and notoriety.
“The media's coverage of women's sports has been abysmal but has had significant changes more recently,” McDonnell says. “This year's Women's College Softball World Series was covered on ESPN platforms. The Women’s National Basketball Association is covered much more. The World Cup will be televised, and the crowds will be huge.”
With the increase in media coverage partly a response to athletes’ activism, McDonnell sees women’s soccer activism having a ripple effect on all sports. She notes how Billie Jean King's influence in tennis is impacting other sports as well as Venus Williams’ fight for equal pay in the majors.
“Men, women, boys and girls, trans athletes all see the impact courage, conviction, and withholding labor can have,” McDonnell says.