A Body of Gold

by Madeline Anscombe

I was joking around with my dad a few weeks ago and he was mocking how serious I was about soccer when I was little. I used to worry incessantly that I wouldn’t be tall enough to play for the Women’s National Team. Now cognizant of my shortcoming, I told him that it was not my height but my laziness that separated me from my dream. Nevertheless, soccer has played a pivotal role in my life. I very vividly remember the first time I hit the field as a kindergartner and the last time as a senior in high school. Weekends were spent watching soccer with my dad in the mornings and playing and practicing in the afternoon. I missed dances and parties in exchange for trips around the country with my club team. The first screensaver I ever learned how to post was a picture of Brian McBride with a bloody nose during the 2006 World Cup (which I tiled for full effect). My dad had a season pass to the Chicago Fire and to this day I cherish the signatures his tickets granted me, (I’d name names but they are worth virtually nothing). To this day, I can name every USMNT and USWNT player currently on the roster. I could continue, but I think Clint Dempsey would probably file a restraining order.

The point is when the men’s team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 3 decades I was beside myself. Some might even say inconsolable. How could this team fail to reach such a low bar? In my undeniably foul mood, I started to think about how low this bar really was. A multimillion dollar program fell to the hands of Trinidad and Tobago, a country the size of New Hampshire. Former USMNT player and current ESPN correspondent Taylor Twellman purported that they likely do not spend a tenth of the money that the US Soccer Federation feeds into the men’s team. Twellman continues to comment on the extent to which the US men’s program is disappointing fans on the international level, failing to qualify for the past two consecutive Olympic tournaments. Not only is this embarrassing but it is infuriating. While the men fail to qualify, our women’s national team is the winningest women’s team in world history. Between 1991 to 2015, the team medaled in every Olympics and World Cup tournament. Their streak ended in the 2016 World Cup, falling to Brazil in the quarterfinal, a feat yet to be accomplished by their male counterpart. (Since then, they have reclaimed their position as the first ranked team in the world.) Yet if the men had managed to qualify for the world cup, they would have each received bonuses of $2.5 million a player, a stark contrast to the $345,000 that the women are given. The pay gap between the USMNT and USWNT is so wide that five starting players filed a lawsuit this past year to up their wages. They won the lawsuit, however still have to fight to be granted similar playing conditions as the men. Abby Wambach famously spearheaded the much needed fight for grass fields in the 2015 World Cup, a luxury that the men’s team has been accustomed to as while more expensive, grass fields are significantly safer to play on than turf.

In the many, many instances that people have tried to challenge me on this issue a few common criticisms come up. I am told that “it’s not sexism, people just like to watch men’s sports more”, “it’s not sexism, men are biologically predisposed to be more athletic than women”, or my personal favorite, being mansplained how supply and demand works. Each of these arguments boils down to the same thing: societally, we value men’s bodies more than women’s.

Economics?

The men’s team is projecting to decrease in profitability while the women’s team has increased in profitability by $5.2 million dollars in 2017 alone. The disparity between profitability will continue to even out in coming years seeing as you can’t sell ad time for games you didn’t qualify for.

Biology?

Women have had decades to catch up in athletics for records that men have taken centuries to achieve. This past week a woman won the New York Marathon, when trying to determine the gender gap in tennis Billie Jean King beat the top ranked male tennis player, many NBA players cite watching WNBA games to improve the way they play the game the list goes on and on.These accomplishments are made despite being provided with second tier coaches, playing in worse conditions, and being stigmatized for pursuing athletics. Even at the professional level, many women need day jobs to make a livable salary and play the game they love. Biology? What has really been proved is that women have higher body fat (ya know, cus of boobs) and that women are generally more flexible. In place of flexibility, men generally have more type 2 muscle fibers that make aerobic activity easier. A majority of this evidence that seemingly every male has read so extensively on lies in the disproportional amount of women who get injured in comparison to men, which when we are considering the fact that women are receiving care secondary to men this makes complete sense. Because women are generally more flexible and men are generally faster, different styles of play are often noticeable across athletics. For example, women’s lacrosse is often very agile and strategic while men’s lacrosse often tests endurance and speed. This is not to say that there aren’t men who are extremely flexible or women who are extremely fast, the biology that is so often claimed as a defense is merely a commonality across both respective genders. By conflating testosterone with strength and estrogen with frailty, athletics makes a powerful statement about the value of women’s bodies.This is not a case of biology, it is an example of how biology can be a reinforcement of biased attitudes.

Yes, you are right! People watch men’s sports more than they watch women’s. We are given the smaller stadiums, have smaller crowds, and earn less money. Although obviously I never became a professional soccer player, it would be a disservice and a lie to all aspiring female athletes to tell them that they can never run as fast or jump as high as the boys. When we do, we deserve just as big of a crowd. While I am enraged by the way female athletes are treated in soccer and beyond, I am in awe of the huge strides women have taken in athletics in the face of adversity. One of my favorite stories from the US Women’s team comes from the 1999 World Cup final against China. After remaining tied for the entirety of the game and into stoppage time,  the game went to Penalty Kicks. The US victory was secured in the third shot taken by defender Brandi Chastain and marked the first Women’s World Cup won on home soil. In her celebration, she ripped off her shirt exposing her muscles and sports bra. This response is familiar in the world of male athletics (I actually challenge you to find a game in which Ronaldo doesn’t take off his shirt at some point) but by doing so, Chastain shocked the world. She left a legacy that has challenged the notion that female athletes are all niceties and hair braiding. Breasts and muscle could be (and should be) celebrated on women’s bodies. What was a natural reaction to the heat and excitement was described by Sports Illustrated as a revelation that “her body was made of gold too.” I thought a lot about this growing up. Her body, like so many male victors before her, was made of gold.

I challenge every woman young and old to see that her body is also made of gold. Whether she plays soccer, hockey, golf or gymnastics, each woman is no less capable of greatness than her male counterpart. Challenge yourself to become more cognizant of the importance of women’s sports and engage in them the same way you do with men’s. Support your college teams and encourage your kids to participate in athletics. Lastly, I challenge the USMNT to qualify for 2022. It might be difficult, but I don’t think anyone wants to see how angry I’d get over that.