Pushing the Boundaries of Sport, Gender and Nationalism? An analysis of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

In 1999, a record-breaking crowd in California watched the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) win the FIFA World Cup. Between the team’s suspense-filled victories and the unprecedented, ‘girl next door’ media coverage, the ‘99-ers’ popularity appeared to cement the USWNT as a beloved national icon. 

Eileen Narcotta-Welp[1] argues this legacy was constructed through liberal ‘girl power’ discourses that, while opening up football as a space for women on a national stage, also reinforced dominant exclusions in U.S. Soccer (and U.S. nationalism) with intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality (See here and here).

As such, the USWNT serves as an example of the tensions between nationalism, sport, and gender. Often, women are both insiders and outsiders in sport and in the nation. They challenge and reinforce gendered norms in complex and varied ways yet often remain confined to what sport and nationalism does to women, instead of what women do to them.[2]

With this in mind, let’s consider how the current USWNT is pushing the boundaries within sport, gender, and nationalism in a noticeably different way than the 99’ team—opening the possibility for the creation of a more inclusive space in football and in U.S. nationalism. While there have been many moments and actions by the USWNT in the last year, the best example of exposing these tensions is the USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit and 2020 protest against U.S. Soccer.

The USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit sues U.S. Soccer for inequality between the U.S. Men’s and Women’s teams concerning pay, field conditions, accommodation, and staff support—a public and aggressive step the 1999 team never took. The team argued its 2019 World Cup successes provided further evidence for equal pay, despite receiving harsh criticism during the tournament for the goal celebrations that became staple moments of its World Cup wins. These actions resulted in the fans, pundits, and President Trump  calling the USWNT “unpatriotic” and “humiliating.” The public interrogation of the team’s patriotism, and its refusal to apologize for its behavior, is a sharp break from the 1999 legacy—suggesting the team’s behavior is challenging gender norms and nationalism in ways it previously has not. 

The national debate continued after the 2019 World Cup. Less than 24 hours before the U.S. was set to host a match against Japan in March, it reached a critical moment when U.S. soccer released the following counterargument against equal pay for the USWNT:

“‘It is undisputed that the job of [Men’s National Team] player requires materially more strength and speed than the job of [Women’s National Team] player…” and that “the job of MNT players carries more responsibility than the job of a WNT player.”

In response, every USWNT player warmed-up for the match with their jerseys inside-out. This created an image in which the U.S. Soccer crests on the jerseys were hidden, except for the four stars—that represent each of the team’s World Cup championships. FIFA regulations required team jerseys for the match to be worn in the usual fashion. However, the team continues to promote this image as a challenge to U.S. Soccer. Sales of shirts with this new image skyrocketed, noting the power the team holds to influence U.S. nationalism.

Importantly, the image also emphasizes that the outline of the once-present crest remains. It marks space for the team, symbolically representing the nation’s women, to return to a defined, bordered, national community. Here, despite the protest of the players, they return to the nation as an inherently exclusive ‘us versus them’ structure—which leads to the question, who is constructed to belong here and who is being excluded? 

The team decision to remove the clearest markers of U.S. identity in the crest stems from the intersection of class, gender, and nationalism. However, there have been numerous moments in the last several years when U.S. Soccer took additional appalling actions toward its players, such as prohibiting players from kneeling in protest to police violence. Yet, there was no act of solidarity by the entire team. Since the policy has been reversed, after pressure from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, already USWNT players have decide not to kneel.

Again, this makes one wonder, is solidarity by the entire USWNT limited to a liberal feminist agenda of equal pay? If so, perhaps the team’s challenge to dominant constructions of U.S. nationalism is not as divergent from its 1999 legacy as USWNT fans may wish it to be. 

It is unknown if the U.S. crest will return if equal pay is won. However, I think feminist football fans should be ready to question the circumstances of its return and whose exclusions are deemed not critical enough for unified acts of protest by the USWNT. We should be ready to ensure that challenging limited benchmarks like pay inequality does not lull women’s football from seeking more radical change. 

About the Author :

Amy Gilmore is a student in the MA program in Global Security and Borders at Queen’s University Belfast. She is interested in studying migration, mobility, and gender, and is also an avid football fan (Go Lewes FC!) (pronouns she/her)

[1] Eileen Narcotta-Welp is an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. 

[2] Ranchod-Nilsson, S. and Tetreault, MA (2000) Women, states, and nationalism: At home in the nation? Routledge: London and New York, p. 7. 

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