Bold Lips and Bolder Actions: Advocacy and the Women’s World Cup

The tournament may be over, but the larger fight goes on

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Earlier this month, a crowd of thousands of fans decked in face paint and jerseys and wielding signs gathered in front of New York City Hall to celebrate the U.S. Women’s National Team’s still-fresh World Cup victory. As U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro proudly recited the name of each player, the crowd erupted in a punctuating two-word response: “PAY HER!” 

The USWNT used shreds of their gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer as parade confetti, with Allie Long even grinning for Instagram and shoving a page in her mouth. There was something that was so invigorating and punk rock about watching the latter moment, and “invigorating” and “punk rock” are two phrases I never expected to use to describe Allie Long, but here we are. 

On that same stage as Cordeiro, USWNT co-captain and Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe, who has in the past month, become a popular symbol of hopeful queer defiance in a country that needed one badly, spoke. She gave us all a pep talk, a nation held in a locker room, rapt and waiting for words form our benevolent Coach: “This is my charge to everybody. Do what you can. Do what you have to do. Step outside of yourself. Be more. Be better. Be bigger than you’ve ever been before.”

Today, as I write this, activists with the feminist advocacy group UltraViolet and supporters are gathering at U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago to deliver petitions signed by thousands of fans echoing the USWNT’s pay equity demands. As with the scene in New York of fans shouting at Cordeiro, seeing the players, individually and collectively, advocate and demand better for themselves has inspired supporters to do the same. 

It is impossible to compare the matters of pay equity for world-class professional athletes and the myriad of tragedies of inequity and violence, but as the Women’s World Cup provided a refreshing respite from the troubles of the world, it also thrust many of them into stark relief. As we celebrate the triumphs and successes of Marta and Ajara Nchout and Megan Rapinoe, we are just as quickly reminded of how much work needs to be done for not just a more just and equitable footballing infrastructure worldwide, but a more just and equitable world. 

Sport always echoes the world around it, a painfully obvious metaphor skipping past defenders and swinging a scarf. There’s a hard lesson many of us have had to learn very quickly since 2016, and quite a few haven’t bothered to learn yet. In the age of thirsty tweets about Robert Mueller and Beto O’Rourke, we’re still waiting for an easy cure-all, one person or thing who can make all the bad stuff go away. But no one person or report or breakthrough can eradicate years upon years of systemic injustice, inequity and violence that led us to this point. Our only hope is to organize, work together and be our own heroes. 

Individually and collectively, the USWNT and its players have been such an inspiring presence. n addition to being gifted players and producing truly captivating Instagram content (@Emmys, wyd?), they saw a large, public moment to advocate for themselves, for their communities, for everyone watching at home, and took it. There’s a reason “Rapinoe 2020” signs and shirts began popping up everywhere, a reason for the tweets referring to her as “MY president” flooding our feeds—she encourages us to use our consciences loudly, and unapologetically, while wearing dope sunglasses. But she’s far from the only one. Much has been written about Rapinoe’s forthrightness with her politics and her protests in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and all those affected by racist state violence, but we also should listen to Christen Press and other players who call for the conversation to center racial equity as well as gender equity, and to Jessica McDonald who spoke with great candor about the economic challenges of parenting on an NWSL salary.

Just as people around the world are watching their institutions fail and fail again, so was the Women’s World Cup a reminder of the institutional failures of women’s soccer around the world. Every success came with a reminder of one of those systemic failures—before there were packed stadiums, there was FIFA’s ticketing snafu. When Estefanía Banini and Argentina shocked everyone in their opening appearance, as we watched them enchant, it was hard not to also feel the bitter sting in remembering that Argentina’s FA had just professionalized women’s soccer months before, and that the women were making the same as the men in the fourth division. We were so close to never experiencing the elation of Havana Solaun’s wondergoal, Jamaica’s first ever in a Women’s World Cup, because the Jamaican FA had so painfully under-resourced women’s soccer. The excitement of a Round of 16 clash between Germany and Nigeria was tainted by the horrific, lazy racism of American commentators

Every athlete who appeared and excelled at the 2019 World Cup did so in spite of decades of institutional racism, sexism and economic inequity on the parts of FIFA and their national federations. Every athlete who appeared and excelled at the 2019 World Cup did so in spite of racist, sexist commentators (and in Cameroon’s case, the sanctimonious tut-tutting of the British sporting press), in spite of Premier League avatar reply guys, in spite of Presidents inciting mobs against them. 

There is not one singular fix, not one hero or lawsuit or goal celebration, that can fix all that is wrong with the footballing world, all that was ugly and evil on display during this World Cup. But we can find hope and inspiration moving forward in the way the athletes and supporters—not just those from the USWNT, but those from around the world—advocated for themselves and their communities in ways large and small. 

There were, of course, the larger-scale demonstrations with tangible demands. Ada Hegerberg spoke volumes with her absence. Following a heartbreaking Round of 16 loss to Germany, the Nigerian national team worked together and staged a sit-in at their hotel to demand yet-unpaid bonuses from the Nigerian FA. Seeing this kind of collective action is essential for raising awareness and encouraging a conversation about pay equity outside of an American or Western-centric context, and hopefully will encourage other efforts of solidarity in the future. 

But there was also strength to be found in much smaller gestures, like seeing Super Falcons star Francisca Ordega shut down some reply guy on Twitter with a simple, cutting “are you done talking?” It’s the kind of remark that is so full of intent and clarity that you can feel it in your spine. Like seeing Sam Kerr, after receiving homophobic abuse on Twitter, clap back with the now-iconic “suck on that one,” responding to attacks on her skill and her full personhood on her own terms. Marta, donning a now-iconic bold red lip, gave the world perhaps the singular moment of the tournament, urging the next generation to be their own heroes. 

Supporters beyond those in Chicago this week, too, used the tournament as a means to advocate for a more just and equitable footballing world. Weeks before Kelley O’Hara kissed her girlfriend in the stands after the final, we saw Les Dégommeuses, flying a rainbow flag tifo, demand a footballing future free from homophobia and the French FA’s insistence on a compulsory, stereotypically “feminine” aesthetic and presence to Les Bleues

The spirit of these squads, these athletes, this tournament, these supporters, the message that we must be the advocates now and work for ourselves and for and with each other to create the club culture, the sport, the country, the world we want, extends beyond football itself. 

Last weekend, thousands of Chicagoans gathered in Daley Plaza to demand an expanded definition of sanctuary for our neighbors—an end to police collaboration with ICE, an end to detention and concentration camps, the elimination of the Chicago Police Department’s gang database. On the backs of many marchers, I saw quite a few familiar names: Morgan, Rapinoe, O’Hara. Maybe this is pollyannaish of me, but I am convinced that at least in some cases, this wardrobe choice was intentional, that to wear the names of bold, self-advocating women will inspire others to get organized and show up to beat back the many horrific injustices that surround us. 

In the face of inequity, in the face of unspeakable horror, in the face of whatever the world continues to throw, we will put on a bold lip, collaborate with our neighbors and communities and be bigger than we’ve ever been before. 

Lindsay Eanet can be seen reading at live shows around Chicago and next to you at your favorite bar, skipping over all your songs on the jukebox. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’sPasteSEASONGrokNation and others. She is the host & producer of I’ll Be There for You, a new podcast about pop culture and coping. But enough about her, let’s talk about you.