NEW YORK – When the U.S. women’s national soccer team rolled up Broadway to celebrate its second straight World Cup championship, that stretch of black asphalt was once again transformed into the 10-deep, tiptoes to catch a glimpse, confetti-littered Canyon of Heroes.
You saw them play. Whether it was a 13-0 win over Thailand, Alex Morgan’s tea-sipper of a goal in a semifinal win over England or Megan Rapinoe’s monster penalty kick to break a stalemate in a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final. Argue over those celebrations if you must, but they were brash and loud and excellent and fun and – face it – that is exactly what we as a nation are known for on the world stage.
England coach Phil Neville even called them ruthless, and I’m pretty sure that was a compliment.
“We really do appreciate all that it takes to shut down the biggest best city in the world for the biggest best team in the world,” Rapinoe said with just the right modesty.
Which is none.
They are updates on a heroic prototype, not for their decorum, but for what they do on the field and the way they use their deliberately-earned platform. These players dance and curse and talk back to authority figures. They demand your respect first and then earn it all over again on the field. They are the icons we didn’t even know we needed.
Arianna Mosca, 11, begged her mother to let her come to the parade. She plays in their Yorktown Heights hometown, and Paola was keeping the surprise until the night before, when she announced she was bringing the whole family.
“We are here because of what this team represents for this country,” Paola said.
Paola attributes her soccer knowledge to her native Colombia, but like Canadians Michele Krech and Pam Hrick, the Americans on that stage stand for something that crosses national borders.
“Yes, we’re female athletes, but we’re so much more than that,” Rapinoe said in an impassioned speech to end the party. “You’re so much more than that.”
She was even magnanimous when U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro mispronounced her name as “RAP-in-o” when he attempted to win over heckling fans during a speech about giving the women’s game the focus and resources it deserves.
If you want to convince the throngs at City Hall you respect the game, it would help to pronounce the MVP’s name right. The error plays right into the idea that U.S. Soccer is run by clueless suits who aren’t even familiar enough with their own stars to get their names right. In fairness, it’s only been said 1,000 times a broadcast.
For the record, it’s Ra-PEE-no, as MC Robin Roberts exaggerated when she got back to the microphone.
Rapinoe let Cordeiro off the hook by explaining she thought he was on the right side of the equal pay issue. And she meant it. She said it with deft humor, with generosity, and with a solid upper hand. There was no killing the feel-good mood that descended over City Hall for this celebration.
“This is my charge to everyone, we have to be better,” Rapinoe said. “We have to love more, hate less. We got to listen more and talk less.”
Equal pay was a topic, and a chant, that kept coming up.
At times it was organic, like when Krech and Hrick shouted it before the player floats came by City Hall. At other times, it was a bit forced, as when Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray both used “U-S-A, equal pay” in their opening remarks once the ceremony began. The message is really better when the players take the lead, and they’ve been more than capable at managing critique even from the president himself.
President Donald Trump, you may recall, invited the players to visit the White House once Rapinoe said she wouldn’t go, and then appeared to forget he’d issued the invitation once they won the title.
Although there were those political moments, and the team will visit New York Senator Chuck Schumer in Washington in upcoming days, the day wasn’t about politics. Those fans didn’t line the streets for a stump speech and candidacy announcement, they were there to cheer for the take-no-prisoners team who have won 14 straight World Cup games and broke scoring records to repeat as victors.
But when you play or watch women’s sports you can’t help but become aware of the inequity in coverage and resources. Changing a system like that is difficult, maybe impossible. But trying, and really forcing the issue for the generations of women who will come after you, might just qualify as heroic.
In soccer, it’s particularly skewed. Scandal-plagued FIFA has richly rewarded the men’s game while starving the women’s side of resources and the spotlight.
The American men didn’t even make the tournament last year while the women set an international standard for excellence. These women can win all the World Cups and it will never be enough as soccer officials chase the potential of the men’s team.
They are chasing unicorns, while Secretariat eyes them warily.
U.S. Soccer is a nonprofit. It doesn’t need revenue to pay its employees – the players – equitably. It can create a model based on its own value system, not the misogynistic one imposed by FIFA.
But nonetheless, the USWNT player’s association suspected that revenues weren’t being maximized for their team, and got some of those marketing rights back with the most recent collective bargaining agreement. In the year before the World Cup their new marketing company negotiated 30 new deals.
One of those recent licensees, Breaking T, whipped off four new designs that were ready to go the day of the championship. Rapinoe is on one T-shirt with her outstretched hands, Alex Morgan sips tea on another and a third touts the slogan “Rapinoe-Bird 2020.” The backstory on that last one is a fabulous piece WNBA star Sue Bird wrote about her golden-boot girlfriend.
Most of that money goes to the players, which means there is a delightful symmetry in buying a “Pay the Women” T-shirt and the money actually goes to paying the women.
“It’s a hot market,” said NFLPA president of licensing and business development Steve Scebelo.
That was evidenced at City Hall, as fans wore licensed gear and custom jerseys that read “Lando’free ”and “Equality.” Major League Baseball would be ecstatic to have so many young fans in their futures market.
Maybe one day, the USWNT can just focus on playing soccer. In the meantime, they can coast down the Canyon of Heroes knowing they’re well worthy of the layered meaning behind the title.
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