Column: U.S. women’s soccer team still has a long way to go on equality scale

U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo reaches in to punch the ball away as Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt (14) goes for a header and Carli Lloyd (10) does her best to help out Solo at Winnipeg.

U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo reaches in to punch the ball away as Sweden’s Amanda Ilestedt (14) goes for a header and Carli Lloyd (10) does her best to help out Solo at Winnipeg.

(Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)

The Women’s World Cup has only been kicking around for a week, yet it seems all the requirements for a major American female sports competition have already been fulfilled.

Sexist comment by a national sports commentator? Check.

Athletes negatively impacted by playing in substandard conditions that would never be forced upon men? Check.

Pandering television coverage? Check.

Double standards involving off-field behavior? Check.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team is one of the most powerful and enduring athletic operations in this country. It has brought home two World Cup championships, four Olympic gold medals, and was ranked No. 1 in the world for nearly seven consecutive years. It has created national celebrities such as Mia Hamm, media stars such as Julie Foudy, and empowered millions of young women to punch through ceilings and break down barriers.


Yet its biggest victory still awaits, that being the day it can compete on a worldwide stage and be viewed with the same respect — and scrutiny — as the men.

“We live in such a patriarchal sports culture, it continually diminishes the talents and accomplishments of women while highlighting their objectification,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “You look at the Women’s World Cup, it’s there at the forefront once again.”

It started before the tournament started, when FIFA, soccer’s loathsome governing body, decided for the first time to allow a World Cup to be played on artificial turf. The six Canadian host cities made the request because of the difficulty in growing the proper grass in their climate. FIFA agreed even though, for soccer games in the summer, such turf is hot, slippery and dangerous.

Several high-profile players sued FIFA over the decision based on gender equity — the men have never played on artificial turf — but that suit was dropped. Still, the effects have already been seen in games played on fields as hot as 120 degrees. There have been numerous slips and muscle cramping among players struggling after nearly two hours of running on what is essentially concrete.

“The players won’t say it, but I will: The field situation is terrible, it’s crazy,” said Foudy, a television analyst and former national team co-captain. “FIFA calls themselves guardians of the game, but there’s no way the guardian of the game for both men and women would hold a World Cup on turf.”

The foolishness continued when the tournament began with Hope Solo in goal for the U.S. team despite the uncovering of documents indicating she was the aggressor in an alleged domestic violence incident last spring. Although the case had been dropped for procedural reasons, police records, depositions and interviews obtained by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” allege Solo slammed her teenage nephew’s head into the floor during the altercation.

Unlike players involved in recent domestic violence cases in the NFL, Solo was not punished for the incident, and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati shamefully acknowledged Saturday the federation never fully investigated it.

If this were a men’s sport, the appropriateness of Solo playing under these circumstances would have been loudly questioned until public pressured forced her from the team. But sadly, the women are still viewed differently, more like a cute sideshow than a group of serious athletes whose representation of this country is vital and whose national impact is real.

A low point took place on the Women’s World Cup’s home TV network, Fox, when Solo’s troubles were showered with nauseating indifference.

“Save it for Judge Judy,” Eric Wynalda, a former U.S. men’s star, said during a televised discussion. “I don’t really need to know what is going on the outside of the field right now.”

Save it for Judge Judy? Can you imagine if someone said that about Ray Rice?

Then the tournament began and, of course, somebody with a giant microphone just had to make a sexist remark. This time it was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who commented on German players turning their heads away from the ball during a brilliant free-kick goal by Norway, saying, “They might not have wanted to mess their hair.”

Smith later apologized on Twitter, but the notion of these players as AYSO Barbies remains strong in the minds even among those who should know better.

“That is a prominent example of the framework through which most people look at female sports,” said Lebowitz. “The play in this Women’s World Cup rivals anything you will see anywhere in sports — the speed of the game, the incredible athleticism of the game, yet it’s obscured by the idiocy of some of the ideas of female athletes.”

America’s Title IX-inspired female athletes are the greatest in the world, and should be held to the highest standard. Yet even now, in the tournament’s televised discussions and written accounts, there are few hard criticisms of a group that has a scary win against 10th-ranked Australia and a dispirited tie against fifth-ranked Sweden.

There has been very little questioning about the benching of veteran Abby Wambach, who is third in career World Cup goals. Yet remember the outrage last summer when the U.S. men’s team cut veteran Landon Donovan? Several U.S. players have clearly underachieved, particularly its front line and midfielders — except for irrepressible Megan Rapinoe — yet many concerns are muted or couched.

Sometimes the difference on television can be found in what the Fox announcers don’t say. In the 64th minute against Sweden on Friday, Carli Lloyd collided heads so hard with Sweden’s Jessica Samuelsson that Lloyd was sprawled out in pain while Samuelson was briefly taken from the field for treatment of a huge gash in her head. Both players finished the game, and not once did anyone mention the idea they should have been pulled out to undergo a concussion examination.

If this were a men’s sport — remember Stephen Curry against Memphis early in the NBA playoffs? — there would have been outrage.

Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at USC and coauthor of a recently released study of how TV news media covers women’s sports, said his research shows women are constantly discussed in softer tones.

“The excitement level we see in the coverage of women’s sports is mostly bland,” he said. “Women athletes are framed in safe sorts of ways, as mothers, girls next door, girlfriends, categories we can be comfortable with.”

There’s at least one area in which this dynamic is thankfully changing, that being Twitter, where Foudy said the increased public questioning is welcome after years in which, after a bad game, she would get angry that nobody seemed to care enough to rip.

“While the criticism is obviously not to the level of the men’s game, it’s still light years ahead of when I played,” said Foudy. “It’s a sign of respect that we are talking about what the U.S should do to get better, poking holes in our strategy. That’s good thing.”

One step forward, one step back into the manhole. At the end of Friday’s telecast, Fox showed a Women’s World Cup promo featuring fans in a bar — apparently watching women’s soccer on television. The most distinct fan is a bald guy raising his right fist in triumph.

The guy is proudly wearing a U.S. national team souvenir: a Cobi Jones jersey.

Twitter: @billplaschke