This World Cup’s Anti-USWNT Outrage Isn’t Just Hateful, It’s Irrational
Here we are again.
The U.S. women’s national soccer team, can you believe it, has done something to elicit a flood of commentary, criticism and right-wing vitriol. But in a novel twist, this time it was prompted by an on-field result — a World Cup round of 16 loss on penalties to Sweden, the first time in 12 years that the team has stumbled on the world’s biggest stage, with team lightning rod Megan Rapinoe missing her first-ever World Cup penalty kick in the process.
Clearly, a lot of people have been waiting for this to happen.
On social media, former President Donald Trump attributed the loss to current President Joe Biden, adding that many of the players were “openly hostile to America,” among more unhinged contempt. Political commentators, almost all right-leaning, have parroted this talking point, with former Fox News and NBC host Megyn Kelly declaring on her SiriusXM radio show that she was “thrilled” the U.S. lost. Players’ public stances on a number of social, cultural and political issues have repeatedly been cited as offenses that constitute “revel(ing) in anti-American vitriol,” as Texas senator and former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz put it on Twitter. So too are their marketing deals, their hairstyles, the awards some have won…everything down to the clothes they wear and the way they choose to celebrate existing at the peak of their profession.
Somehow, these voices have been given weight despite the fact that it’s likely few if any of them actually watch the USWNT, or women’s soccer, or women’s sports in general on a regular basis. And it’s all in addition to social media’s rotten waterfall of bigotry; hate speech masquerading as commentary, posted by trolls masquerading as serious people.
They’ve all gotten their chance to gloat. So here we are again.
When the U.S. women won the World Cup in 2019, conservative politicians and talking heads had a playbook they followed to the letter. The equal pay fight was at its zenith, kneeling for the national anthem was a hot topic, and Trump was trading barbs with a U.S. team that was at the center of those conversations. In a way, one could understand the uproar that accompanied that moment. The discussions at play were significant and real enough that nothing felt forced.
Four years later, no actual discussions are on the table — just wedge issues conservatives are gleefully pushing in the hopes of scoring political points.
Consider the fact that so many of the people heaping invective on this U.S. team are doing so while trumpeting the need to “protect women’s sports” – something that has never been about reducing harm for athletes or calling for increased investment and resources, but has always been about a deeply hypocritical politicization of women’s sports, about erasing trans people from public life and denying them the joy of playing at any level, and about policing the behavior of women.
These are all things that several members of the USWNT drew attention to last year, when they wore wristbands reading “Protect trans kids” during a friendly in Texas. Now, at least in part because of that stance, the players are in a target zone of hate.
The backlash actually has very little to do with the World Cup performance. You can tell because it didn’t start with the team’s loss to Sweden, or the awful performance against Portugal, or the lackluster draw against the Netherlands. It first became noticeable at the earliest possible moment, before the United States’ opening win against Vietnam, when some team members sang the national anthem and some did not. That, somehow, was enough to cause a ripple of outrage — a small one, but big enough that USWNT defender Naomi Girma was asked about it at a subsequent press conference.
The USWNT press corps — people like me who cover this team on an everyday basis — chose not to engage in that topic because it clearly wasn’t about singing the anthem. If it had been, I might have pointed out that most of the USA baseball team didn’t sing the anthem in the final of the World Baseball Classic this year, or that the USA men’s basketball team didn’t sing the anthem in the Olympic gold medal game in 2021. I could have pointed to a significant number of USMNT players who didn’t sing the anthem at the last World Cup, or identified the same among other countries who have competed in New Zealand and Australia over the last few weeks.
I might even have pointed out that the U.S. law concerning behavior during the playing of the national anthem (U.S. Code Title 36, Chapter 10, Section 171) makes exactly zero mention of singing. What it does mention, though, is standing. That isn’t something that was debated rationally very often in the buildup to World Cup 2019, but at least there was a basis to do so.
The 2023 outrage has never been rational. It’s just one group shouting regardless of whether anyone is listening or not. It is rooted in misogyny and sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia — all the antitheses to the things this team has stood for collectively and individually.
We could be talking about all of the many reasons why the USWNT failed; the actual soccer that was played, coaching mistakes, or larger systemic issues that will need to be addressed by the U.S. Soccer Federation moving forward. All those things contributed to the team’s earliest exit from a World Cup in tournament history. Becoming too “woke,” whatever that means, certainly didn’t hurt them this time, just as it didn’t help them when they won in 2019, or even in 2015.
While the attacks are crude and meritless, they have at least proven that the platforms of the USWNT as a whole, and those of players like Rapinoe, are significant and far-reaching. They have power, enough to be considered both a target and a threat. That’s still a deeply uncomfortable if not outright dangerous position to be in — there is a real, human cost to this vitriol we are forgetting as we debate whether to engage or not.
The bigger question here is: Who are we listening to right now, and why?
Is it someone like Fox Sports commentator and former U.S. men’s national team defender Alexi Lalas, who declared the USWNT “polarizing” because of their “politics, causes, stances and behavior,” at least to a certain “portion of America?” I wonder if he has followed his own train of thought long enough to consider how his network’s coverage of the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar had its own political approach, from choosing to ignore Qatar’s lengthy history of human rights abuses directly related to that World Cup, to segments like the one in which Lalas appeared in a thobe alongside Qatari influencer Khalifa Al Haroon (also known as Mr. Q).
Perhaps instead we should be listening to the voices that know this team, this sport, and the USWNT’s legacy that extends beyond the field. There are numerous current and former players who have provided excellent analysis through the World Cup, and players from other national teams who have credited the USWNT with growing the sport. If the U.S. women’s national team had clearly been acting out of step with what was expected of them, surely these are the people who would be able to tell.
“The U.S. women’s national team, they’re pioneers,” Sweden forward Kosovare Asllani told Tobin Heath in a clip posted following her team’s win over the U.S. “You are raising the game, you’re opening doors for the rest of the community, the rest of the world. You’re first with everything.”
She also mentioned she had told an American journalist not to “talk sh–” about the USWNT.
I still can’t help but resent even having to write this column. I resent having to spend a single second of a single minute of a single day at this World Cup — a tournament of upsets and excellence — thinking about what bad-faith politicians and commentariat have to say about the USWNT loss. All of this is so cynical, so manufactured and so cheap. It’s not about soccer, nor is it about the facts, nor has it ever been. They’ve been waiting to see this team stumble, and they’ve finally cashed in on their chase to poison the USWNT’s World Cup platform for their own gain — especially in the case of Rapinoe.
Something she said four summers ago still works at this moment, though.
“I think that I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American,” Rapinoe said, addressing her own view of what patriotism means. “If we want to talk about the ideals that we stand for, the song and the anthem, and what we were founded on, I think I’m extremely American.”
This team, more than ever before, represents the diversity of the United States. Keeping the spotlight on them as players, as humans, and on their platform and their “politics, stances, causes and behaviors” — as if any of those are anything but standing on the right side of history — is the best way to ensure they win, even if they are out of the World Cup.
Otherwise, we’ll just be right back here again.
[Meg Linehan is a senior writer for The Athletic who covers the U.S. women's national team, the National Women's Soccer League and more. She also hosts the weekly podcast "Full Time with Meg Linehan." Follow Meg on Twitter @itsmeglinehan]