I don’t watch soccer. I don’t follow most professional sports. While I’ve enjoyed the occasional ball game (mostly for the cold beer, warm breeze and company of good friends on a summer’s night), I generally don’t pay attention to the play-by-play or care who wins.
But the World Cup match that secured another win for the U.S. women’s soccer team more than piqued my interest — it damn well dominated my waking consciousness this past week. I know I’m not alone because my social feeds were exploding with content about the tournament, related discourse coming out of it and the culmination with Sunday’s pinnacle match.
While the conversations I saw on social and in news stories varied from sports-talk to politics, one thing was clear: women playing soccer captured our collective attention in a way it never has before.
It raised the temperature on a debate around equal pay for women, as more people learned that the female players who captured our attention with their talent and grit make less than the men’s soccer team (who has decidedly fewer wins). Megan Rapinoe arose the hero (or foe, depending on who you are) of the whole occasion, a queer woman who doesn’t read as traditionally feminine and who donned pastel hair as she scored her 50th goal to give the U.S. team their lead in the World Cup finals. She unabashedly clapbacked at President Trump for belittling her after she preemptively refused to visit the White House as a newly minted champ. It raised the bar on how sports teams can speak out on and protest social and political issues of importance.
In fact, the whole World Cup tournament felt like one big clapback to our current political climate. In a time when “Make America Great Again” is a direct affront to the rise of equality and inclusion and headlines about children in cages are clawing apart our moral fabric, powerful queer women dominating our screens and feeds and dinner table conversation has felt like a breath of fresh air in a polluted state of affairs.
I saw images of hearty men, the kind who drink Budweiser and beat their bellies as they chant for their favorite sports team, at bars cheering on the women’s soccer team in all the glory and grit they do men’s football or baseball or basketball. The World Cup wasn’t some event where only niche audiences cared. It seized mainstream conversation, capturing the attention of everyone from little girls inspired to greater potential, to traditional sports viewers who never fancied themselves fans of queer women kicking balls around.
Just after the World Cup ended, my wife and I were channel surfing and happened upon a “cornhole” championship game, which involved a small group of men tossing bean bags into a wooden hole to little fanfare. One spectator stood behind the players, lazily gumming a hamburger. Another thumbed on his phone. They looked like the old guard on their way out, the type of men who normally took over parking lots before football games, who once had a view that everyone had to pay attention to, and who were now being elbowed out by hot, fit women who did a much better job of scoring.
I want to live in Megan Rapinoe’s America.
I want to live in an America where big brands aren’t afraid to put out commercials like Nike did, where ferocious female voiceovers chant, “I believe that we will make our voices heard. Women will conquer more than just the soccer field like breaking every single glass ceiling. That we’ll be fighting not just to make history, but to change it. Forever.” Now Nike just needs a female CEO.
The soul-draining current state of affairs in this country — where our land crumbles underneath us as those in power fail to invest in infrastructure and continue to deny that climate change is real; where our tax dollars to go pay for men with guns to rip babies from their mothers’ arms and lock them behind bars; where our health is plagued by care that costs too much; where our children have less to dream about than we did — felt suspended, if temporarily, by the hope evoked in the victory of an all-female cast. If only we were in charge of everything…
I want to live in the America that flexes its entrepreneurial spirit to solve the ills that plague us. I want to live in the America that smashes hate and inequality with the same forcefulness that the U.S. team smashed its goals. I want to live in the America that gave birth to a women’s soccer team, invested in her, allowed her to speak from her pulpit and demand better. I want that America to be the guiding light.
Sports may be silly or tangential or recreational. But they are also metaphorical. They have the power to evangelize in a way that most other institutions, less religious dogma, don’t. Even if the political discussions that emerged during the World Cup made you feel uncomfortable, you still bought into the excitement of the game. You still want to root for America. Here’s to more unconventional events that steal our hearts and minds and nudge them ever so slightly towards the right side of history.