National Girls and Women in Sports Day: Creating an Even Playing Field for All Athletes

soccerFrom tennis to mixed martial arts, women excelled across a broad spectrum of athletic events in 2015. They graced Sports Illustrated covers and ESPN highlight reels, achieving excellence in a world still dominated by testosterone. Yet even though 44 years have passed since President Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, sexism continues to rear its ugly head in competitive athletics. Even women who reach the pinnacles of success in their fields face constant battles against subtle but pervasive gender inequality.

Female athletes still have a long way to travel on the road toward total parity with men.

As 2016 ushers in another year of nail-biting finishes, heart-wrenching losses, and championship victories, it’s time to celebrate the women who made 2015 a remarkable year in sports and reflect on the work that still remains on the road to gender equality. On February 3, the Women’s Sports Foundation will do just that by hosting the 30th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day in Washington, D.C. The event will both celebrate the progress that female athletes have made over the last four decades and promote ways to advance women’s status in the world of sports.

It would be impossible to discuss athletic accomplishments from 2015 without recognizing the ladies of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, who, in a single game, gave the United States more fútbol glory than the men’s team has offered in more than 100 years of existence. What follows is a commentary on how the team has maintained its tradition of excellence in the face of the misogyny that remains heavily embedded in competitive sports.

In July 2015, with a 5-2 victory over Japan, the U.S. women’s national soccer team became World Cup champions and the only team in women’s soccer with three Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) titles under its belt. The U.S. has dominated the international women’s soccer scene since 1991, when Michelle Akers led the team to its first World Cup Championship. In 1999, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy carried the team to its second World Cup Championship and sparked a revolution in women’s sports, selling out stadiums and setting records for attendance at women’s sporting events. A cast of world-class athletes — Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo, to name a few — followed in their cleated footsteps, bringing national media attention to women’s soccer and continuing to increase the game’s popularity.

Despite the consistent growth and success of women’s soccer in the United States, FIFA as an organization treats women’s soccer like the less-loved baby sibling of men’s soccer. FIFA offers prize money to teams that earn a spot in the World Cup, awarding the grand prize to the tournament winner. When Germany emerged victorious from the men’s bracket in 2014, it walked away with $35 million. In contrast, when the United States won the 2015 Women’s World Cup, FIFA awarded the team only $2 million. To put this sum in perspective, men’s teams that were eliminated in the 2014 tournament’s opening round pocketed $8 million apiece — four times more than the 2015 women’s championship team.

In a second blatant display of sexism, FIFA insulted female soccer players across the world by organizing the 2015 women’s World Cup on turf fields while providing men’s teams with grass fields. Aside from concerns regarding their safety as a playing surface, turf fields also affect ball movement and cutting ability. When 80 female players from around the globe sued FIFA for gender discrimination, the organization responded with threats of suspensions and unnecessary legal delays. FIFA rejected multiple settlement offers and ultimately drove the players to withdraw their lawsuit in order to focus solely on preparing for the tournament.

The U.S women’s national soccer team is almost assuredly the most popular women’s sports team in the United States. They draw large, diverse crowds, and their TV ratings consistently exceed those of many major sporting events — men’s or women’s. If a group of women could show the world that women’s sports are worth getting excited about, it would be this team. Yet if you ask a typical sports fan whether they prefer to watch men’s sports or women’s sports, you will almost assuredly receive the following answer: “Men’s sports are simply more fun to watch. It’s like they’re playing a totally different game.”

When people tell me that we have reached gender equality in sports, I laugh out loud. I laugh because I have experienced firsthand the disparities that arise from the assumption that men are fundamentally more athletic than women. I laugh because most people in the United States cannot name their local WNBA team, let alone the last time they actually attended a women’s sporting event. And I laugh because even the U.S. women’s national soccer team — still basking in the glory of its World Cup victory — does not enjoy the same benefits as less successful men’s soccer teams.

2015 was a successful year for women in sports, but female athletes still have a long way to travel on the road toward total parity with men. Hopefully, National Girls and Women in Sports Day will continue the conversation about how to create an even playing field for future generations of girls and women.