In 1999, the USWNT was on top of the world. Americans fell in love with the 99ers who won the Women’s World Cup on home soil, with Brandi Chastain’s shirtless celebration becoming one of the first soccer moments to transcend into mainstream culture in the U.S.
Twenty years later, the USWNT was back on top of the world. Megan Rapinoe led the USWNT to a fourth Women’s World Cup, but the love didn’t necessarily follow. Half of the country hated the team for reasons having little to do with soccer.
Following the USWNT’s Olympic opener earlier this month, people across the U.S. reveled in schadenfreude. The world champs were crushed 3-0 by Sweden, and if our Facebook comments are anything to go by, a lot of people were happy to see them lose. It begs the question: Why do people hate the USWNT?
U.S. Women’s National Team: From Heroes To Hated In 20 Years
The USWNT’s journey from 1999 darlings to 2019 villains was not linear, nor was it predetermined. The two teams are not all that dissimilar in how they stood for social issues and fought for equal pay despite the generational gap — the only thing that has changed is how certain parts of the country perceive those actions.
Chastain’s bra-revealing celebration made the team beloved across the country after winning the Women’s World Cup in front of 90,000 screaming fans at the Rose Bowl in the most dramatic of circumstances. What followed was a parade of appearances on U.S. TV, including an awkward interview on the “Today” show that has not aged well.
Everyone, it seemed, loved the USWNT, with players becoming celebrities overnight. Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers already had a modicum of popularity, but now the whole country knew the names of Chastain, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett.
From the start, the 99ers fought for equal pay and treatment, and with good reason. Players had to put up with quality of life issues such as being given a pathetic $10 per diem and flying across country in middle seats in the smoking section (yes, you used to be able to smoke on planes). The players had to organize their own victory tour because of pay disputes with the U.S. Soccer Federation. In 2000, the team boycotted a tournament in Australia over more pay complaints. Even before they were national heroes, Akers, Foudy, Hamm, Lilly and Fawcett were locked out of a pre-Olympic training camp over bonus pay disagreements in 1995.
Those early teams also stood for women’s rights and other important social issues; iconic keeper Brianna Scurry was one of the first African-American soccer players and also one of the first openly gay professional soccer players, often campaigning for gender equality.
Back then there was little backlash against the women for asking for more money like there is today. There was a lot of unnecessary sexualization of the players, and in that respect, there has been some progress, but not nearly enough. Despite the misogyny, the mainstream American culture generally praised these athletes without criticism of their off-field work, be it fighting for equal pay or for women’s rights.
As the years progressed, the USWNT’s perception began to change.
2000-2015 — Athletes Being Athletes
Throughout the 2000s, the USWNT took a bit of a back seat to the USMNT for the first time. The men reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, its best finish in the current format. The USMNT reached as high as No. 4 in the FIFA rankings in 2006, though that was immediately followed by crashing out of that year’s World Cup in the group stage. Meanwhile the USWNT was in the midst of its longest World Cup drought, finishing third in 2003 and 2007. The U.S. women did win gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but they didn’t quite capture the attention of the public until the 2010s, but by then one pro league had folded and another was well on its way.
By the 2011 World Cup, the USWNT was working itself back into mainstream popularity. Played in Germany, it was the first Women’s World Cup where Americans regularly watched while at work. Megan Rapinoe’s inch-perfect cross and Abby Wambach’s towering header in the 122nd minute of the quarterfinal against Brazil helped once again spark the country’s imagination. Though the U.S. fell short to Japan in the final — in a feel-good story after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami — the USWNT was back in the mainstream sporting consciousness, building on the soccer momentum in the country after the 2010 World Cup.
In the 2011 and 2015 Women’s World Cups, the discussion wasn’t “Wow, look at these women doing sports!” like in 1999, nor was it about the players’ politics as it was in 2019. Instead it seemed like the sports world was taking the players seriously as professional athletes. There were actual criticisms of tactics and discussions on the best strategy for the team. The USWNT was treated like a sports team instead of the cliché of women’s athletes being pigeonholed into being role models and moms. There was still plenty of sexism surrounding coverage of the team, but politics weren’t really much of an issue outside of the usual homophobes.
All the while, the USWNT didn’t have much controversy. Sure, there was the Hope Solo vs. Brianna Scurry fiasco in 2007, but the American women generally stayed under the radar, for better or worse (mostly for the worst, as WUSA and WPS folded before the NWSL launched in 2013).
By winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the USWNT was back in the spotlight. Carli Lloyd’s unforgettable first-half hat trick against Japan in the final made her the biggest women’s soccer star since Mia Hamm. The final was the most-watched soccer match in American broadcast history, men’s or women’s, drawing in more viewers than the NBA or NHL finals.
While most Americans ignored the USWNT’s pleas to not play the 2015 tournament on turf (pleas that fell on deaf FIFA ears) and were oblivious to the ongoing pay disputes with the federation, the American women were sporting heroes.
What changed in the late 2010s that saw huge swathes of the country begin to spew vitriolic hate toward the USWNT every time they did something in the public eye? In many ways, the hate began with the women players pointing out the injustice of having to play the World Cup on artificial turf and continued to grow until it boiled over at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
2015-2019 — Haters Gonna Hate
If 2015 was mostly a good year for the USWNT, playing surface arguments aside, 2016 was the start of the decline to where we are today, starting with five team members make a wage discrimination charge against U.S. Soccer in April.
After bowing out in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics — to date the worst performance of any USWNT at any major international tournament — Hope Solo blasted Sweden as a “bunch of cowards” for playing defensively in a 1-1 draw, which Sweden won 4-3 on penalties. The18 wrote at the time that Solo was a “different kind of loser” and threw around some of the same “role model” tropes that have long plagued women’s sports, echoing the sentiments of many Americans. Back home, it was the beginning of the end of the USWNT’s Hope Solo era, the last major tournament for perhaps the game’s greatest goalkeeper.
The Olympics failure was bad, but the USWNT hate really began to pick up steam in the fall of 2016. That August, the U.S. began to face a reckoning on race following well-publicized police killings of unarmed Black men. In response, many athletes began kneeling during the national anthem, a form of protest started by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Megan Rapinoe, who was an all-tournament selection at the World Cup the prior year but not quite the icon she is today, joined the kneeling protests, first in an NWSL match and then while playing for the USWNT in September.
View this post on Instagram
The response was as quick as it was acerbic.
Anthem kneeling was one of the most divisive moments in the 2010s in American culture. Athletes, often seen as apolitical, were using their platforms to talk about social issues. While athletes have long fought for social justice, this time felt different because of the politics of the time, with Donald Trump and his brand of white nationalist politics competing against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in the 2016 presidential election.
For the most part (but not entirely), Americans were divided between Democrats supporting the anthem protests and Republicans who despised it. Trump loudly spoke out against the activist athletes while Clinton quietly supported them.
Despite not harming or disrespecting anyone, the message of these athletes was generally ignored by one half of the country to focus on the method of the non-violent protest. Most of the hate was targeted at Kaepernick, who despite being one of many protesters was blackballed out of the NFL, but Rapinoe received her fair share.
U.S. Soccer was not a fan, either. In 2017, it instituted a rule banning players from taking a knee during the national anthems while playing for the national team, a rule that was repealed in 2020.
2019 World Cup — The Tipping Point
The political divisions continued throughout Trump’s tenure as president. By 2019, most sports fans were well aware of the fact Rapinoe and many of her teammates did not like Trump. That year, 28 USWNT members filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. Unlike pay disputes from the 99ers, these complaints were met by anger from those of a certain political persuasion, in part because of the actions of Rapinoe in 2016.
The USWNT entered the 2019 World Cup as a favorite and opened the tournament against Thailand. This was another turning point for haters of the USWNT.
The U.S. won 13-0, with goal No. 1 celebrated just as heartily as No. 13. The type of sports fan who only looks at women athletes as role models was appalled, and the social media reaction showed the wheel turning against the American players.
The USWNT plodded its way through the rest of the tournament, eking out three straight 2-1 wins to reach the final, with Rapinoe scoring four of those six goals, two from the spot. All the while, Rapinoe was engaged in a Twitter war with President Trump, who as we mentioned was no fan of her anthem protests. Rapinoe added one more penalty in the final and became a national hero/antihero.
This was truly the moment when the USWNT became a totally divisive team. You either loved them or you fucking hated the shit out of them.
Rapinoe was kicking ass and taking names in France all while mocking the president. Everyone was angry and everyone had to pick a side. Trump supporters were angry at Rapinoe for speaking her mind, Trump haters were angry at Trump supporters for being angry at Rapinoe and the sports fan who ignore how athletes have always been political were angry at athletes being political. Fuck, I’m angry just writing about it. And, of course, there was still the undercurrent of sexism and homophobia through it all.
In the end, Rapinoe won the Golden Boot, Golden Ball and the hate of half of America. But she and her teammates didn’t stop there.
Where We’re At Today (2021)
While 2019 was a peak for USWNT hate, it by no means slowed down in 2020. Once again, the U.S. was in the midst of a heated presidential election, and once again police brutality and white supremacy took center stage during the summer.
While the impetus was similar, the response was different. George Floyd’s murder sparked protests far larger than anything seen in 2016, and athletes were far more willing to become involved. Men’s players across the globe, starting with Texas native Weston McKennie playing in Germany, protested in support of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. It became common for players to take a knee before matches in Europe in solidarity (though not during national anthems, which aren’t played before club matches).
But that was all in Europe. The first professional team sport to resume play in the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic was the National Women’s Soccer League.
Before the first NWSL match in 2020, members of both the N.C. Courage and Portland Thorns took a knee during the anthem while wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. Those who don’t believe that black lives matter or who feel peaceful protest shouldn’t be allowed in sports were outraged, but it was a powerful moment for women’s soccer in the U.S.
Similar protests continued throughout the NWSL Challenge Cup (and the MLS Is Back Tournament). Once again, politics divided soccer fans around the country.
Now in 2021, the vitriol hasn’t subsided. In a pre-Olympics friendly, misinformation was proliferated by baseless blogs suggesting USWNT players turned away from a World War II veteran playing the national anthem (they were actually facing the American flag).
Back on the world stage at the Tokyo Olympics, USWNT haters celebrated the team’s 3-0 defeat to Sweden to open the group stage. Somewhat hilariously, many people pointed out that the team was focused too much on politics and being “woke” instead of the match at hand, despite the fact these same players with the same social stances won the World Cup two years earlier, never mind players on both teams took a knee before the match (but not during national anthems).
Maybe our women's soccer team would have won if they spent more time practicing and less time being woke activists. https://t.co/BFtgjpo7n7— Brent Bozell (@BrentBozell) July 21, 2021
So, Why Do People Hate The USWNT?
In many ways, the USWNT hate and divisiveness has followed the political divisions in the country.
Two decades ago, politics were somewhat discordant, but there was a general acceptance of facts and good faith arguments. As the 2010s wore on, the two political parties began working with entirely different sets of facts, one party actively working to deceive the public with lies and gaslighting over everything from crowd sizes to deadly diseases. The Covid-19 pandemic was the purest example of two parties accepting different truths, but the dissonance in how fans viewed anthem protests was another. One half of the country is working to understand and diminish the systemic inequalities that exist in society while the other is actively trying to ignore them or insist they’re made up.
USWNT fans now fall into two similar categories, with very little room for nuance. You either love the team for its support of human rights, ability to win more than any other team in history and general badassery, or you hate the fact these grown adults use their platform to speak up for issues important to them.
In summary, why do people hate the USWNT? It started with general misogyny, grew into the inability to accept women athletes being something other than role models and mother figures and finally exploded into political division.
Will the hate ever go away or change? Given the current political climate, it seems unlikely. But with enough time/roster turnover and allowing for cultural norms to allow women athletes to be something more than a pretty diversion from the men’s games, the USWNT might once again be a team the whole country can get behind.
Until then, every one of our posts about the USWNT will receive nasty comments from trolls. We can’t wait to see the comments from this one.