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USWNT leaders represent equality, divided country on World Cup stage

Many of the values U.S. players stand for are being debated or denounced politically nationwide

Member of the United States women's national soccer team pose for a picture during the team's Women's World Cup media day in New York, Friday, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK — The three team captains confidently answered questions about their fight for equal pay. Two recently-engaged players gushed about how incredible it feels to represent their country together. Another hoped to be an example for women of color in America who aspire to be professional athletes. 

The USWNT is diverse and proud and patriotic. Its players speak about being role models and serving a greater purpose of promoting equality, diversity and inclusion with the same passion in their voices as when they tap the U.S. Soccer crest on their jerseys and describe the honor they feel wearing it. 

And they will represent the United States next month at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France during an increasingly divisive time, when many of the values the players stand for are being debated or denounced politically nationwide.

“I think equality for all requires people who have more [power] right now to give up some, which I think is a good thing for everyone. But some people don’t want to give that up, so they’re doing everything they can to keep all of it,” co-captain Megan Rapinoe said Friday morning during a pre-World Cup media day at Twitter’s New York City headquarters. “I don’t think it’s surprising. Maybe they feel like it is that moment where it is kind of a tipping point, … where things are becoming more equal for everyone, and I guess people are uncomfortable with that.”

Rapinoe has long been outspoken on various human rights issues. She made headlines in 2016 for kneeling during the national anthem, joining a controversial protest against police brutality and violence against minorities. Rapinoe and fellow captains Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd are now leaders in a lawsuit the USWNT filed against the United States Soccer Federation, alleging gender discrimination and demanding a pay structure and treatment equal to the men’s national team.

The topic of equality wasn’t limited to Rapinoe’s interviews Friday and nearly eclipsed discussions about the women’s preparation to win another world title, especially because FIFA scheduled two major men’s soccer events in the Americas — the Concacaf Gold Cup and the Copa America — on the same day as the July 7 World Cup final in Lyon and blundered ticket distribution for some World Cup games by separating the seats of fans who purchased more than one ticket.

“It’s ridiculous and disappointing, to be honest,” Rapinoe said of the scheduling conflict.

And it’s another set of concerns the players add to a growing list they believe must be corrected. 

Carli Lloyd, left, Alex Morgan, center, and Megan Rapinoe, of the United States women’s national soccer team, speak to reporters during a news conference in New York, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The U.S. women question why they make less money than their men’s national team peers while winning more matches and argue FIFA is undercutting all women’s teams with a growing disparity in major prize money. Their critics counter the men’s game generates higher ratings and more revenue.

The World Cup pool of prize money for the women is $30 million, double what it used to be, compared to the men’s $400 million.

Jill Ellis, who is in a tough spot as the U.S. coach and USSF employee, said she understands her players’ lawsuit and gripes with the federation.

“I’m a woman. I have a daughter,” Ellis said.

Because of their high level of success — winning three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals — many of the veteran USWNT players also have gained public admiration and are frequently in the spotlight, which is now amplified two weeks before another World Cup.

“We do have such a big platform to be able to use our voices. And right now, all eyes are on us,” said Morgan, who received criticism and praise a day earlier for a Time magazine interview in which she spoke out about politics, specifically policies separating migrant families and visiting the White House. “… There are also a lot of important issues that are bigger than soccer in the world today, and definitely the abortion laws being changed in some states are one of them. And that’s definitely not one that I’m in agreement on.”

Morgan quickly went on to speak about the World Cup and emphasized that she wanted to focus on the team and the tournament the rest of the day, but added she “will not sit quiet on those issues forever.” 

After an initial news conference with the team leaders, all the players participated in 30-minute group sessions with reporters.

Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris answered questions about her recent engagement to U.S. teammate Ali Krieger with a recognizable smile, one worn by most soon-to-be wed couples.

When asked how she feels about representing the United States as an LGBTQ icon and voice for women’s rights and equality during a time when some states are rolling back legislation directly related to those issues, most recently Alabama’s bill to increase abortion restrictions and make it a Class A felony, Harris said, “I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard to see when you’re trying to create progression and progress. And then to see that, it’s just regression and we’re moving backward. We have to continue to keep working. It’s not going to be an easy road for us; it hasn’t been for generations and generations, and we’re used to it. And that’s what makes us so strong, and women strong. My wish honestly, is that more men would speak up for us, in our profession, too.”

Ashlyn Harris, a member of the United States women’s national soccer team, speaks to reporters during a media day in New York, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

“There’s been women who have pioneered and have paved the way for me to be able to sit in front of you right now and have a platform, and it’s my job and my duty to continue push the boundaries for equality on all spectrums,” Harris continued. “This team is about winning, win, win, win, we win it all — and that’s why we can sit here and have the platform to continue to push for equality. I think it’s about continuing the conversation. We’re all in this fight together, and we get that. We’re working for all women, children, past generations, future generations.”

A quick walk through the room, and veteran Christen Press could be heard mid-sentence during a television interview saying, “more diversity in soccer on a global stage.”

And a relatively unknown player outside of U.S. Soccer circles, third-string goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, summarized all those ideals expressed by her teammates when she took a deep breath, paused for about 20 seconds to collect her thoughts and said: “There’s always different groups fighting for different things. Women ourselves, we’re fighting for more, and women of color are fighting for more, people of color are fighting for more, different sexualities are fighting for more.

“Wearing the crest, we represent the country, a country that is capable of making big strides and big gains. And just like anyone’s life, there’s going to be setbacks. You’re going to move backwards, but you gotta keep moving forward. And I hope that this country can come together and can continue to move forward. And I hope that we can inspire people to do so through our sport and what we stand for and what we do.”

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