Where were you on July 10, 1999?
While most people likely can't answer that very specific question, I can. I was standing in my living room, hands covering my eyes, as the U.S. women's national soccer team went into penalty kicks against Japan in the World Cup finals. And when Brandi Chastain infamously pulled her jersey off after securing their win with her penalty kick, I can still remember jumping up and down, screaming so loudly that I am still surprised my neighbors didn't run over to see if a crime was committed. I was 12 years old and soccer was my life. When I wasn't at practice or juggling in the backyard, I was re-watching that iconic game on VHS so often I could likely recreate most of the plays. Forget capes, my heroes wore sports bras.
Little did I know the money I was making in one hour babysitting my cousins was more than my idols were making in a single day competing for their country in one of the biggest sporting events of the world.
Now, as the 2023 World Cup begins, with the U.S.' first match set for July 21, all eyes are on that same team, made up of 28 different women—including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara—who were just like me, idolizing players like Chastain, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers.
Leaning into the sisterhood fostered by the players who represented U.S.A. before them, the USWNT has been using their increased platform to fight for equal pay, a world-famous quest that was the subject of Max's 2021 documentary LFG, an acronym for the beloved team's go-to NSFW phrase, "Let's f--king go."
But 23 years ago, the women had a different, far less publicized saying: "GFY," as in go f--k yourself, which they would use in private when their lawyer would present contracts from the U.S. Soccer Federation, Olympian Julie Foudy revealed.
"A lot of the mindset back then was 'You should just be grateful darling that you have a place to play, right? You're wearing the red, white and blue and stop asking for more things,'" Foudy, an ESPN commentator who competed with the team from 1988 to 2004, explained in LFG. She and her teammates were expected to be okay with their $10-a-day salary and the fact that they weren't even given assigned seats on flights and often stayed in cockroach-infested hotels when traveling.
Three World Cup wins and four Olympic gold medals later, things hadn't improved all that much.
"Even though all these accolades sound absolutely incredible, we don't get paid very much," forward Jessica McDonald, who played with the national team from 2016 until 2022, said in the doc. "I was scrapping pennies for the last seven years of my career, just trying to get by living literally paycheck-to-paycheck. I had friends who were waitresses who were making three times as much as I was in a year."
She later revealed she was making $15,000 a year at one point, needing to work full-time packing boxes for Amazon at $12-an-hour to support her son, who would often come to training sessions with her because childcare was more than her paycheck.
If you're not feeling pissed off yet, here are some more stats that really highlight the inequity between the men and women's teams.
For qualifying for the World Cup, the women get $750,000 from the U.S. Soccer Federation, while the men net $2.5 million. Should they emerge as champions, the women earn an additional $2.53 million. The men? $9.375 million. Plus, for each game the teams win, they earn bonuses, which are $8,500 for the women and $17,625 for the men. (When it comes to FIFA overall, the total prize money awarded to the winning federations for the World Cup are $30 million to the women compared to $400 million to the men. Though the women are now the beneficiaries of those inequities with a recently ratified equal-pay agreement that requires the men's and women's national teams to split World Cup prize money.)
Would now be a good time to mention that the U.S. Men's National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and the 2020 Games while the woman went into both the Olympics and the recent World Cup tournaments as overwhelming favorites? To quote the USWNT's lawyer Jeffrey Kessler in LFG, "They do it better and get paid less."
That pressure to perform, to prove their point, has only fueled the seemingly unstoppable team, who won the 2019 World Cup just three months after filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against their employer on International Women's Day.
"I think we always know that the best thing we could do for soccer, for the lawsuit, for everything that we're fighting for, equality, is to win," Kelly O'Hara said in the documentary.
And win they definitely do, with their 2019 World Cup run winning over, well, the world and turning many of the players into legitimate celebrities, an unfortunate rarity in many female sports.
Rapinoe was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year, also landing a spot on Glamour's Women of the Year list. And in June 2021, she was named one of the new faces of Victoria's Secret in the brand's massive overhaul. Morgan was the only non-tennis player to crack the Top 10 of Forbes' round-up of the highest paid female athletes in 2020, mostly due to her ever-expanding endorsement portfolio that the money magazine estimated to be "10 times as much as her roughly $400,000 on-field salary and bonus." And then there are married former teammates Alie Krieger and Ashlyn Harris who became the ultimate example in the sports world's #couplegoals (pun fully intended), fans cheering for their 2019 wedding and their 2-year-old daughter Sloane Phillips.
But for the 28 women who've made the roster, only one name matters: USWNT, with the team coming before any individual and their mission reaching far beyond the stadium walls.
"We're all in this together," McDonald proclaimed in LFG. "Let's fight the good fight."
And they are doing it for more than just themselves, hoping to enact change for the young girls watching from their living rooms who dream of playing for the team one day.
"I absolutely will be jealous and I'll probably be like that jaded older player just like, 'It was so hard what I had to...'" Rapinoe admitted to E! News in March 2021. "But to see these younger players coming up now, even just the contracts that we have now and the ability to make money in marketing with commercials and stuff, it's just amazing."
For Morgan, the cause is even more personal after giving birth to daughter Charlie in May 2020.
"I feel like if I look back at my daughter playing or in a few generations and they're making so much more for just doing their job, I mean, I'll feel pretty happy," Morgan told E! News in March 2021. "Because I feel like every female athlete today needs to be the best at doing interviews, needs to carry herself in the best way to get appearance and sponsorships and companies that want to work with her, needs to always put a smile on her face. There are all these things that female athletes need to do in order to compensate for the lack of compensation or the lack of financial stability within her sport."
Slowly, but surely, they made progress—and, eventually, history.
In December 2021, they settled part of their lawsuit over inequitable working conditions compared with the men's team, including flights, hotel accommodations and professional support staff. However, their fight for equal pay continued on and became the elephant on the field when they competed at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, where they were ranked No. 1 in the world. They ultimately netted the bronze medal. (The U.S. men's team failed to qualify. BTW.)
While Morgan admitted it did get "tiresome because you kind of think to yourself, 'Is there a reason we're not making more progress on the equality front?" the team continued to push for change, even if they were aware that they might not "reap the benefits" of the fight they'd been in for several years.
"As long as the next generation and my daughter can come up and face less inequalities and feel like they're actually getting a seat at the table," Morgan said, "then I feel like my job is done there. But it's not without seeing many, many barriers in front of you that have been clawed out but not necessarily broken down."
A small victory came in February 2022, when the team settled their class action equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for a total of $24 million.
And then, after six years of federal complaints and three years of litigation, the Women's National Team finally landed its ultimate goal in September of last year when team representatives joined the men's team to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Signed by each team, the two CBAs will run through 2028 and set a standard for equal pay through "identical economic terms," according to U.S. Soccer.
Fittingly, Rapinoe, Morgan and other members of the team that were instrumental in the fight for equality wrote their names on the dotted line while wearing their uniforms after beating Nigeria in a friendly match at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.
"It's such a proud moment for all of us," Rapinoe said. "That same 'never say die' attitude we had on the field, that's the same vibe we brought to this. So, it's a super proud moment. Really excited for everyone and really excited to see where this pushes the game up."
(Originally published on Thursday, Jul 15, 2021 at 5:00 p.m. PT)