The longstanding inequalities between men’s and women’s professional sports have been well documented, most recently highlighted with the USA Women’s National Soccer Team filing a discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for paying their male counterparts more than them on the basis that the men’s game “requires a higher level of skill.”
Deeper in the minutiae of professional women’s sports, however, U.S. soccer stars have the upper hand in public perception, support, and appreciation as opposed to the talented Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players, according to legendary point guard Sue Bird.
The reason for women’s soccer’s larger public popularity? It all comes down to appeal.
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“Even though we’re female athletes playing at a high level, our worlds, you know, the soccer world and the basketball world are just totally different,” Bird explained to CNN Sport reporter Don Riddell.
“And to be blunt it’s the demographic of who’s playing. Women’s soccer players generally are cute little White girls while WNBA players, we are all shapes and sizes … a lot of Black, gay, tall women … there is maybe an intimidation factor and people are quick to judge it and put it down,” she said.
Bird is openly gay and in a relationship with U.S. Soccer powerhouse and Captain Megan Rapinoe. A member of the beloved U.S. Women’s Team –– who most recently won the Women’s World Cup in 2019 –– Rapinoe has been granted a prominent platform to speak on women’s and LGBTQ+ issues within professional sports.
In an article published on Oct. 5, Rapinoe echoed Bird’s observation of inequality and lack of marketing and publicity around the WNBA, mainly due to the fact that most are Black and many identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“When it comes to U.S. women’s soccer, the general perception is that — let’s face it — we’re the white girls next door. The straight, ‘cute,’ ‘unthreatening,’ ‘suburban’ white girls next door,” Rapinoe says, despite the racial diversity within the Women’s National Team.
This inequality is a part of modern feminism known as intersectional feminism, which highlights how a combination of racial and social identities can compound discrimination. It acknowledges the unique inequity and struggles women of color have that more privileged white women do not have to overcome.
Such lack of enthusiasm and support for all women’s professional sports makes it difficult for the triumphs of professional women’s soccer to be considered a feminist achievement.
“I think we need to be careful about calling the support that we [the National Women’s Team] got a ‘feminist’ breakthrough, when it’s only part of the way there,” Rapinoe explains. “Because when the support only extends to ‘white girls next door’ sports? That’s not feminism — or at least it’s not the kind of feminism that I’m here for. I don’t have time for any kind of feminism that’s not real and total — from race to class to religion to gender identity to sexual orientation to everything in between.”
For Bird, the inequality in coverage is less about marketing and more about society finally appreciating and embracing diversity. She told CNN that authenticity is a key characteristic of the WNBA.
“You have to be true to who you are and be authentic,” she said. “And people are drawn, especially in today’s world, when you’re authentic. I think people are drawn to that. And right now, we’re a league that is being authentic to who we are.”
Having just led her team, the Seattle Storm, to a 2020 WNBA championship title, Bird has done so while also advocating for civil rights amid the Black Lives Matters protests spurred by the police deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
In August, the WNBA teams postponed three games to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., as a show of solidarity. This and other social advocacy moves have earned criticism from President Trump, calling the National Basketball Association (NBA) a “political organization” following the postponement of games.
The WNBA also dedicated the opening week of its season to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Additionally, along with their male counterparts in the NBA, the WNBA has been working to register voters in droves in partnership with Rock the Vote. The campaign aims to get basketball enthusiasts to cast their ballots in November.
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