In the United States of America, we love winners. When it comes to sports, we adore winners. We throw them victory parades, splash them all over mainstream media and turn them into role models and heroes. We clamor to see them up close and buy tickets to watch them play. We want non-stop access. And we reserve the most sacred place on the pedestal for winners who wear the Red, White and Blue. Those American athletes who triumph on the international stage become icons, uniting a nation of sports fans that can’t agree on anything else.
This fascination with winners catapulted the U.S. Women’s World Cup team straight to the top. Their victory over Japan on July Fourth weekend was easily the most-watched soccer match in our nation’s history, averaging more than 25.4 million viewers. A stunning 30.9 million tuned in at its peak. Celebrities from other sports, music and entertainment chimed in with their overwhelming support on social media. As the first woman to net a hat trick in the final, Carli Lloyd rocketed to superstardom. She gained more than 50,000 new Twitter followers during the game, and her website crashed as she sparked Team USA to international glory.
As team members turned into household names overnight, a victory tour was organized to give fans the chance to see them play in person. Since August, hundreds of thousands have purchased tickets in cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Seattle and Birmingham. Ask Lloyd or Alex Morgan or the retiring Abby Wambach, they’re happy to crisscross the country, interacting with fans and growing the “beautiful game.”
But all the attention and support still isn’t enough to give them what they really want: equal footing. The women want to play on natural grass, where field conditions are top priority, same as the men.
Their plea is nothing new, but fresh controversy is once again shedding light on their frustration. Just before Team USA was scheduled to play its first ever game in Hawaii last weekend, the exhibition was cancelled over the subpar, potentially dangerous quality of the turf at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. Pictures show the turf rolling up in places, and the women describe it as “low-grade” and “aging” in a post on the Players’ Tribune website.
They apologized to fans for what they called a “heart-breaking decision,” but explained the need to put their safety first. To make matters worse, midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL while training in Hawaii. Even though she got hurt on a grass practice field, the team claims that pitch was also in terrible shape, putting them at risk for injuries.
The popular Morgan says the U.S. Soccer Federation is forcing the team to stand alone. “I think it’s hard because no one’s really going to protect us but ourselves. So we’re put in a very hard position because obviously we want to play in front of these fans and we want to train before the game but injuries happen when you don’t protect yourself and when you’re not protected from those higher up from you.”
The marketable forward was part of a vocal core that took its fight to court before the World Cup. The group filed a lawsuit over the artificial turf fields to be used in the host nation of Canada, claiming gender discrimination. Even though they eventually dropped the suit to focus on training, the women continue to point to much higher standards for the men’s national team and men’s tournaments.
For its part, U.S. Soccer cites the need to schedule around the NFL and college football while making the tour as accessible as possible to fans. But there’s no repairing the damage done by a cancelled match and public criticism from its most successful team. The USSF is missing a major opportunity to piggyback on the immense notoriety of a squad that will endure most anything for the good of the sport.
After the Hawaii disaster, Carli Lloyd tweeted: “So over the turf. 8 out of 10 Victory tour games on turf.” She and the others accept it as a necessary evil. They shouldn’t have to settle for subpar, though. U.S. Soccer needs to respect this group of athletes who’s poured blood, sweat, and tears into the game for years. It’s time to set a precedent by making the women’s game and women’s rights a priority.
Goalie Hope Solo put it this way on Twitter: “We are the World Champions. We deserve better.” As the ONLY three-time champion in Women’s World Cup history, at the height of its popularity, in a nation where we adore winners, Team USA deserves nothing less than equal footing — and the support of the millions of fans who couldn’t get enough just a few short months ago.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.