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The World Cup that kicked off this week in Australia and New Zealand is a time to rejoice in the dominance of American women in international sports.
It also occurs at a time when the conversation about women in sports is turning on its head in the US. After decades spent making sure women have access and support to play sports, there’s now a politically loaded debate over who is considered a woman – a motivating issue for Republicans over the last year.
The US has invested in giving women access to sports like no other country, building for decades on the Title IX law that required equal opportunity.
If the US women lose the FIFA World Cup tournament, it will be a sign that the rest of the world is catching up. But there’s a good chance the American system will have had a direct role in helping the victor.
Twenty-one of the 32 teams taking part in the tournament have at least one woman who played college soccer in the US, according to the NCAA.
Still a long way from equality for women
While American women achieved a historic agreement last year with the US Soccer Federation to earn wages for their international duty on par with the middling US Men’s National Team, most female athletes still make a fraction of what their male counterparts bring in.
A CNN analysis published Thursday finds that female soccer players earn 25 cents to the dollar of men at the World Cup. And according to a report from the global players’ union, two-thirds of surveyed women competing in World Cup qualifying rounds had to take unpaid leave from another job to compete.
That’s all assuming there is a team in a woman’s country. In Saudi Arabia – which has its sights on taking over multiple professional men’s sports by throwing money at golf and soccer – women only played their first international soccer match last year.
But there is a growing political debate in the US not on continuing to level the playing field for women, but on reacting to the fraction of athletes assigned male gender at birth who are trying to compete as women.
The swimmer Lia Thomas created controversy when she changed from the men’s to the women’s team at the University of Pennsylvania and won an NCAA title in the 500-yard freestyle last year.
The international governing bodies of swimming and track and field have since banned transgender athletes who transition from male to female after going through puberty from competing at the international level, which means Thomas will not be eligible to compete in the Olympics.
Multiple US states have likewise passed laws that ban transgender women and girls from participating in sports teams that align with their gender identity. However one feels about whether a person who went through puberty as a male should compete with biological women, the fact that these laws prohibiting trans athletes are paired, as they were in Missouri last month, with efforts to ban gender-affirming care for minors would seem to create a catch-22.
FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, has been in the midst of a review of its policy on gender for the past year and for now defers to countries to verify that competitors are either women or men, which has created some awkward situations in recent years, as Reuters reported. The NCAA will defer to the rules of the governing bodies for sports.
In April, the US House passed the “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act,” a GOP-led bill that would update Title IX to ban transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports at federally funded schools and educational institutions.
There is some irony in the fact that Republicans want to update a law that was designed to make sure everyone could play sports in order to exclude people who don’t fall easily into gender categories.
Why Title IX exists
Title IX was passed in 1972 at a time when women trying to compete in sports were treated with hostility. In 1967, for instance, the runner Kathrine Switzer had to sneak onto the Boston Marathon course and evade race officials to complete the marathon.
This year, there was a nonbinary division for the race, a rare accommodation at a time when there is so much attention being paid to who should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.
The Canadian soccer player Quinn, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, is a nonbinary athlete who will play at the Women’s World Cup. They made history as the first trans person to win an Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which were played in 2021. They played college soccer for the women’s team at Duke University.
The US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, an outspoken defender of LGBTQ rights who is competing in her final World Cup, was critical of the current political efforts regarding transgender athletes.