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U.S. women's soccer team makes its case for equality

U.S. players celebrate after winning the Women's World

U.S. players celebrate after winning the Women's World Cup final soccer match against The Netherlands in Decines, outside Lyon, France, on Sunday. Credit: AP/Francisco Seco

It can be risky business to see in the triumph of a sports team anything more than a victory on the field of play.

That’s not the case with the U.S. women’s soccer team. Its dominant run through the World Cup not only was a showcase for its brilliance on the pitch, but the players also offered forceful and elegant support for equal treatment for women. As fun as they were to watch, as creative and powerful and relentless as they were in continuing to set a high bar for soccer worldwide, they did all that in the context of a fight for pay equal to that of the men’s national team.

Their gender discrimination lawsuit seeks equality in pay as well as in playing, training and travel conditions, promotion and support. Filing it three months before the World Cup began ensured it would be an issue throughout the tournament. And they have a point.

Since the last women’s World Cup in 2015, the U.S. women generated more revenue than the men, $50.8 million to $49.9 million. Their team’s home jersey is Nike’s top-selling soccer merchandise, with just over $10 billion in sales. TV ratings for Sunday’s title game were 20 percent higher than for last year’s men’s final. The women have won four World Cups and four Olympic titles, to zero for the men. The final stages of the tourney overlapped with Wimbledon, one of tennis’ four majors, all of which have paid men and women equally since 2007.

Gender comparisons can be more difficult in soccer. American men benefit from a global soccer industry that generates much higher fees from merchandising, licensing and TV rights. But it’s past time that U.S. officials treat women equitably. As for the World Cup, soccer’s governing body says the women’s prize pool will double for 2023. That’s a start, but certainly not a finish.

The Americans’ performance in France also was a reminder of the impact public policy can have on sports, and the good that government can do when it stands strong for fair play and justice. In 1972, when Title IX became law and prohibited discrimination based on gender in schools receiving federal funds, 700 U.S. girls were playing high school soccer. Now the figure is close to 400,000, providing a near-bottomless well of talent unmatched by other countries.

More progress awaits. Double standards still plague women athletes. Consider complaints about buoyant celebrations that are modest — see Alex Morgan pantomiming drinking tea after her goal against England — compared with the see-me histrionics of American men.

But overall, there’s a lot to celebrate during Wednesday’s ticker tape parade in Manhattan. You can cheer for the champions, including Rockville Centre’s Crystal Dunn and Northport’s Allie Long, who got their starts with youth soccer clubs in Albertson and their hometowns. You can revel in being part of another crowd like the ones that gathered in public places around the country to watch the TV broadcasts.

Or you can simply appreciate a team that shouldered the burdens of winning another title, advancing a cause and propelling a sport forward, that prevailed with excellence and aplomb, and that continued to rewrite the book on what it means to play like a girl.