Hats off to the U.S. women’s soccer team, which defeated the Netherlands to capture its record fourth FIFA World Cup and its second world title in a row. The No. 1-ranked team in the world came through the qualifying round demonstrating outstanding play on the pitch but not without controversy off the field. They were roundly criticized internationally for pouring it on a clearly overmatched Thailand team with a 13–0 drubbing. Many foreign sports writers felt the Americans displayed bad manners. Then, of course, there was the whole political uproar that swirled around Megan Rapinoe and some of her comments about President Trump. But they put that aside and fought their way through the single-elimination rounds against the top European squads to win the title.
As pleased as I am with the results of the World Cup, the Old Coach has some issues I think need to be examined more closely. One involves the safety of players, and the other is about compensation for women players.
Although not a soccer expert by a long shot, like most fans, the Old Coach can pick out the obvious. Throughout the competition, the USA team played with a lot of energy, skill, athleticism, determination and confidence. All marks of a true champion. Their precision passing on offense, challenging defense and spacing put intense pressure on the opposition. And let’s not shortchange the benefit of having experienced players who are used to playing on the “big stage.”
My concern about safety comes from years of teaching physical education and coaching football and track. In recent years there has been a lot of emphasis throughout all levels of sports about the treatment of concussions caused by athletic activities. Professional, college and high school football, basketball, and baseball teams, to name a few, have protocols in place to deal with head injuries. It has been a long time coming. As a former coach, I can assure you that head and neck injuries are among the most serious injuries that can occur to an athlete.
Whenever an athlete has a collision where the head is involved, there is the potential for a concussive injury. We have learned through research that repeated blows to the head can be particularly damaging to the brain, but a single incident can also be serious if not properly diagnosed and treated by trained personnel, such as licensed trainers or physicians. Removal from the activity and careful evaluation must take place before the athlete is permitted to return to action. Thankfully, much has been done to make football a much safer sport with better helmets, better coaching techniques and better awareness of concussions. All sports should follow suit.
The Old Coach was shocked when, in the World Cup final, both a U.S. and a Dutch player went high in the air to head the ball and smashed their heads together. They both went down. Having been a football coach and fan, I’ve seen my share of head-to-head collisions WITH helmets on. When I saw the replay, I couldn’t help but cringe. I thought there was no way that either player would return to action in the game.
The only reason that play was stopped was because one of the players immediately kicked the ball out of bounds so the referee could blow the whistle to stop play and bring medical people onto the field to treat the injured players. What a totally unsafe rule. After several minutes of on-field treatment, both players were escorted to the sidelines. In the NFL, players would have immediately gone into a tent where they would have been tended to by a neurologist to determine if their injury was concussive. Players should not be cleared to re-enter the game if not completely evaluated by knowledgeable professionals.
Here is where the FIFA rules completely go off the rails. If a team has maxed out on its substitutions in the game, and an injured player cannot return, that team will have to play the rest of the game a man/woman down. Under those circumstances, of course the injured player will want to do whatever it takes to be able to return to action, whether medically advisable or not, so that his/her team doesn’t suffer. Why does this dangerous rule exist?
Both players did return to the field after the next play stoppage, and as the first half ended, there was a brief shot by the TV cameras of the U.S. player sitting on the field, clearly in distress. It looked to me (3,500 miles away) like the symptoms of a concussion. I’d be interested to hear further follow-up information about the well-being of that player. But I suspect that will all be lost in the exuberance of winning the World Cup.
I was asked recently what my opinion was on the issue of equal pay for the USA men’s and women’s teams. The men get paid more. Why? I don’t think the women’s team should get paid equally. I believe they should get paid more than the men’s team. The men have under-performed on the international stage repeatedly while the women have dominated with their four World Cups and an Olympic gold. Pay should be based on merit.
So, Coach, with that said, do you think that the National Women’s Soccer League should get paid the same as the men’s Major League Soccer players?
Of course not. When it comes to professional soccer in the U.S., the average attendance for a NWSL game is 5,835, which is skewed by the top two of the nine franchises, the Portland Thorn (16,000) and the Utah Royals (9,249). The other seven teams average 4,800 to as few as 2,300. That doesn’t generate enough money to pay the players very much. By contrast, the men’s MLS’s 23 teams’ average attendance in 2018 was 21,873. Simply put, franchises can pay athletes primarily based on game attendance, concession sales and cable/TV contracts.
Playing for an international team and playing for a professional sports franchise are two different things. Pro sports teams are a business. They depend on filling arena/stadium seats to survive financially. As one of my friends pointed out, they are really in the entertainment business. With lucrative cable and advertising revenues, they pay players according to their value to draw fans to their venue. The average NBA franchise is worth $1.9 billion. Only six of the WNBA teams even make a profit. If you were to pay just the best WNBA player on a team what a starting NBA player makes, where would the money come from? Half the WNBA teams can’t make enough to pay the players they have now.
So let’s celebrate a win for the USA. Then let’s address the other issues.
But that’s just the opinion of the Old Coach. What do you think?