‘Beyond the Pitch’ is a weeklong dive into all things football (read: soccer) in conjunction with UEFA EURO 2020, rescheduled from last year and kicking off June 11. Stay tuned for more of our immersive coverage.
There’s no denying that female athletes who speak up for themselves have always been treated differently than their male counterparts.
In soccer, the chauvinism that has long surrounded the male-dominated sport — and its often hyper-masculine fandom — has for too long kept the spotlight off of female leagues and players, including in advertising, screen time, and especially pay. It’s something the United States Women’s National Team have long addressed, and finally got the attention of mainstream media following the team’s 2019 Women’s World Cup win.
Last March, Margaret “Midge” Purce met with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden alongside United States Women’s National teammate Megan Rapinoe on Equal Pay Day, to speak about gender inequality in sport.
“I’ve spoken about equal pay in formal settings such as this and in informal exchanges. Often, I’m resisted with declarations like, there just isn’t enough interest in women’s sports. My response is always this: ‘You would never expect a flower to bloom without water, but women in sport — who have been denied water, sunlight, and soil — are somehow expected to blossom. Invest in women, then let’s talk again when you see the return,’” the 25-year-old budding soccer star told the First Family.
It’s an important cause Purce has advocated for since studying at Harvard, where she was involved in the Race and Ethnicity Program at the Institute of Politics. Last year, the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year was appointed as a member of the school’s Board of Overseers. During her six-year term there, inclusiveness will be one of her key agenda points.
As the co-founder and executive director of the Black Women’s Player Collective, Purce continues to push for elevating the image, value, and representation of Black women as athletes and leaders in business, industry, and institutions.
We called up Purce to discuss this further, asking her where things are now and where they should go.
Meeting With President Biden
“I like to say pay equity more than equal pay, because I think equal pay is sometimes misleading to people who don’t really know what we’re talking about. [Some] think that we’re just demanding the exact same amount of money that men are getting, which isn’t what we’re asking. We’re asking for structure and investment and return on the investment that we’re giving. It’s not just an arbitrary number that we think that we deserve. We were talking about pay equity with the Bidens. In terms of the fight for equal pay in sports, I think the [American women’s] national team has been a global icon.”
Female Athletes Being Denied Resources
“It’s a way to illustrate that there needs to be a whole list, cross-industry, into women’s sports. It’s not just about us getting better coaches or having more owners who are funneling more money into the league, it also [needs to] come from broadcasting in the media and the type of quality of investment that they’re giving to the sport as well. It’s saying that the entire industry in women’s sports needs to be elevated and pursued in the same way that men’s sports were pursued decades ago.”
Women’s Soccer Today
“[The sport in the US] is so new. It’s nine years old, it’s a little baby, whereas the NBA has been around for what, 70 years? You can’t even compare the amount of time they’ve had to grow, and the consistent investment over decades that has been given to get it to the point that it’s at now. And that’s why I get frustrated when people are like, ‘Well, your games are like this, I think your revenues are like this.’ But it’s been nine years without full investment. It’s actually impressive that we are where we are.”
The Responsibility of Increased Advertising in Women’s Sports
“I actually think that it’s more of a precursor. The number of times I’ve heard people come to a women’s game and have a 180 degree complete shift on what they thought it was like and what they thought it was is insane. The media component is the first step in the door, in that it also reinforces whatever experience we can provide ourselves.”
Soccer and Social Justice
“Soccer is really special because outside of the U.S. it’s the number one sport in the world; it’s a global platform. And I think that this reach automatically elevates the platform to be more than just sports because you have so many people who are part of it. There are so many different types of players going through different experiences and we’re just getting to a point where people [don’t need to] be silent about what’s actually happening to different demographics.”
“When you talk about acceleration, I completely agree. It’s been expedited, going from zero to 100. I remember not playing in the League, not hearing about anything that these players were doing off the field, not knowing anything about their personal views, how they feel about any type of social justice or climate crisis or economic inequality. And now, all of a sudden, I can pull up the entire resume of opinions for a lot of players. Why has it happened? I don’t know, but I do think that the U.S. women’s national team has become more of a global icon for excellence, which really has opened the door for people to be more interested in what the players actually experience and believe. That happens with excellence in any field or any industry; you would want to know, ‘Why are you excellent? Why are you so good? How did you get there? What challenges did you face? What’s going on in your life?’ And the more this door has been opened for the national team, the wider the door has opened for the entire league, and [subsequently] for women’s sports in general.”
Female Athletes Needing to Take a Stance More Than Male Counterparts
“I can totally see that, and I think it’s inherent in the role, because you gained all this notoriety, but you’re also still a woman; you’re still in a demographic that’s been discriminated against historically and is still fighting for equality. So yeah, it would be strange if you didn’t have any activist-oriented opinions about at least equal pay or equality in some sort. And then I think, once you get into the realm of discussing equality, what about equality in terms of race and more?”
“Everyone cares what [Megan Rapinoe] says. Female players get a lot of backlash, and I’m not saying the men are soft, but at some point it’s not about getting permission — it’s about deciding whether or not you want to put your name behind a principle.
Look at Rapinoe. She’s always been a fantastic player, but she really elevated when she took the knee and when she said she wasn’t going to the White House. She got a lot of backlash, and even the president tweeted at her and told her to shut up, essentially. I don’t really think anyone gave her permission, despite people telling her to stop. And then, in hindsight, years later, people look back and know they were wrong about this and tell her she was great. It’s just interesting, because I would say that men have more stability to risk.”
Creating a Personal Brand Off the Field
“Obviously [speaking out about social causes] helps grow the game in general, whenever you can reach an audience that’s not naturally interested in the sports part of you. Maybe that’s a reason why people are more outspoken in the women’s game. I know that in the past, female athletes’ income came from their media [partnerships]. I’m embarrassed by it. [Mine] didn’t come from my club’s salary, it didn’t come from whatever I was doing on the field, it came from social media and having followers. If you can reach different audiences by speaking [up] and not necessarily by what you’re doing on the field, that just expands your net worth in the women’s game, especially.
If you want to make serious money, you have to invest in your brand as a female athlete. I’m pretty sure women are the top consumers globally. And being attractive on and off the field is a brand that I’ve seen a lot of people really pursue, and it’s been really successful. I’ve seen people who are poor soccer players try to build this brand and they’ve become more popular than good soccer players. I don’t think it’s strong enough where it’s completely the guiding factor in trades, the size of your following and name plays a big role in trades.”
Advice for Brands Speaking Out on Social Causes
“Pick a side. Like with Nike; they picked a side when they picked [Colin] Kaepernick. I’m sure they had a lot of really smart economists in the room who knew that picking that side would be beneficial to their pockets. But it’s really important that if they do feel a certain way about an issue to not try and hide it, because both sides recognize how inauthentic that is. And it’s better to at least win some people than lose a little of both.”
Prejudices Against Female Athletes
“For some people, it’s really hard to digest the value of female athletes, because they still look at it as, ‘Oh, you’re not as strong and you’re not as fast [as men], therefore you don’t have the same value.’ [But] the two games are different. They have different dynamics, different things that are exciting about them. They don’t have to be the same for us to have the same value. And because sports are based on athleticism, it’s hard for people to digest that.”
Spearheading the Black Women’s Player Collective
“That’s been a really rewarding process, and it’s also been extremely challenging and exhausting. I didn’t realize how much this created space was missing for a lot of players in the league. I’m on a team that has a lot of Black people on it, and I’ve been on a team that doesn’t have a lot of Black people on it. There are cultural differences, and then there are just experiences that are not appropriate, that make you feel like you’re the only person who sees it. And when you get into that space, it’s really difficult to speak about it, because even more so in women’s sports, you don’t want to be a problem. It’s really easy for women in sports to be labeled as an issue for very little things, like speaking up or asking simple questions. Meanwhile, no offense, you have men going out, getting drunk before games, doing drugs, all this stuff, and they’re good to go! But if I ask you why you benched me, you now have an issue with having a conversation.”
The Importance of Brand Support
“Brands are super important for exposure and the narrative around sports. Even now, you can see the type of commercials they do with men and how exciting they make sports look. You get to see different sides of athletes but you haven’t seen that yet with women. If they would prioritize [this] it would have a chance to accelerate the interest in the sport that it deserves. There’s so much untapped interest, which would be good to open up.”
Her Ambitions for Women’s Soccer
“My hope is that it gets the respect and value it deserves, instead of being judged with preconceived notions based on historical discriminatory perspectives. [We] shouldn’t make it like the men’s game. They’re not the same. The audience is different, what you value about both is different. I’ve had so many male soccer players come to women’s games and have the time of their lives. I just wish people could look past the gender and give it a chance for what it is and then decide. I guess my role in it would be to help in any way I can. It’s an incredible game, and the power it has to shift culture and society is going to grow even more. I believe it can provide such a benefit to communities, kids, and cities that we haven’t seen yet.”