Just about a week before the US Women's National Team takes the field at the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, they're receiving an award for their work off the field. At the 2023 ESPY Awards on July 12, the USWNT was honoured with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award — not for their football prowess but for their history-making fight for equal pay.
The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is typically given to a deserving member or group in sports who makes a difference beyond the field of play, and the USWNT was chosen because their fight for equal pay "ultimately set a new global standard in sports and had a ripple effect outside of the sports world," per ESPN.
Comedian Tiffany Haddish, who introduced the award, said it all in her opening: "Tonight, we are gonna honour a group of very famous and very amazing women who decided it was time to fight for what they deserved. Because for decades, they have been the best football team in the world . . . but despite all that, the United States National Team still had to find the courage to fight for the simplest, most essential thing they deserved." And that's equal pay.
In 2022, current and former members of the USWNT settled a class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit against the US Football Federation (USSF) for $24 million. This led to a landmark agreement in which the USSF guaranteed equal pay for the USWNT and US Men's National Team through 2028 — including an equal split of World Cup prize money — becoming the first federation in the world to do so.
Christen Press, Sam Mewis, and Briana Scurry — all retired or current members of the USWNT — accepted the award for the team.
"As everyone who has been there for us throughout this long journey toward equality knows, our fight is not over," Press said in her part of the speech. "When you play for the United States Women's National Team, you are handed a torch and given the responsibility to carry the torch as far and as high as possible for the sake of women's equality. As a team and with the support and encouragement of countless others, we have been proud to carry it forward. Now, we are looking to build a world where we create thousands of torches, millions, and the equality we have achieved spreads throughout the world."
Though the USWNT's equal-pay victory is a huge step forward, there's still a long way to go to close the gender pay gap in sports — in the US and around the world. The 2022 FIFA Men's World Cup prize money amounted to $440 million, for example, whereas the prize pool for the upcoming women's tournament in Australia and New Zealand is just $152 million — and that's three times the amount that was given out at the last Women's World Cup, per FIFA.
Still, during the USWNT's media day on June 27, team veteran Megan Rapinoe, who led the charge in the team's equal-pay lawsuit, told reporters that she feels a "paradigm shift" happening in women's sports, according to Reuters.
"The sort of acceptable cognitive dissonance and just denial of what we actually are and how incredible women's sports are . . . those days are, you know, pretty much long gone," she said. And to her, this World Cup seems like a turning point. "It feels like a real opportunity to kind of like blow the lid off just in terms of fanfare and media and sponsorships and the sort of larger business around this sport."
Hopefully, their ESPY Award will only help further that goal. Previous recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award include athletes and non-athletes who've had a huge impact outside of sports, including Muhammad Ali (1997), Billie Jean King (1999), former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela (2009), and Caitlyn Jenner (2015).
Watch the athletes' full award acceptance speech below, and tune in to see the USWNT play at the Women's World Cup starting July 21. See their full World Cup schedule here.