Illustration by Katie McBride
Illustration by Katie McBride

On Sunday, July 7, 2019, the United States and the Netherlands national soccer teams took to the field to determine the winner of the Women’s World Cup. The game — played before a sellout crowd of nearly 58,000 in Lyon, France — was a tight matchup without a single goal in the first half. But 62 minutes in, U.S. co-captain Megan Rapinoe scored on a penalty kick. Eight minutes later, midfielder Rose Lavelle expanded the lead to 2-0 and secured the U.S. Women’s National Team’s second consecutive title.

The victory solidified the USWNT’s dominance on the pitch as it became the first women’s soccer team to win four World Cup titles. The moment also put a white-hot spotlight on the team’s ongoing push for equal pay compared to their male counterparts. Just four months earlier, 28 USWNT players filed a federal gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, accusing the league of paying “only lip service to gender equality.”

Soccer holds a unique position among U.S. sports: The USWNT is as popular as its male counterpart, if not more so. The USWNT is undoubtedly the best in the world, while the men didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup or the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The women’s team brings in more revenue, and the 2015 Women’s World Cup final set a record for American viewership — for any soccer game in history.

Despite the team’s success, the lawsuit argued, U.S. Soccer paid the women’s team lower salaries and discriminated against the women in other ways, including medical care, travel, and quality of playing and practice facilities.

A federal judge dismissed some of the women’s claims in 2020, but in February of this year, the two sides reached a multimillion-dollar settlement — and, in May, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced new labor agreements that will pay the men and women equally through 2028.

Sports command attention. People find them interesting and worth following in ways that they don't necessarily follow politics.

Andy Spalding

The USWNT’s quest for equity is one of a number of interrelated sports issues studied by Richmond Law professor Andrew Spalding, chair of the Olympics Compliance Task Force and an expert on international anti-corruption law. His new book, A New Megasport Legacy, explores how major sports competitions can lead to bribery scandals and spotlight human rights violations, such as abuses against ethnic groups — yet they can also be leveraged to bring about legislative and cultural reforms that last well beyond the closing ceremonies. The book draws on Spalding’s research in Brazil, South Korea, France, and Qatar and includes contributions from law students in his yearlong class Corruption in International Sports.

The 18 months encompassing the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand are particularly notable. Collectively, they mark a shift: A decade ago, host countries primarily instituted new policies only when faced with scandal. Today, reforms are increasingly a proactive component of the effort to win the right to host a megasport event — a component as essential and long-lasting as building new roads, athletic facilities, and other infrastructure.

“Sports command attention,” Spalding said. “People find them interesting and worth following in ways that they don’t necessarily follow politics.” As a result, sports often can be a catalyst for political and social change. 

China, 2022

As the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics opened in February, nongovernmental organizations and citizens around the world called for a diplomatic boycott of the Games. They cited various human rights violations, ranging from abuses against the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic groups to infringing on the freedoms dictated by Hong Kong’s separate governing and economic systems.

The violations, Spalding said, raise questions about whether megasporting events should tolerate preexisting human rights problems in a host country — and whether it’s possible for the international attention surrounding these events to force changes.

Spalding has studied questions like these for years. Initially he focused on corruption and human rights violations directly linked to hosting the Olympics and other major sporting events; for instance, the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were rife with allegations of bribery between government officials and construction companies, as well as accusations of embezzlement. That same year, Brazil spent more than $11.5 billion to host the World Cup but faced allegations of price gouging and mismanagement, as well as criticism for slum-clearing projects that displaced low-income families to make way for soccer infrastructure.

A new legacy
Spalding in the classroom. His research on major international sporting events focuses on how they can be a catalyst for political and social change in the places that host them.

The concerns about China in 2022, however, were not just about the Games themselves — instead, they represent systemic, long-lasting problems. And Spalding said the Olympics called attention to the country’s human rights violations in a way that few other events could have.

“Will China’s posture in relation to human rights be better or worse off because they hosted the Olympics?” Spalding asked. “I think probably better off, even if China makes no reforms. There’s so much more awareness. We’re all talking about these issues in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.”

Spalding also believes that China may mark a turning point in the relationship between global sporting events and anti-corruption reform, particularly when juxtaposed with Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup later this year.

“We have to understand China as the end of an era in which megasports coincided with unaddressed systemic corruption and human rights violations,” he said. “With Qatar, we see a transition into potentially a different era.” 

Qatar, 2022

When Qatar was named the 2022 World Cup host more than a decade ago, allegations quickly emerged that representatives had bribed officials of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to secure hosting rights for the country. But as the World Cup approaches and bribery chatter increases, Spalding said it’s important to remember that many countries — including Japan, Germany, and others that rank among the least corrupt in the world — have all been embroiled in bribery scandals related to hosting international sporting events. Even the U.S. is not above reproach: Most notably, organizers of Salt Lake City’s bid to host the 2002 Olympic Winter Games were indicted after offering more than $1 million in cash, tuition payments, jobs, and other gifts to International Olympic Committee delegates.

“What the world doesn’t understand is that Qatar is ranked about the same; it’s not a systemically corrupt country,” he said.

In reality, Qatar has actively used the World Cup as an opportunity to improve its record, particularly in the area of labor rights. The country has adopted reforms around worker safety, freedom, and self-expression; it has implemented a mandatory, nondiscriminatory minimum wage for all workers; and it has enhanced training for labor inspectors. These efforts, according to Spalding, represent an intentional, proactive effort to improve human rights — a stark contrast to countries that, in the past, either resisted change altogether or made reforms only after a scandal erupted.

Spalding sees Qatar’s success as evidence of the power of the spotlight that major sporting events bring. He and the eight students in his class this coming fall will be researching universal reforms that could shape future megasporting events and how Qatar can serve as a model for host country reforms. Next spring, the class will travel to Europe to present its recommendations to the International Olympic Committee and FIFA. These could include incorporating human rights and anti-corruption analysis and planning in the bidding process; adding specific provisions to contracts with host countries; establishing a compliance program; providing meaningful training to staff and volunteers; and identifying what measures are implemented and which to expand further after the athletes and spectators go home.

A new legacy
Above left, stadium construction in preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar put a spotlight on foreign workers and human rights. Above right, U.S. Women's National Team player Abby Wambach discusses equal pay in 2016 during a forum sponsored by UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Ave Grosenheider, L’22, was enrolled in Spalding’s class for the 2020–21 academic year. She also completed an independent research project comparing and contrasting female representation on the Chinese and U.S. Olympic teams, with guidance from Spalding. For the corruption class, Grosenheider delved into the Men’s World Cup in Qatar and, she said, now has a more nuanced understanding of how corruption works in the megasports space.

“Sports are unique in that they bring people together and raise a lot of issues on human rights and corruption,” she said. “It’s a pretty natural place to stop and say, ‘This is causing some issues. What are we doing about it? How can we fix it? How can this be a force for change?’”

Meanwhile, Kaylee Rabatin, L’23, will take Spalding’s class starting this fall. Rabatin played soccer as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh and sees the class as a way to find a place for sports in her life now that she’s no longer a competitive athlete.

“I saw how, on an individual level, being involved in sports impacted me,” she said. “But when you put them on a global stage — such as the Olympics or the World Cup — you can see the ripple effects in that country or that city. I’m excited to see how it gets amplified across countries.”

Only time will tell if the Qatar World Cup marks a sea change in corruption and human rights reforms, but Spalding is hopeful that it will create momentum that subsequent hosts can build upon. And he says a collective bid from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico (known as the United Bid) to host the 2026 Men’s World Cup suggests that the tide is turning. Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. entered their bid with a preemptive promise to measure and document positive human rights and anti-corruption outcomes. 

Australia and New Zealand, 2023

In the U.S. Women’s National Team’s February settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation, U.S. Soccer agreed to pay the players $24 million, including back pay, and committed to equally compensating men and women players in all competitions. In May, the men’s and women’s teams struck a collective bargaining agreement that equalizes pay and bonuses, including World Cup prizes. Under the agreement, the U.S. teams will combine the bonuses received from FIFA and split them equally — meaning the men’s teams will receive a lower payout than in the past.

While current and former team members tout the historic agreements as a huge win, Spalding said the global debate over equal pay will likely continue at the Women’s World Cup next summer in Australia and New Zealand. Those two host countries also have taken steps to achieve parity in pay and perks for their men’s and women’s teams, but the women are still at a disadvantage because FIFA awards far more World Cup prize money to men’s teams than women’s — something that the U.S. agreement takes into account but the one in Australia does not.

“The U.S. has clearly set an example and will become the bar by which other countries’ payment schemes are judged,” Spalding said. “The Women’s World Cup is now a symbol in the public’s consciousness of the importance — and the viability — of achieving equal pay.”

The Women's World Cup is now a symbol in the public's consciousness of the importance -- and the viability -- of achieving equal pay.

Spalding sees the Women’s World Cup as inherently a human rights event because it’s a symbol of progress in respecting women’s rights. Issues such as equal pay are global in scale and not limited to the host country. Yet the event is often overlooked when discussing megasports governance. Spalding argues that that should change.

In his new book, he also points to Australia and New Zealand’s efforts to conduct an independent human rights assessment to identify the potential adverse human rights impact of hosting the Women’s World Cup. The study identified three key areas of risk — safety, rights of athletes, and rights of local communities — and recommended mitigation strategies and necessary training. While Spalding said the proactive step sets an important precedent, the study was narrow in scope and focuses on short-term corrections rather than creating a long-term legacy.

Still, he said, the Women’s World Cup next year will serve as one of the latest chapters in an ongoing narrative about the ability of megasports to leave a legacy of improved anti-corruption and human rights norms and practices. He draws a line from Brazil to South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, where scandals led to long-lasting reforms such as the historic Kim Young-ran Act — aka, the Anti-Corruption and Bribery Prohibition Act — that upended cultural norms and restricted gifts to public officials. Spalding continues the line through Qatar, which deliberately set out to leave a human rights legacy and succeeded. 

An illustration of a glob showing flags from Qatar, China, and Australia, with a line connecting themHosting the Olympics is both an honor and a massive burden, but whether the moment holds a lasting legacy can’t be known for years to come. An expensive Olympic Village can be converted to residential housing, a resort, or a public sports complex — or fall into neglect and disarray. An athlete’s performance can draw new interest and increase participation in a sport. Building wind farms, planting acres of forests, and using a fleet of electric vehicles can create environmental legacies but may not truly counteract a country’s reliance on fossil fuels. And placing attention on corruption and human rights issues can offer a chance for cultural shifts and influential reforms — but only if the host is willing to step into the light.

Regardless, Spalding’s outlook is hopeful.

“During this time from Qatar to Australia and New Zealand to France [site of the 2024 Summer Olympics], we can build substantial momentum for this idea that megasports not only should prevent corruption and human rights scandals, but can deliberately build legacies in the country,” he said. “In the same way that megasports can hopefully leave economic legacies and infrastructural legacies and environmental legacies, I think we can now expect to leave anti-corruption and human rights legacies.”

Kim Catley is a freelance writer in Richmond. She previously wrote about Spalding’s research on Brazil, which hosted the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.