It’s understandable that Title IX advocates are jumping on the U.S. women’s soccer team’s bandwagon as hard as they did 12 years ago. Then as now, American players roused their nation to care, at least for three weeks, about two things which were unlikely to gain mass attention, especially together: soccer and women’s sports.
Here we are again, on the eve of the U.S. match against Japan in the Women’s World Cup final, and the Title IX refrains are growing ever stronger:
— The National Women’s Law Center, naturally
You get the drift.
It isn’t that these assessments are incorrect.
It’s that they are incomplete.
While Title IX has spurred the growth of women’s soccer and other sports in the United States, it is far from being the only major factor at work here.
Youth soccer leagues were sprouting up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, inspired by the creation of the North American Soccer League. All across American suburbia, girls were starting to play the game at the same time as boys, making it one of the few sports in this country that can make that claim.
It’s a rarely acknowledged fact that American women’s soccer icon Mia Hamm made the U.S. national team at the age of 16, just as her high school days were beginning and well before she played college soccer at the University of North Carolina. The same goes for Kristine Lilly, her UNC and U.S. teammate for many years and who only recently retired.
They were grounded in youth leagues before the scholastic level subject to Title IX had developed. Their national team coach later was their coach with the Tar Heels. Anson Dorrance, the legendary architect of women’s soccer on so many levels in America, had seen both Hamm and Lily at elite youth tournaments, which in several sports for females still remain more fertile developmental and recruiting grounds than the high school scene.
After their college careers were over, and with no pro league in the U.S. at the time, Hamm, Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and other key figures of the celebrated 1999 World Cup-winning team benefitted from extended residency camps that few women’s national teams enjoyed. This created the atmosphere for their famous team-first ethos, and gave them time to develop first-rate fitness levels and their competitive edge.
These are the traits, handed down, that Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe are demonstrating with thrilling effect for us now.
In one of the few recent media pieces on U.S. women’s soccer that doesn’t mention Title IX, Chris Sprow of ESPN The Magazine explains how these dynamics reflect an American competitive spirit that Wambach cited after her dazzling goal against Brazil and that’s long been the province of male athletes. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this also is why the U.S. run in Germany, as well as that of the ” ’99ers” before them, has caught on with the American public.
The “head start” American women got years ago helped make the difference in gripping quarterfinal and semifinal wins, respectively, over Brazilian and French teams with splendid talent (except at goalkeeper) but that lack conditioning, resilience and proper backing from their national soccer federations. (The Los Angeles Times also delves into this.)
And I think I understand what Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl is trying to get across here:
“If the ’99 Women’s World Cup was the ultimate vindication of Title IX in the U.S., this year’s tournament is exporting Title IX on a global level.”
The crowds have been great in Germany, and still good even after the home team was stunned in the quarterfinals. It’s just that when we get so giddy about women’s soccer and women’s sports (and these occasions are rare) we’ve been conditioned to think that there’s only one thing responsible.
But to take apart that sentence literally, Title IX needed no “vindication” in 1999; its current sports compliance provisions were rendered ironclad a few years earlier in the Cohen v. Brown case that reached the Supreme Court. And since there is no Title IX outside of the U.S., the development of women’s sports around the world proceeds in ways and with cultural realities that Americans simply cannot fathom. But even our women’s sports “exceptionalism,” to borrow from Sprow, has its limits at home.
After Sunday, the U.S. players will return to play in the three-year-old Women’s Professional Soccer league, which is struggling along with six teams and has issues that, in the words of soccer journalist Beau Dure, “no goal in Moenchengladbach can solve.”
Its predecessor, the Women’s United Soccer Association, folded right before the 2003 Women’s World Cup, a deflating blow to the next phase of the growth of the sport. As women’s soccer blogger Jenna Pel noted this week, since 1999, the U.S. team’s only major titles have been at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, with no fully professional league bridging those years.
What is vital is for WPS to get more than a short-term, post-World Cup boost. This is about approaching women’s soccer, and women’s sports, as a business, which doesn’t fit the mission of women’s groups that have made Title IX the focal point of their advocacy.
Yet after all the euphoria about the latest Title IX success on the soccer fields has died down, the challenge of ensuring that these American stars can continue playing on those fields professionally and keep the U.S. team ahead of the game will have nothing to do with the law at all.