Once an ‘easy way out’ for equality, women’s soccer is now an American force

Brooke Volza and the other girls who play Albuquerque High School Football Division 1 know all about the subway curse: the team that wins the city’s subway tournament at the start of the season is doomed to finish the year without a state championship.

So when Cibola High School defied that fate with Volza scoring the only goal in the team’s 1-0 win over Carlsbad High School in front of a cheering crowd at the University of New Mexico Stadium last year, c was pandemonium. “I started crying. I started kissing everyone,” said Volza, 17, describing the experience as “10 times amazing.”

Now the ball she used to score that goal sits on a shelf in her bedroom, covered in her teammates’ autographs and shirt numbers. Across it, in large capitals, are the words “2021 STATE CHAMPIONS.”

Fifty years ago, Volza’s experience of sprawling and rugged competitive high school football was indeed unparalleled in the United States. Yet, thanks to Title IX, which came into effect in 1972 and banned gender discrimination in education, generations of girls have been given the promise of access to sports and other educational programs.

And women’s football, perhaps more than any other women’s sport, has grown enormously over the past 50 years. School administrators quickly saw the addition of football as a cost-effective way to comply with the law, and the growing interest helped youth leagues grow. Talented players from all over the world have come to the United States. And as millions of American women and girls have benefited, the best of them have spawned a national American women’s program that has dominated the world stage.

“Once Title IX broke down those barriers, empowered women and girls to play sports, and said they should have equal opportunity, girls rushed in,” said Neena Chaudhry. , General Counsel and Senior Advisor for National Education. Women’s Rights Center. “They came in droves.”

Before the passage of Title IX, a tally from the NCAA found only 13 women’s college soccer teams in the 1971-72 season, with 313 players.

In 1974, the first year a National Federation of State High School Association survey tracked girls’ participation across the United States, it counted 6,446 girls playing soccer at 321 schools in just seven states, mostly At New York. That number grew to around 394,100 girls playing high school football nationwide in the 2018-19 school year, with schools often carrying multiple teams and states sponsoring up to five divisions.

In 2018-19, the most recent season counted due to the coronavirus pandemic, a total of 3.4 million girls participated in high school sports, compared to 4.5 million boys.

Many of these athletes have overcome their fears to try to be part of a team. Some trained late into the night, running sprints after goofing off with their teammates. Some have found rivals through competition, and many have grappled with the sting of defeat. Many girls and women on the football pitch have felt the thrill of a goal and the pride of being part of something bigger than themselves.

“We are the heart and soul of football at Cibola,” Volza said.

Title IX is a broad law and was not originally intended to encompass sports. Its origins lie in the fight against discrimination against women and girls in federally funded academic institutions. But as the regulations were developed, they eventually encompassed athletics, and that helped bridge the disparities beyond the classroom. Today, Title IX is perhaps best known for its legacy within women’s interscholastic athletics.

Despite strong initial opposition to the law due to a perceived threat to men’s sports programs, the NCAA eventually sponsored women’s sports, including soccer in 1982. Before that, only a handful of teams competed in across the country.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a dynasty that has won 21 NCAA championships and produced inimitable players including Mia Hamm, began its run playing against high schoolers.

“We really had no one to play with,” said Anson Dorrance, the women’s team head coach since its inception in 1979. He described how he cooked up a schedule that first season. A traveling football club, the McLean Grasshoppers, “came to UNC and beat us like a drum,” he said.

After the NCAA brought women’s soccer into the fold, rate of participation has grown from 1,855 players in 80 teams across all three divisions in 1982 to nearly 28,000 players in 1,026 teams in 2020-21.

Today, the NCAA claims football as the most developed women’s sports program among universities over the past three decades.

Current and former athletic directors, administrators and coaches attribute the rise of soccer to several factors. Initially, complying with the law was a game of numbers and dollars: football is a relatively large sport, where the average squad size usually hovers between 20 and 26 players. The generous roster size has helped schools meet legal requirements to provide a similar number of opportunities to male and female students.

For the administrators, football was also economical: it only needed one pitch, one ball and two goals. It was also a relatively easy sport to learn.

“At the time, schools were interested in the question, ‘How can I add women’s sports that wouldn’t cost me very much?'” said Donna Lopiano, founder and president of Sports Management Resources and former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She added: “Schools were looking for the easy way out.”

The changes did not begin until the late 1980s and early 1990s. College programs increasingly acquired university status – often under the pressure of litigation – which created scholarship opportunities and made football a pathway to higher education. The game exploded at the secondary level, where it became one of the most popular sportsfourth in girls’ participation rate for 2018-19, according to the federation of high schools (the top three women’s sports were athletics, volleyball and basketball).

A cottage industry of club teams also sprung up across the country, as athletes competed for the attention of college coaches. The youth game grew and varsity teams became a farming system for the elite world stage, as women struggled to play the sport in many countries outside of the United States.

The United States Women’s National Team went largely unnoticed when it played its first international match in 1985. It also garnered little attention in 1991 when it won the inaugural Women’s World Cup, which ended in is held in Guangdong, China.

Then the United States began to feel the power of Title IX. In 1996, women’s soccer made its Olympic debut in Atlanta and the United States won gold. In the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final against China, the Americans scored a penalty shootout victory in front of a crowd of over 90,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Michelle Akers, the mainstay of the USWNT in the 80s and 90s, who is now an assistant coach for the Orlando Pride women’s pro team, said Title IX was “a game-changer.” “I can’t even comprehend the amount of time and energy and heartache it took to get this across, and not just to get it across, but to apply it – make it real for people. people and make it real to me,” she said.

The national team’s success continued, with a record four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. And this year, after a six-year legal battle, a multimillion-dollar settlement and potential labor agreement established equal pay for players representing the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams in international competition.

“It was a historic moment, not just for football, but for sport,” said Cindy Parlow Cone, president of US Soccer.

In 1993, Michele Sharts was part of a club team at UCLA that threatened to sue the school under Title IX for not sponsoring women’s soccer.

Sharts, who was left out of the inaugural varsity team, now has two daughters playing in major varsity programs. Hannah, 22, started at UCLA before transferring to Colorado, where she is a graduate student. Sydney, 20, started out at Oklahoma before moving to Kansas State for the upcoming season.

Hannah Sharts performed in front of no less than 5,000 fans. “Being able to gradually see more and more fans filling the stands throughout my college experience has been very promising,” said Hannah Sharts. Hannah and Sydney dream of playing professionally.

Like the Sharts sisters, Volza, the rising eldest from New Mexico, plans to play in college. She looks at Division II and III schools with strong engineering programs.

But first, she has her senior year of high school ahead of her. Volza said she wanted to be a leader for young players.

“I want to motivate them and teach them what it’s like to play college football for a state champion team,” Volza said.

And Volza wants to make history again in his own corner of America, leading his team to win the Metro Tournament and the State Championship in consecutive years.

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