Playing it Forward

Looking back on the trajectory of girls’ participation in sports this Women’s History Month, we are amazed at how things have changed since Title IX was enacted 50 years ago. Sara shared in an earlier post that we were part of the first girls’ soccer team at our high school back in the 1980s, when soccer was still pretty new to our hometown for both boys and girls. Now, nearly half of the roughly 3 million youth soccer players in the Unites States are girls.

Girls’ participation in soccer was uncommon in the late 1980s, but by the late 1990s Mia Hamm had become a household name. When the U.S. National Team won the 1999 World Cup Championship, women’s soccer captured the hearts and minds of countless young girls across the country.  

In February, the U.S. women’s team broke new ground in the fight for equal pay when the U.S. Soccer Federation agreed to new terms that include the sharing of more than $24 million in payments and more equitable pay relative to the U.S. men’s team. However, much more work needs to be done. Christine Guilfoyle, EVP SeeHer Membership & Partnerships at the Association of National Advertisers, shared in an article in Adweek: “Research reveals that women’s sports total only 4% of all sports media coverage and a mere 1% of all sports sponsorship.” She goes on to write about how consumer brands can better connect with Millennial and Gen Z consumers by supporting women’s sports.

When Sara and I, along with 40 other girls, showed up in early March 1986 to learn about soccer, some of us had played before but most of us were totally new to the sport. Our friend Janet was a soccer fan, having watched her brother play for years. Soccer first came to Lexington in 1977 and officially was offered to boys only, yet Janet recalls seeing the occasional female player on the field. Janet didn’t play on the field for our girls team in high school, but she helped out at practices along with several members of the boys’ team. Their support helped build our fledgling team’s confidence, while deepening the bonds of our high school friendships. This shared experience continues to link us to each other to this day.

As I think about how soccer shaped me, it without a doubt helped me become a braver person. Brave enough to study abroad in college, to move to New York City in my early 20s and to go on to study in a competitive MBA program, where only 19% of my graduating class was female.

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

Dr. Seuss

I also know that when I, Sara, and dozens of other teen girls went out for soccer in the 1980s, we were becoming role models for future girls’ soccer players. My 8-year-old niece Cora’s team, the Rainbow Lightening, won second place in their AYSO tournament this past fall, something she is incredibly proud of. More interested in the arts than athletics, I think it helped Cora decide to play soccer when she learned that a favorite Aunt played many years earlier. As Ms. Guilfoyle states so eloquently in her Adweek article, “If you can see her, you can be her.”

Reflecting on my time as a high school soccer player, I recognize how formative this experience was. It gave me an important outlet where I could form new bonds away from the competition I faced in the classroom. As the Women’s Sport Foundation, created by Billie Jean King in 1974 reports, “Through sports, girls learn important life skills such as teamwork, leadership and confidence.” The fact that I was a mediocre player didn’t matter, I was a part of a team. Even now, 35 years after my final season, I am proud that I was part of the movement to increase access and interest in girls’ soccer.

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