How Title IX Catapulted Women’s Soccer onto the Global Stage

Article In The Thread
USA women's national soccer team huddle together, hands raised to hold a trophy after the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup Final match between USA and Netherlands.
Mikolaj Barbanell/Shutterstock
July 18, 2023

When Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972, he wasn’t thinking about the future FIFA Women’s World Cups he was helping to advance (including the 2023 edition, kicking off this week in Australia and New Zealand). There are two reasons.

The first is that, at the time, hardly anyone gave any thought to how a law granting equality of educational opportunities between the genders would affect sport. No one then imagined that the public would come to associate Title IX primarily with collegiate sports; and certainly no one could have foreseen that the law’s revolutionary impact on women’s sport would be felt globally.

The second reason is that President Nixon, however visionary he might be on his rare good days, had far more pressing matters on his mind that June 23. That same morning, he had a conversation with Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, that would come to be known as Watergate’s “smoking gun” that cost him his presidency. You know, the one where the two men discussed (on tape, no less) having the CIA order the FBI to back off from investigating the prior weekend’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee.

Nixon is long gone, Watergate has been superseded by plenty of other presidential scandals, but Title IX’s influence on the women’s version of soccer — the world’s default sport — remains an ongoing, underappreciated success story.

With Title IX, Women’s Soccer Wins

It didn’t happen overnight, but Title IX forced a level of investment in women’s sports without precedent in this or any other country. Women’s soccer was a prime beneficiary, the recipient of scholarships and infrastructure funding meant to partially offset the lavish but-don’t-call-it-professional level of support colleges provide their men’s American football programs.

As a result, by the end of the twentieth century, U.S. intercollegiate athletics stood at the apex of the women’s game, offering the best-resourced, highest level of competition anywhere in the world. (This isn’t saying that much given the cultural headwinds the game encountered elsewhere.) Sports aren’t inherently gendered, but culture dictated that in countries where soccer was deeply embedded as the sport of choice, it was established as a manly pursuit. Girls and women wanting to play were actively dissuaded from taking the field, pointed instead to other sports or no sports at all. To this day, the idea of women playing soccer encounters far more resistance in Britain, for example, than it does in the United States, not because British society is generally less enlightened than American society, but because soccer there is the incumbent, male “contact sport.” In Britain, opening soccer fields to girls is more culturally akin to providing girls opportunities to play American football in this country, as opposed to ceding them an unclaimed sport.

“Title IX forced a level of investment in women’s sports without precedent in this or any other country.”

Paradoxically, then, it was the fact that soccer was so historically neglected and peripheral in the United States, where we had our own incumbent “macho” varietal of football, that allowed American women to thrive at it more quickly, make it their own, and gain global ascendancy. Until very recently, American colleges offered the only top-level talent incubators for the women’s game anywhere, courtesy of Title IX. The first U.S. team that won a major international tournament, the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in China in 1991, was essentially the University of North Carolina team, coached by the legendary Anson Dorrance, who, in addition to leading the Tar Heels, served as head coach of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) from 1986 to 1994.

The virtuous cycle of millions of young girls taking up recreational soccer across the country, inspired by the collegiate athletes conquering the world through Olympic Games and World Cups, helped naturalize a sport previously deemed as suspiciously foreign as the metric system and socialism. By the time of Brandi Chastain’s iconic celebration of her winning goal at the 1999 World Cup, watched by 18 million viewers on ABC, the term “soccer mom” had become ensconced in the lexicon of American politics to represent mainstream, suburban, white middle-class voters.

Conversely, what Title IX and the success of the women’s game in America did globally was launch an aspirational contagion, a proof of concept that women’s sports were worth investing in — and not merely as a matter of gender equity. The phenomenal success of the American college athletes who comprised the USWNT showed the world that, like any compelling elite sport, women’s soccer could capture the imagination and interest of massive audiences.

Going Global

Title IX didn’t just inspire foreign athletes as a distant model. American colleges have long been a magnet for athletes from all over the world. NCAA women’s soccer continues to be among the international game’s top leagues and most proficient incubators of talent. More than 20,000 international athletes compete each year across all sports in the three divisions of the NCAA — and at last year’s NCAA Division I soccer tournament, student players from 35 nations were represented. The university where we teach, Arizona State University, included 13 international players from 7 countries on its roster last season. One of New Zealand’s players at the upcoming World Cup, Gabi Rennie, is an ASU senior.

The global game that U.S. collegiate athletics helped launch is now being transformed by serious investment in many other countries at the professional level. Across Europe over the past decade, despite the still considerable cultural headwinds, venerable men’s clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid have finally gotten around to establishing women’s teams to compete in the same uniforms.

The development of professional leagues and clubs for women players in other countries are creating new pathways for their players: Spain’s roster headed to the Women’s World Cup this week, for instance, doesn’t include any players who ever played in U.S. colleges. Germany has only one player with American collegiate experience, though England has four, including three former Tar Heels.

Countries like the Philippines, meanwhile, that have yet to create a professional women’s league of their own, still rely on American colleges to develop their talent — seventeen of the 23 Philippine players headed for the country’s inaugural World Cup play or have played in NCAA programs.

The U.S. roster, for its part, includes three players (Lindsey Horan, Trinity Rodman, and Alyssa Thompson) who opted to forego the college game in their own country to go pro earlier. This will become more common as the women’s game grows and offers players better pay and more talent development opportunities. As in the men’s game, the day may come when the opportunity cost for the top players to play in college becomes too high.

The growth of the professional women’s game in Europe and elsewhere will also chisel away at American dominance. Within the past year, the USWNT has lost friendlies against Germany, England, and Spain. But no need to despair. If we win fewer trophies in women’s soccer in coming years, that will still be an American success story, given how much credit Title IX can claim for launching the sport globally.

Richard Nixon should be proud, regardless of whatever else he was up to that June 23.

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