50 years of Title IX: How college soccer fueled the USWNT engine

June 23, 1972. It is one of the most important days in the history of sports, and it came because of the signing of legislation … for education. It’s the day that the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed into law, and within that bill, the law that we know as Title IX. As Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of that bill becoming law, we take a look at how Title IX has shaped the strength of the United States Women’s National Team.

Title IX’s primary purpose was to address discrimination in education. The text as signed into law by President Richard Nixon read: “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. ”

The law was designed to be a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed to end discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment and public accommodations. However, Title IX did not protect sexual discrimination in education. In fact, the entire law is just one sentence, which prompted President Nixon to publish new regulations that defined the law’s application. Where Title IX became more of a sports focal point in public was in 1974, when then-Congressman John Tower proposed an amendment that would have exempted athletics departments at colleges and universities from Title IX.

That amendment was rejected, prompting an amendment by Senator Jacob Javits that would direct the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to include “with respect to intercollegiate athletic activities, reasonable provisions considering the nature of particular sports.” That amendment was eventually passed, but the public back-and-forth over sports’ inclusion in Title IX regulation was what gave the impression that this educational law was viewed more as a law engineered to level the playing field in sports. Through that educational implementation, it opened the door for women to have increased opportunities to participate in collegiate athletics.

See, Title IX not only opened that door, it dedicated resources and investments to women’s sports. One of the sports that saw an impact very quickly was soccer. Women’s soccer grew rapidly in the collegiate ranks, with the NCAA holding its first national championship in 1982. A 12-team tournament at the time, the North Carolina Tar Heels won the first national championship in women’s soccer. UNC’s program dominated the sport from the start, winning the first 3 national titles and 16 of the first 19. To date, they’ve won 21 national championships, which is more than half of the titles that have been awarded. That dominance was the foundation of the establishment of a new team 3 years later: the United States Women’s National Team.

The USWNT’s importance to the sport of women’s soccer is well documented, but the foundation for the program came from Title IX’s focus on collegiate programs. The USWNT’s first match was on August 18, 1985 in an appearance at the Mundialito tournament in Italy. Coached by Mike Ryan, who was the head coach for the Washington Huskies from 1966-1976, the USWNT lost their first match to the Italians 1-0. That team was composed entirely of women soccer players who were playing in college. Many of the players on the team formed the core of the team that would go on to establish the USWNT as the best women’s national team in the world. Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly were in college at the time, and Mia Hamm eventually made her debut for the team in 1987 at the age of 15.

Title IX also gave rise to the color barrier being broken at an earlier stage than the men. In 1986, Kim Crabbe was called up to a USWNT camp, the first Black woman to earn a call up to the USWNT. Crabbe caught the eye of then-USWNT coach Anson Dorrance, who was also the UNC head coach, when she led her George Mason Patriots to a 2-0 victory in the 1985 national championship over Dorrance and UNC. Shortly after that match, Crabbe was called into camp by Dorrance. In 1987, Sandi Gordon became the first Black woman to earn an international cap with the USWNT. Growing up in Washington, she didn’t have as many opportunities as some of the other players, and she was one of the rare exceptions that made the national team having not played college soccer. Still, she was able to be seen through the US Amateur Cup and the Olympic Sports Festival, and she made it to the international stage.

Despite Kim Crabbe and Sandi Gordon seeing early success in breaking into the USWNT, Title IX’s influence was not foolproof. While the opportunities existed for white women to realize their sports dreams, the same opportunities systematically did not exist for women of color, particularly Black women. And, while Title IX was meant to address educational equality, the bulk of the opportunities have largely left people of color on the outside looking in until recently. Those opportunities largely grew with visibility, with the success of players like Briana Scurry or Danielle Slaton giving Black women a role model to use as a guide.

Throughout the years, in addition to UNC, other college programs have served as pipelines for the USWNT: the California Bears, the Portland Pilots, Santa Clara Broncos, UCLA Bruins, Virginia Cavaliers, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Virginia Cavaliers, Duke Blue Devils , Florida Gators, and Florida State, to name a few. In the men’s game in the United States, professional teams and the USMNT aren’t reliant on the college game, as most players develop through academies. Yet, the college game has still been a major developmental stage for professional women’s soccer and the international game, even as resources have allowed more players to bypass the college in favor of other avenues to becoming a pro.

However, it’s incredibly easy to see where Title IX has been the fuel for the machine that is the USWNT. The United States has won 4 of the 8 FIFA Women’s World Cups, including the first one (which was called the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M & M’s Cup because FIFA was reluctant to give it the World Cup name). The United States has also played in every single World Cup, making it to at least the semifinals each time. In the 31 years since the first tournament, despite recent examples of players skipping school to turn professional, only 2 players have appeared on a World Cup roster for the United States having not played a second in college: Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh, both of whom featured on the 2019 World Cup championship squad.

The Title IX hasn’t just created pipelines through college for the USWNT. The model is used to help women’s soccer teams all around the world. In 2021, there were 9890 women soccer players at all 341 Division I universities. Those players came from every state in the Union, along with 67 other nations. Together, those 9890 players are eligible to play for at least 79 national teams. You can take a look at where those American players come from in this Tableau courtesy of Eugene Rupinski of FMF State of Mind:

Players from around the world have seen that an established pathway to professional success is through the American collegiate system.

As part of the 50th commemoration of Title IX, ESPN has released several stories in multiple formats as part of a collection named Fifty / 50, featuring women who have changed the sports world for the better. Those stories are available all month on ESPN + along with the rest of the ESPN family of networks.

As we mark 50 years on Thursday, we continue to lead the push for equality in all areas of soccer, from representation to pay and equity. The recent agreement by the USWNT, USMNT, and US Soccer to a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees equal payment for all senior national team players has helped other nations’ athletes fight for the same pay equity. The investment began with Title IX. The focus needs to continue as the doors continue to open that provide equal opportunities for women to realize their dream of not just playing soccer, but one day representing their country.

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