This week I had the pleasure of listening to Gwendolyn Oxenham, author of Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer, as well as a panel of Women’s Soccer figures: Dan Levy, agent for many of the players of the USWNT, Anson Dorrance, coach of UNC’s women’s soccer team, Carla Overbeck, former USWNT captain and current Duke coach, and Jeffrey Gerson, Professor at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell. All of these people talked about the history, growth, and importance of the Women’s game and I think that they really made some eye-opening points.
My enlightenment began Thursday morning during a Q & A session with the author and former pro player Gwendolyn Oxenham. In her book, she takes us around the world to detail how the women’s game is played out in various countries. While many of the questions were about specific parts of the book (which I highly recommend reading), the overarching theme followed the idea that the women’s game is very underdeveloped and women cannot even make a career out of the sport. She spoke about how the game is so broken that one of the biggest women’s teams in the US outlaws homosexuality for its player – in 2018. This fact is shocking and her book even talks about how certain players would be gay when they joined the team, and would somehow become straight after playing for the team. Such practices of intolerance on teams in this day and age cannot be overlooked because athletes and teams act as role models for younger generations. If this is the example set for them, then our generation has failed. She also spoke about the experience of staying true to the women whose stories she told and her difficulties as an author with finding the balance between respecting their stories and telling an unbiased truth.
The next day, my journey continued with a panel about the history of the women’s game from 1970-2000. Mr. Gerson led this discussion, using the phenomenal people next to him to demonstrate the incredible mountain women’s sports had to climb and the captivating journey to the most-watched soccer game in US history in the 2015 world cup finals.
I think what stuck out to me most in this discussion was how much women had to fight for rights I would consider basic of any job, let alone as a player. These women were being blatantly discriminated against by the US Olympic committee by not offering equal awards for gold/silver/bronze medals. They had to go out and sell their own tickets so that they were not embarrassed by the world cup viewership. This, IN ADDITION to winning a world cup, was literally an impossible feat.
The other thing that Mr. Gerson talked about was the team dynamic. This team was made up of individuals who could have easily gone out and made themselves millions by being selfish. Instead, every woman on the team stuck together and held a united front during protests and opportunities. Mia Hamm turned down multi-million dollar contracts to ensure that she was paid as much as the lowest paid reserve player on the USWNT. This woman was a superstar and was willing to be paid pennies to develop the game for generations to come. If that isn’t true selflessness, I don’t know what is. This group of women that won the World Cup in 1999 was in essence, the perfect storm. All of them had such dynamic and complementary personalities which gelled together perfectly to catapult the women’s game into the spotlight like it is today.
But these women stated that this fight wasn’t over yet. The next steps were making sure that women were able to make a career out of this profession rather than having to work part-time jobs to survive as they do in most countries. The development of women’s leagues in Latin America and Europe has been slow and needs further work before anyone can be content with it
I remember the first women’s game I watched: the 2015 world cup final. I lived in India at the time, so I had to wake up at 6 AM to catch the game. My parents and friends said I was crazy and that there was no point and asked me “who cares.” But I wanted to see what this was about. I love soccer, so why should it matter who plays it as long as it is enjoyable. As a US soccer fan, our men’s national team has always been disappointing when it comes to the world cup or even developing star talent. To be able to see my nation definitively win a world cup brought me a joy I don’t think I will be able to experience from the men’s team for a very long time. That day also made me realize that the women’s game deserves attention and respect from all of us, and these panels and talks have only further grown this idea in my mind and provided me with methods to support its development in any way possible for future generations.