Monday, November 09, 2015
Last week, Abby Wambach announced her retirement from soccer. She will play her last game with the U.S. Women’s National Team against China on Dec. 16 in New Orleans. The match culminates the USWNT’s World Cup victory tour. Abby, who is 35, was considering staying with the team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janerio, but her announcement means that her wicked headers won’t be available as the USWNT pursues gold. Her leadership will be missed along with her skill. Her impact on soccer in general and women’s soccer in particular is both far-reaching and significant. Though she won’t be actively playing, she’ll continue to influence the sport for many years to come.
I began playing sports in the 1960s when there were few options for girls and even fewer role models. In elementary school as an early developer I was taller than all the boys. Therefore I was the designated center fielder for our recess baseball games because I was the only one who could heave the ball far enough from the outfield to hit a baseman’s glove. However, I never got credit for my skills because I was “just a girl.” In my high school, girls had the choice of three sports: tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. We didn’t even get to run track, but we were encouraged to be cheerleaders. When my daughters entered high school, they had far more options. Deana trained at a performing arts high school in dance and Shane joined the swim team. Many of their friends played soccer, ran track and played softball. Nevertheless, boys’ sports still generated the majority of fans, priority use of the facilities, and a much more revered status in the social hierarchy. Still, there were several seminal changes in the 80’s and 90’s as athletic women took on a more visible and important position in sport coverage. There had been Babe Didrikson, Althea Gibson, and of course Billy Jean King, but when women’s soccer exploded onto the American sports scene, people sat up and took notice that women were succeeding on the international stage, and they were exciting. In 1991, the USWNT won the first Women’s World Cup and then appeared in the finals three more times, winning in 1999 and 2015 and losing in the final match to Japan in 2011. This tremendous success has created dozens of female sports role models from Mia Hamm to Michelle Akers to Christine Rampone (who was 40 years old in the 2015 WWC) to Abby Wambach.
Amazingly, Abby has 184 goals so far, with a .730 scoring average per game, more goals than any other international player, male or female. She has two Olympic gold medals and appeared in four WWC. Her fierce play and height as a forward made her a go-to person to crank a header into the goal, most famously in 2011 in a last second goal to tie Brazil in overtime in the WWC quarterfinals. The U.S. went on to play Japan in the finals, ultimately losing. She has been the point woman with the press, a strong advocate for the value of female athletes, and a determined teammate. Some may question her retirement just before the 2016 Olympics, but she obviously felt that going out with a WWC victory would be the right decision. She will continue to influence the sport, the young fans just embracing the game, and the overall growth of and respect for all women athletes. As President Obama said when he hosted the USWNT at the White House: “This team taught all of America’s children that playing like a girl means you’re a badass.” Precisely.
All these years, girls have had to endure hearing the phrases: “You play like a girl,” “You screech like a girl,” and “You act like a girl,” which are meant to demean boys, but backhandedly also demean the girls. Everyone should want to play, screech, and act like a girl because girls are awesome. Coaches need to learn not to express frustration with play by reverting to the old stereotypes of weak girls who are scared of the ball and worried about breaking a nail. I broke every one of my fingers at least once playing hardball and volleyball. Nails were the least of my worries. Female athletes train as hard or harder as their male counterparts, suffer injuries and play through them, possess drive and ambition, and push the limits of their skills and endurance just as much as any male athlete. What girls have now is tremendous validation through the success of women’s soccer, the growing status of professional women’s basketball, the increased visibility and TV ratings of women’s tennis — through stars like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Anna Sharapova, and the Williams sisters — and a strong media emphasis on all women sports rather than just the stand-by gymnastics and figure skating.
The proliferation of sports channels has opened the door for televising more women-centered sports. I have the Pac-12 Network in our cable package, which regularly shows all the women’s soccer games in the league. Women have gained a literal seat at the sports table by being commentators, reporters and producers. It’s not unusual to see women offering analysis on all sports, not just women’s sports. All the major networks and ESPN employ women in roles traditionally held in the past by men in broadcasting, and some women have risen to be the primary reporters in their field. Girls can now have as role models not just the athletes on the field, but also the pundits talking before, during, and after games. I still remember all the arguments against having female reporters for NFL games — we can’t allow women in the locker rooms after games, women haven’t played the game so can’t understand it, and women aren’t relatable to the male viewer. All of those caveats were eventually cast aside as women earned their place in the booth (and the locker room).
Abby wasn’t the first to highlight the power and ability of women athletes, and she certainly won’t be the last, but she did make a huge impact in promoting both soccer and women in sports. Many high school and college women soccer players owe a huge debt of gratitude to the pioneers on the USWNT who kept playing even when they had little money, little fan support and little media coverage. By persisting in their sport, succeeding on an international level, and bringing prestige to the United States, they earned their status as top athletes regardless of gender distinction. For a long time, the argument was made that women can’t compete with and against men since they are smaller, less muscular and aren’t raised to be aggressive. Despite this opinion, women, who continue to develop as athletes in their own sports, have branched out to compete against men as jockeys, curlers, archers, golfers, equestrians, kick boxers, and in mixed doubles tennis. Women are carving out a strong position in boxing, basketball, lacrosse and soccer, all sports that could easily become co-gender without losing any intensity or team skill. Girls no longer have to accept traditional women’s sports as their only opportunities. In some schools girls are playing football with the boys. Likewise, women are being certified as officials for sports that have been males-only like baseball umpires and football referees. Significantly women have crossed over as officials for men’s soccer games for at least two decades.
I hesitate to say that a woman will never have the physical power to generate a 60 home run season or be a triple double basketball champion because I’ve seen women athletes evolve tremendously over my lifetime. Once the opportunities opened up and girls began to get the same training as their male counterparts, the differences in skills narrowed rapidly. As trainers learn more about and focus on the needs of young female athletes we’ll see fewer and fewer of the injuries that have plagued them and held them back. Rather than accepting different gender traits as exclusionary coaches should be embracing them. For example, as girls have more opportunities to play sports with the boys, they will gain from exposure to the boys’ aggressiveness and boys will gain from exposure to the girls’ ability to bond. Playing like a girl should be worn as a badge of honor no matter who’s called out.