Skip to contentNational Women's Law Center

U.S. Women’s Soccer Scores With An Assist From Title IX

ESPN called it one of the most dramatic sports moments of all time. The network scored its second highest overnight rating ever for a televised game and drew the largest big-market audience for a tournament in twelve years. The team’s players became instant celebrities, revered by professional athletes and idolized by aspiring ones. It was a show of physical fitness, teamwork, and what can only be described as indefatigable spirit as a group of fine-tuned athletes fought their way to an astonishing win in front of 26,000 frenzied fans. But this was not the story of a winning touchdown in the final moments of the Super Bowl or a ninth inning homerun in the Major League World Series. This was U.S. Women’s Soccer.

The U.S. Women’s National Team achieved what can only be described as an historic victory over Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals last Saturday. But were it not for another historic victory, hard fought and hard won 39 years ago, this may have been the epic moment that never was. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, the law that demands, among other things, that schools provide girls with equal opportunities to participate in sports. Today the law requires not just that girls be allowed to play, but that female athletes receive their fair share of athletic scholarship money and equal benefits and services.

Julie Foudy, member of the famed 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team and now an ESPN commentator, is acutely aware of what Title IX has done for women’s sports. Having received the first ever scholarship offered to a female soccer player when she was playing her senior year at Stanford, Foudy acknowledged that “a lot of players on that 1999 team were Title IX babies.” Mia Hamm, also a star member of that team, emphasized the importance of the law, telling ESPN that “a lot of us were able to go to university and play soccer because of it, and use that kind of positive momentum to create something even bigger.”

That something even bigger crystallized around Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty kick in the final moments of the 1999 World Cup against China – the moment that was, prior to Saturday’s game, indisputably the most famous moment in U.S. soccer history. Now the poster child for a major shift in public perception about women’s sports in this country, Chastain famously fell to her knees after the goal, ripped her shirt off over her head and pumped her fists in utter exultation. The image instantly became iconic. Reflecting on the moment, Chastain told ESPN, “Girls are so demure about when they do great things. But this moment I think was a moment where young girls can say it’s ok to let out a yell and pump your fists like ‘Yes! I did that!’”

Chastain and the rest of the 1999 team did do it. While Title IX may have opened the playing field to the women of that team, it did not necessarily fill the stands – they did. Prior to the 1999 tournament, the women’s team was told they could not play their games in big stadiums, that they wouldn’t sell out, that they belonged in smaller venues. They were told what critics of Title IX have said from the start: “No one watches women’s sports.” But people did watch. Over 90,000 fans, including then-President Bill Clinton were in attendance for the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final. Again, on Saturday, the U.S. women’s team played in front of a nearly sold-out crowd and, again, they did not fail to wow. They went on to beat France 3-1 on Wednesday and will face Japan in the finals on Sunday for what is sure to be a thrilling finish in front of another packed house.

Hope Solo, star goalkeeper for the U.S. team told reporters of the crowd, “I didn’t hear anything, but I could feel them every time I went in for penalty kicks.” And Megan Rapinoe, engineer of the game-tying assist added, “It was unbelievable, the crowd was so emotionally invested in the game. I blacked out, I think, I took a little touch and I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve ever hit a ball like that.” This team was just a little better Saturday night because of that big roaring crowd. The crowd was big because those women are just so good. And, in the words of Robin Roberts, “they were good because of Title IX.”