Did Women's Sports Contribute to an Intellectual and Cultural Revolution?

GELFAND’S WORLD--Two fascinating experiences over the past month -- and are they connected, I wonder.

I attended my college reunion and discovered that the Institution had evolved from having entering classes with 10% females to having classes with approximately equal numbers of males and females. A few weeks later, the Women's World Cup in soccer revealed that the American team was not only a world-beater but has taken on political and cultural leadership in the pursuit of income equality. Something is going on here. 

Let's get one thing out of the way here. For the past few weeks, I've been wondering in these pages whether the American team was just a very good team or was that other thing, a team of destiny. I know the expression has gotten a bit hackneyed, but if they were to pull the rabbit out of the hat and survive a run through Sweden, France, England, and then the Netherlands, they would show that they were the right stuff, the real thing, greatness personified -- fill in your own superlatives. 

Men's soccer has been the world's sport for most of the past century. Those lucky enough to have seen Pele and the great Brazilian teams still talk about the beautiful game. Dominance has gradually migrated to Europe on the men's side, with historical wins by Italy, France, Germany, and Spain in recent years. The game is part of European culture and the continent has the athletes to build great teams. 

But through 1990, there wasn't much room for women to play at the international level. There was no World Cup for women, not until 1991. And in that first tournament, an American team won the title. You might say that as 1992 arrived, the U.S. had won every Women's World Cup ever played. It would have been a joke then, but who would have predicted that 28 years later, the U.S. would have won exactly half of all Women's World Cups ever played? In a sport that has belonged to South America and Europe, a sport in which American men are at best a sort of minor league, this was astounding. Not only are our female athletes on a par with those other continents, they have established a record of superiority which may never again be matched. 


Quite a few writers have been pointing out that American superiority in women's soccer traces back to an element of a federal law signed by Richard Nixon in 1972. In that law, Title 9 provided for a semblance of sexual equality that forced American universities to figure out how to provide something for their female students. Soccer benefited mightily. There is no doubt that college level soccer is what feeds well trained athletes to the national team. The early successes and then, in 1999, the dramatic overtime win for another World Cup title inspired the next generation of would-be international level players, not to mention a few tens of thousands of kids having fun at a game that was beginning to break into the American culture. 

Here's a story from that era. There was a poster showing Mia Hamm standing next to Michael Jordan. A little girl seeing the poster in a store window asks her mother, "Mom, who's the guy with Mia?" The little girls of 1999 America had a role model. 

A developing culture where female athletes gained respect 

A couple or three decades ago, I read about a changing culture in American high schools. It was becoming more and more acceptable for high school girls to participate in competitive athletics. The female athletes were becoming respected members of their communities, both at the social level and in wider society. Girls no longer were expected to be demure and withdrawn. Superior athletes could be popular. Even for the mediocre athletes, going out for the soccer team or the volleyball team was an acceptable pursuit in the adolescent milieu. This has to have had ancillary effects on attitudes towards competing in other things such as college athletic scholarships. 

One other point. If you watched any of the World Cup games over the past few weeks, you would have noticed that this is a rough sport. There is a lot of getting smashed. There is getting kicked in the leg. There is getting knocked to the ground while going full speed. Dainty would not be the word for it. Yet players such as Alex Morgan have also graced magazine covers and appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The definition of what is womanhood has changed. In recent decades we've become used to a greater level of aggressive female participation in politics and business. At the sporting level, the acceptance of female expression is now established, as the television ratings demonstrated clearly. 

College admission data and increasing aggression in sports -- a connection? 

So here's what I wonder: Did the developing societal acceptance of physical expression among high school girls result in a cultural shift that ultimately led to higher levels of female applications to our nation's universities and to participation in other competitive elements in our society, up to and now including the presidential primaries? 

Something happened and is still happening. High school kids are facing a society in which the females are better able to assume their own equality among all their fellow students. They don't have to try and compete on the boys' football team, but they have their own teams and they get to win their own letters. 

Obviously there is a limit to comparisons between athletics and intellectual pursuits. The ability to solve trigonometric puzzles is not the same thing as being able to kick a ball accurately. But they do have one thing in common, which is the need to try hard in what you are doing. There is also the desire to be recognized for your achievements, something that athletic competition teaches. 

I'm guessing that there is a plus to not having to feel like a second class citizen in the physical pursuits of adolescence that spills over into competitiveness at the intellectual level. And what's more, the attitude percolates through to the girls who aren't competing in athletics. They get to feel a little more equal simply by osmosis. 

There is a certain amount of uncertainty in this analysis -- which was the horse and which was the cart? Before the revolution in athletic popularity, the movement known as women's liberation pushed for more equality in admission to medical schools, law schools, and business. Certainly this did not depend on increased athleticism among the applicants, and the movement predated Title 9 by a number of years. But it is also possible for the one thing to stimulate the other and vice versa. Young women fought for fairness in both professional school admissions and in pursuit of athletic careers. What's important here is that the wider society has become accepting of both career tracks. 

An effective politician is born 

Megan Rapinoe has developed in a way that ought to be astounding. Eight years ago she was a very good player with a flair for putting the ball in play with well placed kicks. She had the knack for feeding her teammates in a way that option quarterbacks would recognize -- the ability to read the situation on the fly and deliver the ball to the right place at the right moment. Over the past two World Cups, she has developed as a clutch player. She scored on four consecutive penalty kicks in two critical knockout games in the past few days. 

But suddenly she has been thrust by events into a leadership position on economic fairness and political expression. In interviews and public speeches over the past few days, she has expressed herself in a way that you won't see in very many seasoned politicians or academics. In the face of a remarkable level of abuse from the right wing, she has kept her cool and answered calmly. She has been willing to be an outspoken critic of Trump on the world stage without becoming shrill. 

Back to the games 

 This is a team that has won 14 straight games in the Women's World Cup. One of the American players told a reporter, "We have the world's best team and the world's second best team." That might not be too far from the mark, considering that this team had Carli Lloyd (hero of the 2015 final) available as a sub. From the standpoint of the television viewer, it became obvious after a while that players such as Tobin Heath came to the tournament superbly fit and continued to turn in performances over the long grind. As critics point out, the U.S. rebuilt its defense for this cup, and the effort worked out well in general. A strong performance by goalie Allysa Naeher may have been the biggest surprise, as she had to step into the shoes of Hope Solo. She had one striking mental error (that cost a goal) early in the tournament, and then turned in a competent run including a game saving stop on a penalty kick in the knockout round. Alex Morgan became the target of physical attacks by every team she faced -- a mark of respect on the part of the opposition -- and she used that to draw critical fouls leading to American penalty goals. 

I won't use this space to do a comprehensive look at the 23-woman team. There are plenty of professional sportswriters who have already done so. But there is one newcomer who surprised a lot of us. Rose Lavelle is an incredibly pale 24 year old who (as the press loved to point out) watched the last World Cup finals from a pizza parlor. On television, she looks like everybody's little sister. But she dominated opposition defenses over several games and in the final, she delivered a masterful run and dramatic goal that clinched the world title. 

Right wing blowback 

A lot of right wingers (political, not players) were so terribly offended by Rapinoe's support of Colin Kaepernick and her refusal to sing the national anthem in protest, that they've gone a little nuts. Ann Coulter went so far as to declare her War on Soccer, saying, "The country has been lost. However I am determined to go down swinging by ruining soccer for as many people as possible." Coulter shared an op-ed by somebody named Theodore Dalrymple who explains that male soccer players are better than woman soccer players and that the men's game (which he doesn't much like) is better than women's soccer. Apparently Dalrymple and the right wing are in the process of figuring out that men and women are physically different.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)