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On Title IX’s 50th anniversary: How it changed the landscape for women’s football

On the 50th anniversary of the passing of Public Law No. 92-318, 86 Stat. 235, we celebrate the platform it gave women’s football

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Title IX has long been heralded as a transformative piece of legislation in not just the NCAA, but in the world as a whole. At a time when football, in particular women’s football, was almost a non-existent sport, where most people viewed it as a hobby that young girls could play but should eventually grow out of, Title IX brought about a change.

It gave young women another option; to not only keep playing the sport they love but also receive the same amount of support their male counterparts received while attending universities and colleges all across the United States (tableau created by Eugene Rupinski of FMF State of Mind).

With the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaching, AllForXI have decided to examine just how much the ruling changed the landscape for women’s soccer in the United States, and how it also ended up leaving a global footprint on the world.

The transformation of the college landscape

Public Law No. 92-318, 86 Stat. 235 (June 23, 1972) is what the law is commonly referred to Title IX, and it codified in the US legislature at 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-1688. The first draft of the law was authored by then Representative Patsy Mink with assistance from Representative Edith Green and then co-authored and introduced to Congress by Senator Birch Bayh and Congresswoman Patsy Mink. After her death in 2002, the law was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.

Patsy Mink at News Conference
Congresswoman Patsy Mink brought about Title IX to the forefront of legislation

People with far more working knowledge have delved into Title IX and produced articles on its importance and impact on the college landscape and in particular, the NCAA. In our piece, we will look at how it impacted women’s football specifically. The law requires that schools and institutions within the United States meet the correct proportion of men and women participating in college sports, make an effort to increase the number of athlete participation from an unrepresented sex, and if the school is showing that they have and continue to expand college sports programs to the other sex, among other things.

In women’s football, the ability to now be able to not only attend college but gain an athletic scholarship through the sport saw massive increases in female athletic participation in both high school and college sports. Football remains one the highest frequently offered sports for women at the collegiate level and through that, has become the development academies that the game had lacked due to no professional leagues that had lasted long enough to have their own academies.

The law faced a lot of challenges which were dealt with throughout the last two decades and still continues to deal with challenges at all levels of the collegiate program. However, despite those issues, Title IX remains a tentpole in equality and equity, and it continues to produce talent that is seen all over the world today.

The Title IX to USWNT pipeline

As a site that focuses on women’s football, we can’t talk about the impact of Title IX without discussing how it formed the powerhouse that is the USWNT.

As per The Sisterhood: The 99ers and the rise of U.S. Women’s Soccer by Rob Goldman, the first ever version of the USWNT showed up in 1985 and squared off against Italy, Denmark and England. U.S. Soccer had failed to put together a team for the 1984 LA Olympics so the collegiate athletes who had been disappointed to not represent their country (including the likes of Michelle Akers), put together a “national team” to play against those countries. The team was led by Mike Ryan who had been the head coach at the University of Washington for many years and brought with him a wealth of experience and knowledge.

1999 FIFA WWC - USA v Brazil semi final
The USWNT became what it is today due to Title IX
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

That formative team was then taken over by Anson Dorrance, a man who’s name will be familiar with many involved in women’s football. While still coaching at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dorrance also became the head coach of the USWNT which was almost exclusively all collegiate players. That team, which was known as “The Babies”, was the nucleus of the fabled 99ers team and featured the likes of Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and a then 14-year old Mia Hamm.

Those names alone should make you realise just how important Title IX was to putting women’s football, especially the USWNT, on the map. That team from 1999 featured almost exclusively of players who had been through the collegiate system and paved the way for those in the NCAA to tread in their footsteps and become a part of the USWNT too through the platform that Title IX had given them.

Even when professional league after professional league rose and fell in the US, the collegiate system remained the number one source for the USWNT to build its roster from and also gave many female players the chance to live out their dreams not just with the USWNT, but with their own national teams as well.

With the current staying power that the NWSL has now, there’s an opportunity for collegiate athletes to not only carry on as professionals, but also use the league as a stepping stone towards the USWNT or any other national team. None of that would be possible without Title IX.

The opportunity Title IX presented for international students

As briefly touched on above, Title IX also gave an arena for female players from across the globe to play in as well. Whether they were from Mexico or Canada, the US’ nearest neighbours, or from as far away as the Philippines; Title IX gave all of those players the chance to play their favourite game and earn a college degree at the same time.

Title IX was so influential on a global scale that it was a pivotal piece in the British cult-hit ‘Bend It like Beckham’. In the movie, the two female leads compete to earn a scholarship to Santa Clara to play collegiate soccer. Take a second and think about that. A movie based in England, from the ‘home of football’ itself made the major plot point of its movie the opportunity to go play football in the US collegiate system. The far reaching impact of Title IX has not been a practical one, it has become a pop culture moment as well.

NCAA Photos Archive
Lucy Bronze became the first British player to win the NCAA title in 2009

In more real life terms, Title IX has seen athletes from over 60 countries (excluding the United States of America) participate in the NCAA. At a time when playing football wasn’t an option in a lot of countries, Title IX gave international students the chance to not only gain a university or college degree, but also gain it through excelling at a sport that had been made difficult for them to participate in in their home countries.

For example, seven countries in Africa all have seen players enter the collegiate system through Title IX and play in the NCAA in 2021 (tableau created by Eugene Rupinski of FMF State of Mind). Some, as noted above, are still in the collegiate system right now from those countries and it’s all through the benefits that Title IX affords to anyone looking to play in the NCAA and gain a college degree at the same time.

Notable names in the past that have come through the NCAA, like Lucy Bronze, used their time in the collegiate system to better themselves as players in a different country as at that time, their own country didn’t have the resources or opportunities for someone like Bronze to develop as a player. Sarina Wiegman, formerly head coach of the Netherlands and now the head coach of England, also plied her trade in the NCAA. Her time in the NCAA with the North Carolina Tar Heels saw her lift the title in 1989 alongside Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck.

The future of Title IX in women’s soccer

With more and more domestic leagues gaining growth and strength across the globe, the question now becomes ‘what role does Title IX now have’? Title IX has been the launch pad for many current and former players but strong domestic leagues means that sooner rather than later, those domestic leagues will want to have academies that nurture homegrown talent instead of relying on the collegiate system to develop players for them.

In particular, players outside of North America may now decide to stay at home and grow as players with their local club teams instead of making the trek to the US to play collegiately.

Academies have always been the source of talent for many teams throughout the history of football and as the women’s game continues to grow, the more the emphasis will be placed on domestic leagues to start and maintain their own academies. Future stars are meant to be homegrown, in a club’s backyard and not drafted from colleges across the country. Not only will emphasis start to be placed there but there will also be a push for players to follow a certain style/system that will then be replicated throughout the entire club. An ethos, so to speak, on how football should be played. Many domestic teams will now look to foster that club culture from a very young age, knowing that it’ll benefit them more in the long run especially if they plan to keep their star players at the club.

Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign
Olivia Moultrie represents what the future of club football could look like in the NWSL
Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

If we take a look at the NWSL, teams have already started to put an academy system in place (Portland Thorns FC, OL Reign FC, to name a few). These teams have seen the value of not only benefitting from a player and culture standpoint, but also a financial standpoint as youth football remains a very lucrative industry in the United States. These clubs are looking to guarantee that in the future, players that come through their system will play the way they want them to play, and not how a college coach from another state has deemed football should be played. It limits the amount of work a first team head coach will have to do in terms of development once those players become eligible for the professional first team, and gives these teams an advantage over others as homegrown players are less likely to want to move abroad if they have the chance to play in front of their families regularly instead. This can be applied to domestic leagues abroad as well.

In North America, the relevance of Title IX with regards to providing players for domestic leagues may never fade. The college draft system is too entrenched in the US and Canada especially to ever fade away. However, in a football-mad country like Mexico, if Liga MX Femenil continues to develop as rapidly as it is, more and more players may look to come through the club academy system to play professionally than to go through the collegiate system. Getting a college degree will probably remain a priority for a lot of players no matter what but if the pay one can earn playing professionally negates the need for a college degree, using the club academy system to advance as a player will become more appealing to many.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, ESPN has and currently is, broadcasting content highlighting the journey female athletes have taken since the passing of this legislation. ESPN and it’s affiliates will be airing various programming throughout the month which spotlights some of the biggest names in women’s sports, past and present.