The United States will begin play in the 2019 Women’s World Cup today in France.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the famous U.S. victory of 1999, when as the host nation the U.S beat China in the championship match in front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl. It was the high point of American soccer history and the impetus for the growth of the game in the U.S.
In those 20 years, the U.S. women’s soccer team has given us great players, inspirational activism and a glimpse of what equality in sports might look like.
The 1999 national team was led by the greatest American soccer player of all time, Mia Hamm. Hamm joined the national team at 15 years old in 1987, just two years after the team was formed. In 17 years with the team, she scored 158 goals and won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals.
In the wake of Hamm came other great players who took up the mantle of American women’s sports. In addition to their amazing athletic talent, they also spoke up as activists, using fame as a platform to promote tolerance.
The first of these was Abby Wambach, who scored even more goals than Hamm — her 184 are the most in international competition for a man or woman. Wambach was also an openly gay athlete at a time when not many athletes were willing to identify as gay for fear of repercussions from fans and sponsors.
Current U.S. star Megan Rapinoe followed in Wambach’s footsteps, breaking new ground for LGBT athletes. Last year she and her partner, WNBA star Sue Bird, were the first gay couple featured on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue, and she was recently featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the first openly gay woman to be included since its debut in 1964.
Though these individual players have provided inspiration, perhaps it is the success of the team, both on the pitch and in advertising, that is most inspirational.
Many see the success of the U.S. team as evidence that Title IX, the 1972 law that demanded equality of access to women in education, is working. The women who have played for the United States came up through the college ranks, and without the financial support that Title IX provided, many of them would not have had the opportunity to develop their full potential as athletes.
The current U.S. squad has continued the tradition of pushing the boundaries of equality in sport, as 28 current players recently instigated a discrimination lawsuit against U.S. soccer. The suit alleges gender discrimination, citing the disparity in funding with the men’s national soccer team.
Though the women’s team is more successful by any measure — competitive and economic — the women have not been paid equally and have not had equal support by our national federation. Though the case has yet to be adjudicated, it is an important test of equality in our national sports landscape.
Evidence of the reach of the national team can be seen everywhere this summer, especially in the commercial marketplace. American women are seemingly everywhere in advertising right now. Star forward Alex Morgan, for example, has endorsements with Nike, Visa, McDonald’s and Procter and Gamble.
Corporate America has not traditionally been out front when it comes to gender equality. The very existence of women athletes on billboards, the airwaves and packaging on store shelves represents a major step forward.
World Cup fever is coming, and it will be sure to inspire. Over the next month — the tournament ends July 7, with the final in Lyon, France — women will take center stage in American sport. New heroes will emerge for American youth, and new generations of young women will be inspired to play sports and live active, healthy lives.
Win or lose on the pitch this year, the last 20 years of U.S. women’s soccer have undoubtedly been a win for American culture.
Jon Bruning is a professor at Carthage College.