Heroes' welcome for U.S. women (copy)

Megan Rapinoe, center, and the U.S. women's soccer team celebrate at City Hall in New York on Wednesday after a ticker tape parade through the "Canyon of Heroes" celebrating the Americans' victory in the Women's World Cup.

July 7 was a day to be proud.

And where to begin?

A fourth star added to the U.S. Women’s National Team crest — four World Cup titles since the women’s soccer tournament began in 1991. Four more World Cup trophies for individual excellence — now 14 in all.

A goal scored in the 60th minute of the final — the 50th international goal of USWNT co-captain Megan Rapinoe’s career. Another goal in the 69th minute, scored by University of Wisconsin alumna Rose LaVelle. A 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, further cementing the U.S. women’s worldwide soccer dominance.

We, as Americans, have every right to be proud of our team — the best in the world.

We should also be proud of the federal policy enacted nearly a half-century ago that paved the way for those players to get there.

We’d like to think we don’t need to legislate equality, that we don’t need laws to guard against discrimination. But history shows us otherwise.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 bars educational institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on gender. It applies to students’ entire educational experience — athletics included.

And it has made a difference.

In 1972, the year Title IX was passed, just 700 girls in the entire U.S. played high school soccer. Nineteen years later, when the first women’s World Cup was held, that number had increased by more than 17,000% to 121,722. Last year, the National Federation of State High School Associations counted 390,482 girls’ soccer players — an increase from 1972 of more than 55,000%.

Neither change nor success happens in a vacuum. Title IX isn’t the only factor that has driven more women into sports, nor did it erase all instances of inequality and discrimination — in athletics, education and beyond. It’s also certainly not the only reason the USWNT is as badass as they come.

But it served as a catalyst, and without it, the U.S. being home to an international soccer powerhouse seems about as unlikely as Megan Rapinoe becoming a shrinking violet.

The more opportunities girls have to play a sport, the more they will try. More girls’ teams leads to more competition. More competition means more demand, and more demand means more resources. The more girls succeed in athletics as children and teens, the more women will go on to succeed in college and professionally.

We saw evidence of this in 1991, and especially in 1999, when Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain became household names — laying the groundwork for the likes of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan to do the same in the years that followed.

Twenty-one of the 23 players on the 2019 USWNT’s active roster played NCAA Division I women's soccer.

And Title IX’s reach extends beyond the nation’s borders.

According to NCAA data, 15 of the 24 women’s teams that competed in this year’s World Cup featured players who played college soccer at a school in the United States — including 11 current students playing for Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand and Thailand.

It should be clear to anyone who watched the final match — or, for that matter, who has followed the news at all since then — that Title IX is not the final frontier for equality in athletics.

As members of the USWNT basked in the first moments following their victory, the crowd that filled the Stade de Lyon on July 7 launched a chant.

“Equal pay!”

Earlier this year, the team’s 28 members sued the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging that they are paid less and given less institutional support than their male counterparts. All of this while the women’s team has generated more game revenue than the men’s team since 2016.

Because the pay structures and collective bargaining agreements for the men’s and women’s teams are different, the question of pay comparisons is more complex than many seek to make it. A Washington Post fact-check that included a review of financial documents and bargaining agreements found that women are paid less sometimes, with the most significant discrepancy in World Cup bonuses.

But it’s important to note the lawsuit isn’t just about money; it’s also about working conditions. The women’s team alleges their travel and training conditions are inferior to the men’s and that the USSF does less to promote their games and to generate revenue from them.

What’s happened since the lawsuit was filed in March is cause for cautious optimism, as the players and the USSF have agreed to enter mediation.

At the team’s World Cup celebration in New York last week, USSF President Carlos Cordeiro said he believes “together … we can get this done.”

“Because as this team has taught us, being the greatest isn’t just about how you play on the field, it’s about what you stand for off the field. It’s about who we are as a sport and as a country,” Cordeiro said.

Rapinoe told the crowd she believes Cordeiro is on the women’s side and will “make things right” — and she looks forward to holding his “feet to the fire.”

How the players and the USSF resolve the dispute is up to them. It’s up to the rest of us to fight like these women do on the field for policies, attitudes and systems that promote equity and opportunity for all.

“It takes everybody,” Rapinoe told the crowd in New York last week. “This is my charge to everybody: Do what you can. Do what you have to do. Step outside yourself. Be more, be better, be bigger than you’ve ever been before.”

Because, as Rapinoe said, “it’s our responsibility to make this world a better place.”

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.