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ISSUE 117 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/10/2003

Killing dreams: WUSA needs savior

By Julie Gunderson
Sports Editor

Friday, October 10, 2003

Look around you: it’s a brisk fall night in early October, and you’re standing in a stadium packed with painted faces, flickering flashbulbs, and fluttering American flags. An ESPN truck stationed near the entrance broadcasts the scene of euphoric fans pouring down praise upon the playing field and lifting up chants of glory as the star player pumps their fist into the air. Can you guess where you are? No, this isn’t Yankee stadium, those aren’t the Bronx Bombers making another postseason run, and that wasn’t shortstop, Derek Jeter, signaling triumph. It’s Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., and the U.S. women’s national soccer team has just defeated Norway 1-0 on their march into the Women’s World Cup semifinals. And over there, that American soccer idol with her arms raised in the air, that’s Sports Illustrated cover girl Mia Hamm – the face of a sport for a generation and the obsession of every 12-year old girl with a soccer ball and a dream.

The girls of summer are back, only four years removed from their 1999 World Cup victory, and though the team’s semifinal defeat to Germany means they won’t be repeating as this year’s champs, their mission remains the same: to recapture the hearts of an American public that rarely cares much about women and the sports they play.

Quick, rush back into that stadium, the one with the screaming adolescent girls, wearing the American flag painted on their faces, coveted number 9 Hamm soccer jerseys over their angular frames, and their hearts on their sleeves. Soak it up. This is what makes the U.S. women’s national soccer team a fairy-tale affair. Here, only in a post-Title IX world can fans like these, a team like theirs, and a stadium like this exist. Only in a post-Title IX world could a bunch of females wearing shin-guards and cleats be stealing headlines away from the men in pinstripes, stir-ups, and jock straps.

No discussion of women and their ascension in the ranks of athletics can be complete without mentioning this revolutionizing piece of legislation, that’s been with us for over 30 years. It was, after all, the explanation behind the U.S. women’s punctuated announcement of arrival four years ago.

But that declaration has already been made. You can keep on praising Title IX for getting us to where we are today, but don't be fooled into thinking that women’s athletics in this country is by any means on solid ground.

Evidence of that shaky foundation came six days before the start of World Cup competition when the WUSA, America’s first and only women’s professional soccer league, announced it would shutdown operations due to insufficient financial support. After three years of declining ticket sales and plunging TV ratings, the league’s decision to call it quits only bolsters the claims of critics who believe the U.S. women’s success is more a jingoistic phenomenon than a newfound popularity for female sports. Dress anything up in the American flag and you are bound to create a buzz.

The tragedy of the WUSA’s failure, however, is not for the women of the U.S. national team, rather the heartbreak is found when you strip away those Stars and Stripes and take a look at just who it was that was getting wrapped up in all the patriotic fervor that went along with the sport – America’s youth. Girls, who thanks to Title IX, are now roaming freely on soccer fields with their ponytails flapping in the wind, but with the collapse of the WUSA and other leagues like it are being forced to limit their dreams – no matter how hard this generation of female athletes fight to keep them alive. WUSA players so devoted to preserving the sport they love did what most in this age of inflated athlete egos and incomes to match consider an oxymoron: they took pay cuts.

As refreshing and rare a sight as this may be in professional sports, the fact is the WUSA still needs a new financial backer in order to be saved. If only a corporation like Nike would make an investment in these women, it would be money well spent. Not for the profits that it may yield ten years from now, but for the hopes that it will feed to today's next generation of hopefuls. After all, if Nike can throw $90 million at teenage basketball prodigy LeBron James, it can surely spare $20 million to subsidize the aspirations of America’s young women.

Little boys in this nation have long been allowed to grow up dreaming big: hitting NBA buzzer-beating shots in their driveways, throwing Hail Mary touchdown passes in their backyards and knocking World Series winning walk-off homeruns over their fences. For them the sky’s the limit. Why then can’t our little girls grow up shooting for the Big Leagues too?

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