The Real Lessons of Women's Sports

By Dr. Christine Grant
Posted 9/2/99

The excitement of the USA Women’s Soccer Team World Cup victory is still at high tide, and well it should be. These women achieved a remarkable goal, inspired a nation, and proved once and for …

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The Real Lessons of Women's Sports


The excitement of the USA Women’s Soccer Team World Cup victory is still at high tide, and well it should be. These women achieved a remarkable goal, inspired a nation, and proved once and for all— if there was still any question— that women do belong in sports.

Those of us in women’s athletics have been fighting long and hard for what the women’s soccer team accomplished. We’ve wanted the fan attendance, the media attention, the corporate support— we hold this up and say, “See, we were right about Title IX. We were right to say women could succeed in the athletic world.” The women’s soccer team receives the world cup medals around their necks and we all sigh a collective, “We told you so.”

But to me, the most impressive aspect of the USA women’s team was not their performance on the field, which indeed was superb, but rather it was the way in which they reached out to their fans, especially their young fans.

This team, from the beginning, was determined to leave a legacy so that young girls would know that they, too, could grow up to be strong, accomplished athletes. That they could know the fulfillment of contributing to a team’s success. That they could have what young boys have long had, the right to join friends and play for the joy of playing.

The poise and exuberance of the women’s soccer team should remind us not to lose sight of our most important goal: in promoting women’s athletics, we are not so much in the business of creating champions, but in enriching the lives of women. We can take pride in the fact that we have done that.

Anyone involved in athletics knows that not everyone will be a champion, not everyone will get to play in the game or even make the team. But one of the most important messages in women’s sorts is that there is value in participating. There are rewards in teamwork, and there is honor in trying your best.

The greatest legacy of Title IX is not that we have created women champions, but that we have created women participants, women teammates. A whole generation of women now know that they don’t have to tear each other down to get ahead and that they will get farther ahead by working together and supporting each other. A whole generation of women no know that there is value in even the smallest contribution. They may not be the leader, or the star, but they have a skill to contribute that will make a difference to the common goal.

Women also now know that being physically fit does not mean starving yourself or taking diet supplements. It means eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. The image of the women’s soccer team and the WNBA players is a good image for women and girls to see, and one not represented in fashion or traditional media. These women are strong, not frail, healthy, not anorexic, self reliant, not subservient.

And perhaps the most important of all, a whole generation of women now has a collective memory of joy in physical endurance. The memory of being called off the bench to participate in your first basketball game. The comfort of the smell of chlorine that lingers throughout the day long after morning swim practice. The memory of cheering for that little girl in right field who finally caught the ball and got you team out of the inning. The crack of the bat in summer. The sound of the starter’s pistol at track practice. The pain in your lungs after wind sprints— these memories and these experiences now belong to all of us.

With successes like the World Cup Soccer team and the WNBA, we are now entering a new era of women’s sports where women athletes will compete for the spotlight with male athletes. And while that is all good, and the benefits will reach our sons as well as our daughters, it is important not to forget the other goals we have sought in this long journey.

Women belong in sports— not because it will make them rich, famous, or even a champion— but because it will give them lifelong skills. Physical skills. Goal-setting skills. Teamwork skills. The skills that will set the building blocks for a successful and balanced life.

Perhaps most importantly, women belong is sports because you can never underestimate the joy of playing the game, celebrating a shared victory and joining your team afterward for ice cream. Those of us who have done it will never forget those moments, and those are the memories we all need.

Dr. Grant is the Director of Women’s Athletics at The University of Iowa.