We used to call it Nike Christmas, the day we entered the locker room to find our lockers overflowing with new gear — cleats, sweatshirts, running shoes, backpacks — you name it. In three consecutive appearances at the NCAA Final Four for Stanford's soccer team, I rode in limos, gave ESPN interviews and played in front of thousands of screaming 12-year-old girls. None of that likely would have happened without Title IX — the legislation originally intended for educational equality that is now synonymous with athletic equality for women. On Saturday, Title IX celebrates its 40th birthday, a monumental occasion for the roughly three million high school girls and almost 200,000 college females that now play sports — a 1079 and 622 percent increase, respectively, since the law’s inception in 1972.
But Title IX was simultaneously the best and worst thing that happened to me as a female athlete. My experience as a Division I soccer player at Stanford was arguably better than many of my male athlete friends. We were really good (usually standing room only, and our playoff games sold out in minutes) and people loved to watch us play. It all made me think that people really enjoyed women's sports. After college, and after Title IX, I knew it would be different — I just didn’t know how much.
I left school early in March of my senior year to pursue a career in the (now defunct) Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league. As a girl, I never had aspirations of being a pro; a scholarship to play in college was all I really wanted. But once I got there, wrapped in the security blanket of Title IX and a school that whole-heartedly supports its female athletes, perhaps my view of the rest of the country’s opinion of women’s sports had become skewed.
Upon arriving in Boston, where I went for training camp with the Boston Breakers of the WPS, I was picked up in a minivan by my host family. I slept in a small room with a twin bed and ate home-cooked meals. They were wonderful people, but it was far from the luxury of college athletics — and even further from a "professional" league. The team's locker room was a large trailer in the back parking lot of Harvard’s football stadium, where we trained, as most teams in the remaining six-team league didn’t have their own facilities. I was given a pair of shorts and a shirt to practice in, which I'd have to return if I got cut. I bought a one-way plane ticket and watched myself disappear into a league that was hanging on by its fingernails, largely non-existent to the rest of the world.
I could deal with shitty facilities, a twin bed and no more Nike Christmas if it meant the league survived and I could keep playing. But the WPS was mismanaged, disorganized and lacking in any consistent structure. Desperate for funding, it allowed eccentric owners to do whatever they wanted, and players to coach teams themselves. For over a month I waited in limbo — unpaid and unrostered — because the coaches knew that I'd keep showing for free. Not wanting to move to a pro league abroad, and with only 24 spots on each of the six teams, there wasn't really anywhere else to go.
Needless to say, I finally left. The anxiety and uncertainty at practice every day was too much, and a salary of (maybe) $1,000 a month was not worth putting off my degree (most players made more, but I was looking at developmental player's wages). I had only missed a few weeks of classes, so I went back to Stanford, graduated, and returned to Boston as a reserve player for the rest of the summer. The WPS endured a rocky 2011 season, surviving off the momentum of the Women’s World Cup before calling it quits earlier this year and becoming the second failed iteration of American women's professional soccer.
The opportunities that exist now for women playing high school and college sports, largely due to Title IX, are remarkable. But I didn’t want it to end there; I wanted to keep playing and I wanted to be a pro. Title IX held my hand for 21 years, but, like an unforeseen break-up, left me alone to brood over the fact that, forty years later, still nobody (really) cares about women’s professional team sports in this country.
“Life is awesome as a college athlete, and then it’s a total cliff to jump off,” says Kelley O’Hara, a member of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) heading to London this summer (as well as good friend and former teammate at Stanford.) That's true even for players as good as Kelley, one of 18 traveling to the Olympics, for whom playing is still a possibility. There's lots of opportunities abroad, but nine month stints in Germany aren't for everyone. For the USWNT players, they can make a pretty decent salary thanks to US Soccer, have sponsors and even fleeting moments of fame here. But that's only for 18 women. The rest of us—and this is not Title IX’s fault, or anyone’s for that matter—become a new archetype, female versions of those middle-aged men that can’t let go of The Dream.
So Happy Birthday, Title IX, and thank you for some of the best friends and moments of my life, as well as the limo rides and brief cameos on ESPN that my parents will never erase from the DVR. I just wish I'd gotten a little forewarning, or a parachute, for when I jumped off the cliff and into the abyss of women’s professional sports.