As American as Women’s Soccer?

Everything about the new professional women's soccer league is unorthodox—which is why it may succeed

It was a snowy morning on the last Sunday in February, too early to be awake, but inside Mike Boyle's Strength and Conditioning center, in Winchester, Massachusetts, twenty-six women were working out, as devout in their exertions as monks at matins. This was not a casual-jaunt-on-the-StairMaster sort of workout; Mike Boyle's is not the place for casual jaunts. There are no Pilates classes here, no juice bar, no copies of Cosmo or Glamour—just machines, weights, and a swath of artificial turf laid across the concrete floor. These women were working out: sprints and weights and more sprints, while an imposing trainer in black sweats put them through their paces for two solid hours.

They were the Boston Breakers, one of eight teams in the new Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), which made its debut in April. The women are already elite athletes; they also represent the future. In the college seminar I teach on sports and culture, nothing infuriates the female students more than the degradation of women that is associated with male sports: bikini-clad ring girls at boxing matches, inanely grinning cheerleaders at basketball and football games, victory-circle girls at auto races. For my students and many of their contemporaries—who have come of age in the era of Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in institutions (primarily high schools and colleges) supported by public funds—an increasingly compelling image of femininity is represented by the women at Mike Boyle's: it's not about cheering sports but about aggressively playing them.

Although there have been professional and semi-professional women's soccer leagues in Sweden, Germany, Italy, Japan, and a few other countries for some years, the quality of play in those places is equivalent, at best, to American Division I collegiate-level soccer, and most of the players hold down day jobs in order to earn a living. WUSA, in contrast, pays real money, and the caliber of play is far and away the best in the world.

The high quality of talent notwithstanding, two realities would seem to make the existence of this league—let alone that it might succeed—unlikely. There is, first, the obliviousness of the average American to soccer as a major sport. And if general lack of enthusiasm for the sport would appear to dim the prospects of any soccer league, male or female, in this country, the fact that the global soccer culture has historically not tolerated female participation should dim them further. Americans don't like soccer; women are not supposed to play soccer; therefore a women's soccer league in America must fail.

Except it doesn't quite work that way. Rather, our very heedlessness of international soccer values has made us ignorant of women's historical exclusion from the sport. Here women and girls playing soccer is accepted as something routine, even admirable. The fact that soccer remains lodged in the American consciousness less as a professional sport than as a wholesome activity for young people informs the character of WUSA, which in its ethos and economic structure is unlike any league before it.

On a soccer-mad planet—riots occur, work stops, prisoners escape, politicians rise or fall, religious schisms open or close, wars start, all because of soccer matches—the United States has long stood as an oasis of indifference to the world's game. Yes, in recent years the sport has exploded in the United States at the suburban grass roots, and has even spawned a cultural archetype: the soccer mom. But soccer at the elite level of play has generally attracted somewhat less interest than, say, ice hockey (though somewhat more than cricket—a foreign curiosity we can't quite get the hang of), and certainly much less than the major American sports. Indeed, with a few significant exceptions, the history of U.S. men's soccer is a long tale of futility.

Even Major League Soccer, launched in 1996 (two years after the men's World Cup was held in this country), though it restored professional soccer to North America, remains strictly minor-league relative both to international soccer and to other American sports. Not all MLS games are televised, and would-be fans must often scour the nether regions of the sports section to find any league coverage. I know this because I'm an avid soccer fan, and without a satellite dish to pick up foreign television, I have to take what I can get. Until lately that meant following MLS's New England Revolution.

Now I have another team to cheer for: the Breakers, who join the Atlanta Beat, the Bay Area CyberRays, the Carolina Courage, the New York Power, the Philadelphia Charge, the San Diego Spirit, and the Washington Freedom in making up WUSA. WUSA's launch marks a profound development in both soccer and women's athletics in this country.

As noted, women's soccer is anathema in much of the world. In 1921 in England, the birthplace of soccer, women were officially banned from playing on professional fields. As the English player and coach Sue Lopez wrote in Women on the Ball (1997), soccer was "considered to be an unsuitable game for women; it offended middle-class propriety and gave concern to some of the medical profession, who felt it would damage female reproductive organs." When English women finally began playing seriously, in the early 1970s, the characteristic reaction was that of Brian Glanville, the dean of English soccer writers. In a notorious Times of London article about the English national women's team's defeat of Scotland in June of 1973, Glanville—borrowing Samuel Johnson's remark about women who preach—wrote that seeing women play soccer was like seeing "a dog walking on its hind legs." "It is not done well," he said, "but it is surprising to see it done at all."

If England has been chilly toward women's soccer, Brazil—which over the past fifty years has raised the game to its creative height—has been downright hostile. In Brazil, as in other Latin American countries where passion for what is called the "beautiful game" runs high, masculinity is inscribed on the sport, and the word for "ball," bola, is also used to connote the roundness of female breasts. In recent years the Brazilian women's national team has become one of the top four or five in the world, but the team's games are rarely televised at home, and women who play are popularly assumed to be lesbians or considered somehow masculine. Tony DiCicco, the moustachioed former goalkeeper who coached the U.S. women's national team from 1994 through 1999, points out, "If your daughter wanted to go out for peewee football, she'd run into serious resistance. The Brazilian equivalent of that girl wanting to play football is the daughter who tells her parents she wants to play soccer."

Fortunately for women's soccer in the United States, the level of gender equity is higher in this country than it is just about anywhere else in the world. "The reason we lead the world in women's soccer is that we lead the world in feminism," explains Tracy Ducar, the backup goalkeeper for the 1999 World Cup team and now the tough-as-nails starting keeper for the Boston Breakers.

The quest for a professional women's soccer league gained momentum following the spectacular success of the 1999 World Cup—symbolized by the midfielder Brandi Chastain's game-winning penalty kick and her post-kick celebration. The goal was attained in February of last year, when a group of individual investors and cable companies, led by John Hendricks, of the Discovery Channel, and including Amos Hostetter, formerly of Continental Cablevision, announced that they had raised $40 million to start a league that would begin play in 2001.

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Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind and the award-winning Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent ShriverMore

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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