I was talking to my sister a few weeks ago after we went to a women's basketball game at USF, her alma mater, and the matter of her soccer "career" came up.
We were something of a "soccer family" in that all three of us played soccer growing up.
And she was good.
She started out playing forward on one of the local club teams and made scoring hat tricks look routine. I joked with her that after blowing by her opponents to score goals, she would run back down the field with a sort of blank stare of surprise like, "I don't understand what the big deal is - isn't scoring goals what you're supposed to do?"
She eventually ascended to the Olympic Development Program tryouts and I watched a scrimmage or two she played in, but at that point the outcome didn't matter: I was proud to see her make it that far. And my brother and I often took the credit - the strength of her left leg was clearly the result of spending years trying to fend us off in play fights.
But the more important memory actually came at a pick-up game.She had surgery in middle school that prevented her from playing soccer at all for a while, but she decided to give it a try again in high school.
As someone who played (sweeper) (poorly) at the same school, I suggested that one way to get back in shape would be to play a pick-up game on the school field. Some of the janitorial staff played there on the weekends and had competitive but lighthearted games.
She was obviously apprehensive: not only had she been sidelined for a few years, but she also wasn't sure about playing against men. As fast and accurate as she was, she isn't the strongest person in the world, never really adding meat to her bony elbows and knees at that time.
It took her a while to adapt to the men's game, but on one play she did. She caught her defender sleeping, and raced down the left sideline as a pass was lofted over his head. Realizing that he had no chance of catching her, he (questionably) pulled up lame and dramatically hopped around to indicate that he had sustained an injury without any contact (to be sure, phantom injuries did happen on the field - we joked in high school that our home field advantage was knowing the location of the little potholes better than our opponents). A few steps after receiving the ball on the left side of the goal box, she fired a shot over the goalie's head into the right corner.
I was in shock.
First, that she still had it after not having trained and presumably being out of condition. But second, because that was arguably the most amazing play and shot I'd ever seen her make. Third, because whatever apprehension she had that I assumed I needed to talk her out of was completely gone on that play.
Her celebration was the same as it had usually been when she started playing around 8-years-old: What? isn't this what I was supposed to do?
But what saddens me and leads me to bring this up now is that she ultimately decided to quit high school soccer (I won't even discuss her high school basketball career). Her explanation was quite simple: the other girls were rather cliquey and she wasn't part of the clique.
There might have been one player on her high school team who was legitimately better than her (went to play soccer in college), but there's no way the rest were. Yet the social dynamics ended up souring her on that team, the injury made jumping back into more competitive circuits short, and as far as I knew she simply lost interest.
She would later work concessions and such at USF and while there we saw some people she knew. So I had to ask again, "What happened?"
As she talked it just struck me that a number of other things came out that I had never considered prior. Soccer skill didn't matter to those girls - social standing did (that's without delving into whether her being the only black player on the team had a role). They didn't talk much about soccer outside of practice or games. Mia Hamm was a big deal for them obviously, but they really didn't discuss professional soccer or go to games. And they certainly didn't play pickup sports of any kind during lunch.
I compared that to my experience growing up at the same school (affluent, private, predominantly white): We played on the weekends for fun against other kids or adults. We played one on one and talked trash. We watched the NBA ... and talked a lot of trash (I was a Reggie Miller fan). We skipped classes to finish games stuck on "point game". We had been talking about making the state tournament in senior year at the beginning of freshman year. And when we did win the city championship - coincidentally, at USF's Koret Center - it was like the culmination of all of that: we had proven that we were the best unit in the Bay Area (DV, of course... but still).
I'm not going to give you any sob stories about how I love those guys: I didn't. I was indifferent to many of them and disliked a couple. I've only talked to one of them consistently since high school. But that didn't matter - it came down to earning our spot on the team on the court.
And that probably surprised her more given the narrative.
The opportunity to participate in sports for girls is very, very important for all the reasons floating around the web today for the National Women's Law Center's Rally For Girls' Sports Day. But the numbers about girls becoming disinterested in sports - particularly about the time my sister did, 9th or 10th grade - are staggering. And the reasons are sometimes troubling.
To be sure, sports culture is not all good - I'd be lying if I said everything in my social interactions that supported my basketball interest was positive. But despite increased participation rates in sports, it is also evident that girls are not participating in sports culture at nearly the rates of boys. And if we believe a) that sports are positive for youth development and b) that something about sports culture in the U.S. is locking girls out, then it seems clear that we should turn our attention to that as a target.
That starts with building community around girls and women's athletic endeavors - not necessarily just hiring more women to report on male sports - and I like to think that Swish Appeal sort of embodies one effort to do that, even if we're not changing the world en masse.
The cause is not only about supporting women's sports as a movement or exhibiting support for Title IX, both of which are important. But the cause is also fundamentally about making sure that girls are encouraged to seek the same benefits from sports participation as boys and have cultural support to maintain involvement once there.
There are obviously complex dynamics of gender socialization and media imagery involved that won't be easily "solved" - and I consider it an open question as to whether it's a problem at all - but although I have no answers I find it a topic worthy of further attention as we celebrate progress.