By Sarah Weld
I spent much of the last month watching soccer -- women's soccer, that is. The Women's World Cup, held every four years since it began a mere 20 years ago, is a young thing compared to its male sibling, the men’s World Cup, which started in 1930. Yet this year's riveting three-week competition spotlighted women's soccer more than ever, inspiring girls everywhere to kick start their dribbling.
I began playing soccer in elementary school -- my hours spent on the field through high school and college a sweet, grassy escape -- and am part of the first generation of American women to grow up participating in many sports.
Today, millions of girls -- one in three now participate in high school sports, compared to one in 27 in 1971 -- play everything from soccer and lacrosse, to volleyball and softball. Advances in women’s sports have certainly been impressive. But the women in charge are still outnumbered (not unlike in the U.S. Senate and corporate boardrooms).
Coaching young soccer players, both girls and boys, for seven years, I have lost count of how many times the referees and other coaches, almost always men, first approach my male assistant coach and not me.
As one of just 29 female head coaches in a 189-coach league, I am often the only woman at clinics and licensing classes. Plus the coaches’ shirts only come in boxy men’s sizes.
Which is why I always made sure I was seated in time to watch the female referees march onto the field before every World Cup game. I was also thrilled to see the players, of course, but those female refs who control the flow of the game filled me with glee. They command the play, in front of thousands of fans, incurring the wrath -- or gratitude -- of players and audience alike, just like the male refs. And I bet their shirts are cut for narrow torsos.
I also love the women coaches, former stars pacing on the sidelines, and the women commentators, too, most of them former soccer powerhouses like U.S. champion Brandi Chastain. But even Chastain, who famously stripped down to her sports bra after the U.S. women won the 1999 World Cup, was regularly interrupted mid-sentence last month by her fellow male broadcasters.
I can’t figure out why there aren’t more women keeping me company on the field. From playing high school and college soccer in the ’80s, I know there are enough soccer savvy women who could be coaching or refereeing.
So where are they? Why do they sit back and let the dads, even those who have never played the game, take over? Just like girls need to see women politicians, doctors, and CEOs, they also need to see women coaches and referees.
(Sarah Weld is the co-editor of The East Bay Monthly, where this article first appeared. Weld, who coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif., played soccer and lacrosse at Harvard.)