On April 12th, the Center for Women BC Colloquium welcomed Mia Hamm to the BC community in honor of 50 years since Title IX’s ratification. Mia Hamm is an extremely accomplished soccer player as a 2-time Olympic gold medalist and 2-time FIFA World Cup Champion. She retired in 2004 as not only one of the best women’s soccer players in history, but as one of the most influential players in the entire sport.
In a conversation that took place in the Plex as a nod to her career, Mia Hamm spoke to an eager audience alongside Patti Phillips, the CEO of Women Leaders in College Sports, which is “the nation’s premier organization that develops, connects, and advances women working in collegiate athletics.” The two powerful figures in the world of women’s sports discussed the significance of Title IX, Hamm’s journey as an athlete, the historic 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as lessons and advice for female athletes.
Title IX was ratified in 1972 and states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. As Hamm brought to the audience’s attention, nowhere in this civil rights law does it explicitly mention sports, even though sports is the area where this law has been the most broadly applied and impactful. Title IX was initially intended to broaden access to high school and college for women, however, without its impacts on sports, we would not have Mia Hamm or other dominant female athletes.
Beyond the obvious impact of Title IX for Mia Hamm in enabling her entry into collegiate sports, Hamm recalls a conversation with her children who commented that this piece of legislation seems so intuitive, and that it’s crazy that it had to be passed in the first place. Hamm can be thanked for much of the normalization of female participation in elite levels of sports; Patti Phillips remarked that Hamm was likely the first poster of a female athlete that people had in their childhood bedrooms, which is a sentiment that deeply resonated with an audience full of self-identified athletes and fans.
A major focus of Hamm’s talk was on the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This historic run marks the first time Hamm and the women’s team at the time (commonly referred to as the 99ers) played in a large stadium, and was a huge marketing moment for women’s soccer. In addition to training to play at an extremely competitive level, Hamm and the 99ers had to simultaneously market and represent the team, which were taxing tasks to balance. Building interest for this team from the ground up was draining, Hamm recalls, but also incredibly rewarding. The first time the women’s team sold out a stadium during this tournament is one of Hamm’s most fond memories, and she shared with the audience that she will never forget the first time fans recognized her in public. In the finals of this tournament, the US women’s team defeated China in a game that went to overtime, then to a penalty kick shootout with a final score of 5-4. The success that the 99ers had in garnering support for their team from the nation helped to prove how compelling women’s sports are, which ushered in support and excitement down the line—a major reason as to why this tournament was so significant. This was the first time that families came to tailgate women’s soccer games, and Patti Phillips commented that when she was in New York City watching the tournament, the energy in the city was tangibly unlike anything she had ever felt before when Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick; people were cheering from every street corner.
The USWNT’s victory over China in 1999 generated intense national excitement and forever changed the course of women’s sports, and it remains an iconic moment in sports history. To this day, it is the most watched soccer game in the United States. The amount of support that the women’s team ushered in during this tournament has endured; the women’s team is still widely supported in ways that once seemed inconceivable for women’s sports. The image of Brandi Chastain taking off her jersey and whipping it around her head in celebration after scoring the winning goal is unforgettable, and as widespread interest in their games expands, female soccer players have continued to provide glorious moments and images for fans to remember.
In regards to the debate about paying female athletes, particularly in light of the lawsuit with the USWNT for equal pay, Hamm mentioned that she feels it is important to not just pay female athletes fairly, but to also invest in young athlete programs as a step towards equalizing the domain of sports for all genders. Hamm and Phillips both emphasized the view that there are no more excuses for neglecting women’s sports because dominant female athletes continue to prove themselves when provided with the opportunity.
After retiring from professional soccer, the sport has stayed a salient part of Hamm’s life. She is a part owner of two Major League Soccer teams: the Angel City Football Club on the women’s side and the Los Angeles Football Club on the men’s side. Angel City FC is a relatively new club, but bolstering a women’s team is no new challenge for Hamm. She commented that building a fan base is a huge part of building a team. Through part ownership, Hamm has grown to appreciate the importance of sponsorships and connections. Her insights and leadership are valuable considering she has been on both sides of supporting a professional team, and many lessons she has gained from her days on the field have stuck with her.
In a few closing remarks, Phillips prompted Hamm to share some of the lessons she has learned as a significant professional athlete and advice she has for aspiring athletes. Hamm states that sports have taught her that she is strong enough, though at times she has been in situations where she doubts this; yet in the face of any challenge, she is resilient and reliant on her teammates to help her through. Throughout her lifelong experience as an athlete, she has always sought out the challenge. Hamm never wanted to play an easy game, but wanted to play the best team at their best moment to see what she was capable of. Hamm remarked: “Bring it! You will never get better if you don’t push yourself.” Hamm concluded by ensuring all of the audience members that we are enough. She feels that women spend so much time thinking about what they’re not rather than what and who they are. This doesn’t mean that we don’t continuously learn, grow, and evolve from experiences, but we all have our own unique style and touch; it’s a waste of our time to try to copy how other people do things because we all have our internal battles. Hamm generalized this message to life more broadly, not just to sports—when Mia Hamm tells you that you are enough, you have no choice but to listen.