Play Like a Girl

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(Host) With the Summer Olympics now having come to a close, commentator Cheryl Hanna reflects on the meaning of this year’s games and some gold medal victories.

(Hanna) To watch soccer star Mia Hamm carry the US flag during the closing ceremony in Athens last Sunday was, indeed, bittersweet. Hamm and her teammates, once again, won gold, demonstrating the best of American athletics.

And it wasn’t just the women’s soccer team that emerged victorious. Both the US Women’s softball and basketball teams captured gold as well.

Those teams were also led by veteran athletes like Hamm: women, who, now their thirties, sparked a revolution in women’s team sports in the United States and around the world.

But sadly this Olympics mark the end of Hamm’s soccer career. Along with some of her teammates, she’s retiring after more than a decade of elevating women’s soccer to world cup status, and inspiring millions of young girls to get out on the field.

These athletes achieved greatness because of their hard work, determination, and sheer talent.

But they were also aided, to a great degree, by the law.

Hamm and her contemporaries are the first generation of women to come of age in the era of Title IX. The 1972 law mandates equity in education between boys and girls. Title IX was never intended to be about sports. Yet, as it’s evolved, it’s come to stand for the idea that every girl who wants to play a sport has the right to try.

What Title IX it really did was shift the culture from one which discouraged women athletes in all but a few individual sports such as gymnastics and ice skating, to one which now encourages girls to partake in all that sports, particularly team sports, has to offer. This shift has been good for girls.

Just ask any parent whose child is a goalie or a pitcher or a guard. On a team, you learn important life lessons that stay with you through adulthood. Title IX ensured that girls, like boys, have that opportunity.

And as this year’s games showed us, women seized that opportunity in a way that only a generation ago seemed unimaginable.

To me, it was a nice coincidence that the Women won the gold medal in soccer on the 84th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

I’m reminded that sometimes you need a law to change the way things are. Talent and determination aren’t always enough when the hurdles are too high. We needed Title IX, just as we needed the 19th Amendment, and in both cases it worked. Women vote, and women play, and neither seems particularly remarkable anymore.

It used to be when someone said, “You play like a girl,” it was an insult. Not any more.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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