Women’s football, once the easy way out for equality, is now a US powerhouse

Brooke Volza and the other girls who play high school football in Albuquerque know all about the subway curse: A team that wins an urban city tournament early in the season is doomed to end the year without a state championship.

So when Cibola High School defied that fate when Volza scored the only goal in the team’s 1-0 win over Carlsbad High School in front of a cheering crowd at the University of New Mexico Stadium last year, it was pandemonium. “I started crying. I started hugging everyone,” said Volza, 17, describing the experience as “10 times amazing.”

Now the ball she scored with that goal sits on a shelf in her bedroom, covered in autographs from her teammates and jersey numbers. Across it, in large capital letters, is written: “2021 STATE CHAMPIONS.”

Fifty years ago, Volza’s experience in high school football was virtually unheard of in the United States. However, through Title IX, which became law in 1972 and outlawed sex discrimination in education, generations of girls were promised access to sports and other educational programs.

And women’s football, perhaps more than any other women’s sport, has grown significantly in the last 50 years. School administrators quickly found the addition of football to be a cost-effective way to comply with the law, and growing interest fueled the growth of youth leagues. Talented players from all over the world came to the USA. And as millions of American women and girls benefited, the best of them spawned a US national women’s program that dominated the global stage.

“Once Title IX broke down those barriers and allowed women and girls to play sports and stated that they should be given equal opportunity, girls rushed in,” said Nina Chaudhry, general counsel and senior educational adviser at the National Women’s Law Center. “They came in droves.”

Before Title IX was enacted, the NCAA count found only 13 women’s college football teams in the 1971-72 season, with 313 players.

In 1974, when the National Federation of State High School Associations first tracked girls’ participation in the United States, there were 6,446 girls playing football in 321 schools in just seven states, mostly in New York. That number rose to 394,100 girls playing high school football across the country during the 2018-19 school year, with schools often having multiple teams and states sponsoring up to five divisions.

In 2018-2019, the most recent season due to the coronavirus pandemic, 3.4 million girls competed in school sports compared to 4.5 million boys.

Many of these athletes overcame fear to try out for the team. Some trained late into the night, running sprints after joking with teammates. Some have found bitter rivals through competition, and many have struggled with the pain of defeat. Many girls and women on the football field have experienced the thrill of scoring and the pride that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

“We are the heart and soul of football at Cibola,” said Volza.

Title IX is a broad law and was not originally intended for sports. Its origins lie in the fight against discrimination against women and girls in federally funded academic institutions. But as the rules were agreed upon, they eventually embraced athletics and this helped bridge disparities outside of class. Today, Title IX is perhaps best known for its legacy in women’s interscholastic athletics.

Despite initial and strong opposition to the law due to perceived threats to men’s sports programs, the NCAA eventually sponsored women’s sports, including football in 1982. Prior to that, only a few teams played each other around the country.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a dynasty that has won 21 NCAA championships and produced incredible players including Mia Hamm, got its start playing against high schoolers.

“We really didn’t have anyone to play with,” said Anson Dorrance, head coach of the women’s team since its inception in 1979. He described how he put together the schedule that first season. One touring football club, the McLean Grasshoppers, “came to UNC and beat us like a drum,” he said.

After the NCAA introduced women’s football to its ranks, participation rate has grown from 1,855 players in 80 teams across all three divisions in 1982 to nearly 28,000 players in 1,026 teams in 2020–21.

Now, the NCAA claims that football has become the most expanded women’s sports program among universities in the past three decades.

Current and former sports directors, sports administrators and coaches attribute the rise of football to several factors. Initially, law enforcement was a game of numbers and dollars: football is a relatively large sport, with the average squad size typically ranging from 20 to 26 players. Extensive listings have helped schools comply with the law and offer equal opportunities for male and female students.

For administrators, football was also economical: all they needed was a field, a ball, and two goals. In addition, the sport was relatively easy to learn.

“At the time, schools were like, ‘How can I add a sport for women that doesn’t cost me a lot?'” said Donna Lopiano, founder and president of Sports Management Resources and former executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She added: “Schools were looking for an easy way out.”

Shifts began only in the late 1980s and early 1990s. College programs increasingly acquired university status – often subject to judicial pressure – which created scholarship opportunities and made football a gateway to higher education. The game flourished at the high school level, where it became one of the most popular sportsfourth-highest female participation in 2018–2019, according to the high school federation (the top three sports for girls were athletics, volleyball and basketball).

A cottage industry of club teams also sprang up across the country as athletes competed for the attention of college coaches. The youth game grew and varsity teams became the farm system for the elite world stage as women struggled to play the sport in many countries outside of the United States.

The US women’s team went largely unnoticed when they played their first international match in 1985. She also received little attention in 1991 when she won the first women’s world championship held in Guangdong, China.

Then the United States began to feel the power of Title IX. In 1996, women’s football made its debut at the Atlanta Olympics and the US won the gold. During the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final against China, the Americans won on penalties in front of over 90,000 spectators at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Michelle Akers, a USWNT pillar in the 80s and 90s who is now an assistant coach for the Orlando Pride women’s pro team, said Title IX was “a game changer.” “I can’t even begin to understand how much time, energy and heartache it took to push this through, and not just push it, but impose it—to make it real for people and make it real for me,” she said.

The success of the national team continued: a record four world titles and four Olympic golds. And this year, after six years of legal battlea multi-million dollar settlement and a possible labor agreement. equal pay for players representing the US men’s and women’s national teams in international competitions.

“It was a historic moment, not just for football, but for sports,” said Cindy Parlow Cone, president of US Soccer.

In 1993, Michelle Sharts was part of a UCLA club team that threatened to sue the school under Title IX for not sponsoring women’s football.

Sharts, who was cut from the first varsity squad, now has two daughters who are involved in major varsity programs. Hannah, 22, went to UCLA and then transferred to Colorado, where she is a graduate student. The 20-year-old Sydney started in Oklahoma before moving on to Kansas State for the next season.

Hanna Sharts performed in front of 5,000 fans. “The ability to slowly see more and more fans fill the stands throughout my college years has been very promising,” said Hannah Sharts. Both Hannah and Sydney dream of playing professionally.

Like the Sharts sisters, Volza, a budding New Mexico high school student, plans to attend college. She is eyeing Division II and III schools with strong engineering programs.

But first, she has her last year of high school ahead of her. Volza said she wants to be a leader for young players.

“I want to motivate them and teach them what it’s like to play college football for a state championship winning team,” Volza said.

And Volza wants to make history again in his corner of America by leading his team to win the Metro Tournament and the state championship for several years in a row.