If You Let Me Play

During the preview for tonight’s Women’s World Cup game between Team USA and Japan, FOX panned to locations in both Chicago and Kansas City, where thousands of fans were packed in outdoor venues to cheer on the United States women live. In addition to the sheer number of people in attendance, the composition of the crowd was remarkable. There were young men, women, kids, and grandparents alike, all participating loudly in the familiar “I believe that we will win” refrain.

I got emotional watching that shot, not because I was particularly invested in the result of the game, but because of how women’s sports have evolved in just the last twenty years. You see, I grew up idolizing Rebecca Lobo and Mia Hamm, legends in basketball and soccer respectively. But outside of the Olympics and the NCAA Women’s Championship, it was pretty hard to watch those women compete live. Simply put, the number of women playing sports was growing in spades, alongside their raw talent. But it still felt like female athletes were the opening act or the side show, never the main event.

Today’s game is just the opposite: the game is Sunday in prime time and it’s easier to keep track of the sports reporters not watching than those tuning in with their support. Moreover, all the intro ads and promos featured female athletes, now household names (Hope, Abby, Alex et al), and the game is a fixture at bars globally and officially the hottest ticket in Vancouver.

To young girls (and boys) watching the game with their parents in Scituate, San Antonio, or Santa Barbara, tonight’s match is just the final step in a remarkable run for the US women. But for those of us who have been inspired by the women who paved the way for this to happen, this is more than just a match: it’s a blissful reminder of how far women’s sports have come.

When I was 14, Nike ran a historic ad campaign called “If You Let Me Play,” in which young female athletes espoused the value of playing sports on their lives off the field. These young women referenced research that women who participate in sports have more confidence, are less likely to have children before they want to, and are more likely to leave a man who mistreats them. The campaign was, on some level, the polar opposite of Sports Center footage highlighting the glitz and glory of female athletics. Instead, it sent a powerful message to parents everywhere: encouraging your daughters to play sports does more than just fill a win-loss column; it can fundamentally transform the course of her life, her confidence, and her resilience long after she stops playing.

I stopped playing sports twelve years ago, and my career was nothing like Rebecca Lobo or Mia Hamm’s (not even in the same galaxy). But tonight when Abby Wambach gave her pre-game interview about being the “luckiest person on the planet,” I, alongside millions of other women, nodded and teared up a little bit. Because what Abby shared is the ultimate realization of what happens when you let little girls play sports. They become part of something bigger than themselves, something bigger than a game, and the resulting confidence, camaraderie, and connections they build pay dividends long after they hang up their cleats or play their last minute.

I haven’t been to practice in years. My college volleyball career ended (appropriately) without fanfare, and I never won a world championship as this team is poised to do tonight. But playing sports gave me a lasting gift: to know what it’s like to give it all, to know how to lead, to know how to follow, and to know what it means to push yourself harder than you ever imagined possible.

So to all the parents who sat in the stands when no one else was watching girls play sports, thank you. To the companies who put female athletes in their ads long before they were household names, thank you. To the coaches who told young women that “running like a girl” just meant competing like a champion, thank you. And most importantly, to all the women who ran, swam, hit, skated, scored, and competed before Abby, Carli, Alex, Megan, Hope and their teammates dominated the pitch tonight, thank you. It’s because of all of you that so many millions of people worldwide tonight believe that the United States women’s team will win, and equally as important, that millions more girls will sign up to play sports to follow their lead.