It was the unwritten story of the 2011 Women's World Cup, which had just about every other angle covered, so captivating was the U.S. national team, so pulse-raising its comebacks and penalty kicks, so compelling the ponytailed ambassadors of our culture and values.
President Barack Obama huddled by a TV to watch the final with the first lady and their girls, soccer players themselves. Twitter carried an unprecedented 7,196 tweets per second about the game. Even after the U.S. fell to Japan on the biggest stage in women's sports, admirers swarmed Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and their teammates in Times Square upon their return from Germany. It was a crowning moment for the women's game in this country and the platform on which it was built, Title IX.
Except something was missing from this portrait of American triumph. And it did not go unnoticed by girls such as 11-year-old Wayneshia "Treece" Daily, who followed the games from the living room of her mother's modest brick home in a predominantly black section of College Station, Texas. "I saw only Anglos," Daily says. "Not seeing anybody of my color made me not want to play."
Daily, whose mother is a school aide, was introduced to soccer last year as part of a new program, the social experiment of a Texas A&M professor. In an effort to build teams demographically representative of the local area, Daily and several other neighborhood girls were paired with peers from more affluent areas of town. They train together, laugh together and, more often than not, win together.
The eighth of nine daughters, Daily might be the best athlete in her family. She is fast, with a powerful shot. But to judge from the racial makeup of that U.S. World Cup squad, the achievement of her dreams might depend less on her ability to break down a defense than on a resolve to shatter what appears to be a glass ceiling.
The lone players of color on Team USA's 21-member roster were defender Stephanie Cox, who is Hispanic, and midfielder Shannon Boxx, who is biracial. "It's difficult when you realize you're one of a few," says Boxx, 34. Her mother, who is white, raised her in South Torrance, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles where the only boundaries that mattered were at the park across the street, the one that accommodated after-school soccer matches. The national team at the time was newly formed and mostly white, but there were more than a half-dozen black role models in the player pool -- such as 1995 World Cup team members Thori Staples-Bryan, Saskia Webber and Briana Scurry -- and an expectation that as the sport's base grew, so would the racial mix of those who would emerge with "USA" emblazoned on the front of their jerseys.
"There used to be diversity," Boxx says quietly, less in protest than acknowledgement. "It's changed."
Since the 2011 World Cup, the U.S. has added Sydney Leroux, who's biracial, to its roster for the upcoming Olympics (although Cox was dropped). And down on the youth national teams, more racial diversity can be found; half of the Under-20 team in 2010 was comprised of minorities. Still, the pool of candidates in the college ranks remains decidely thin. Excluding foreign players, only 13 percent of female soccer players are minorities, according to an espnW analysis of the NCAA's 2010-11 Demographics Database.
It's the same story across college sports. Compared with the general population, minority females are underrepresented in NCAA women's lacrosse, volleyball, ice hockey, field hockey, golf, tennis, cross country, rowing, gymnastics, riflery, fencing, rugby, sailing, skiing, softball, squash, swimming, synchronized swimming, equestrian, water polo -- even track and field, which may surprise a lot of people given the success of African-American stars at the highest levels of the sport. In fact, minorities are overrepresented only in basketball and bowling (as reflected in the chart to the right).
Title IX has helped create thousands of girls' sports teams in high schools and colleges since it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972. But some groups have benefited more than others. Among high school sophomores, white girls have a much higher participation rate (51 percent) than African-Americans (40 percent), Asian/Pacific Islanders (34 percent) and Hispanics (32 percent), according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Education. And race appears to be less of a contributing factor than where a girl happens to live and what her economic reality is.
Follow the money, and you find opportunity.
Brent Leiba, the women's soccer coach at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., leads a team that is among a smattering on the college level with more than just a few faces of color. Leiba says only two minority players on his squad qualify as low income; the others come from middle- or upper-middle-class homes. And as much as Leiba prizes diversity -- he himself is from Trinidad -- his mandate is to win, which means he inevitably finds himself recruiting in suburbs where school programs are the strongest and at private clubs with professional coaches who charge $2,000 a year to train kids during the offseason.
Treece's mom doesn't have that kind of cash to dump into the pipeline that delivers college scholarships and, ultimately, national team opportunities. But Treece is a dreamer. "I want to be special," she says. "I think I can be famous for being the only African-American player on the national team."
Boxx, too, wants to be optimistic. "The great thing about soccer is that all you need is a ball and some space," she says. "I still believe kids can play for fun on any field and make it."
Marta, the world's best female player, was groomed by the favelas and street futebol culture of Brazil. So perhaps we, too, should dream of a path that leads to our own Marta here in the U.S.
Don't we owe Treece at least that much?
Full disclosure: I'm one of those parents who write those checks for two grand. My 15-year-old son plays for a club in central Connecticut founded by Tony DiCicco, who coached the U.S. women to gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics and a World Cup title in 1999, back when women's soccer first captured our imagination and filled stadiums. I'm happy to pay the fees because playing with the club makes my kid happy. DiCicco's coaches are excellent. They emphasize technique, development and fun over the myopic pursuit of tournament titles.
I ask DiCicco where to start my search for America's low-income female players, regardless of race. Although Leroux was raised by a single mom who struggled, she grew up in Canada and didn't join the U.S. system until she was a teen, so she's not an ideal example. And while some other players, such as goalkeeper Hope Solo, were children of divorced parents who saw finances get tight, that's not the same as living in poverty. So DiCicco sends me to national team alum Staci Wilson, a trainer and youth coach in South Florida.
Wilson, an African-American who grew up in a middle-class family, was introduced to the game at age 8 in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. After a year of rec ball, she joined a club, which eventually grew so dominant in her soccer life that she skipped her sophomore season of high school to pursue a national title. Wilson earned a scholarship to North Carolina, where she was the NCAA's top freshman and impressed DiCicco with her speed and tenacity, landing a spot on that 1996 Olympic team.
But it is clear a piece of Wilson's heart still resides in the Newark, N.J., area where she spent her first seven years before her family moved south to find better schools. Wilson recently appeared in a documentary about an unlikely team in inner-city Philadelphia. The vast majority of the 40 members of the Anderson Monarchs Girls Soccer Club are black and from low-income families.
In the film, also titled "The Anderson Monarchs," Wilson is shown leading a guest clinic, with her long, thick dreadlocks bouncing as she goes. "You know what I respect?" Wilson says to one of the girls after a drill. "That you kept on trying until you got it right. Some people get frustrated when they get it wrong, and they just quit. Good job."
"The Monarchs take a temperature of how tolerant and open America is to tapping into all of its talent pool," Wilson says on camera. "I'm seeing good things. If I wasn't seeing good things, I would have a more pessimistic attitude about where we're going with soccer in the U.S. and whether it's truly for every girl."
But a look on her face also suggests she knows how fragile this club's existence is, how easily any of these girls could fall out of the system.
Start with the most tangible obstacle to participation: field space. Where space is limited, boys and their teams, organized and pickup, tend to dominate available fields and gyms. Where recreation budgets are limited, parks can become unsafe and parents less likely to let their girls play in them.
The Monarchs are run by volunteer coaches Walter Stewart and his assistant, Jafi Barnes; their home field is one-third of a rundown park that sits in the shadow of a train bridge. The coaches spray red lines on weeds to organize practice, and they press on when cops show up to search the surrounding grounds for evidence tied to a recent shooting.
Players and parents trust Stewart, who founded the club in 1998. As Wilson puts it, "He doesn't have a remarkable skills training system in place, but he is very effective at teaching the kids because they appreciate the time and energy he puts into them -- that they're important enough."
Problem is, the competition resides in the suburbs, and Stewart can't always convince opponents to visit the Monarchs on their turf. "Teams will Google Map it and cancel the night before," filmmaker Eugene Martin says. "How are you going to get better if teams won't come to play you?"
You go to them. Stewart and his van have logged 200 miles on some weekend days, shuttling among teams playing on three different fields in the New York tri-state area. Many of the players are from households in which parents, often single, have neither a vehicle nor the time to ferry their kids. So Stewart and Barnes often provide transportation. They also dole out meals and cover other incidental costs.
They defray some expenses with a grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the charitable arm of the national federation. "In a middle-class community, you can take certain things for granted," says Ed Foster-Simeon, the foundation's president. "Like volunteers, who line the field, sit on boards and distribute uniforms. And moms who carpool. But in households in which parents have working-class jobs, the broad base isn't there."
In other words, the Monarchs' viability rests primarily on the slumped shoulders of one man and his assistant.
It can take that kind of herculean effort. A survey conducted last year by Lauer Johnson Research found that children from low-income families are half as likely to engage in sports as those from high-income homes.
"The survey results point to a proverbial tale of two nations when it comes to school children's participation in organized after-school sports activities in America," wrote the authors of the report, commissioned by Coaching Corps, a California not-for-profit group that trains youth coaches in underserved areas. "A full 63 percent of children from low-income families (incomes under $50,000 annually) are shut out from participating in after-school sports. This is in sharp contrast to the 64 percent of children from the highest income families who take part." The report also notes that a lack of available programs is a particular problem for low-income girls.
Don't expect Title IX to fix the disparity. While some legal analysts argue for greater enforcement of the law at the high school and middle school levels, others point out Title IX addresses only gender inequities. In places where boys are offered little, the most girls can hope for is little, too. In some large urban areas, no more than one in four boys -- and one in six girls -- plays a school sport.
"Title IX has nothing to say about specific groups of girls who are left out of the dream of sport," says Dionne Koller, director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore. She argues that Title IX also unwittingly introduced new barriers for disadvantaged girls because one way courts evaluate gender inequities is by looking at college scholarship aid for athletes, and recipients of that aid are often children of families with the means to chase it, the ones with access to club teams. Worse, playing options are limited for kids who, for whatever reason, don't make organized teams, as physical education classes have been cut back dramatically over the past decade and intramurals in many districts were eliminated long ago.
"I don't think we should get rid of Title IX, but we do need Congress to say that making sports accessible to all kids is important," Koller says. "We need to define what education-based sports should look like, that it should be based on a participation model and on health and wellness. Right now, we just let athletic directors and coaches draw up programs as they see fit."
In Brazil and around the world, soccer is a game of the working class. But that's not the case in the U.S., where no more than a third of female players come from homes with incomes of less than $50,000, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The largest chunk of talent comes from families making more than $100,000 a year.
I wonder whether that explains the venue I will now pass through in my hunt for hope.
It's a lovely spring day in Southern California. Driving north from San Diego, I smell the Pacific air drifting in from the beach just beyond the ever-elegant Del Mar racetrack. I pull off the I-5 freeway and see a golden pony being walked on the right, a piano bar on the left and, in the distance, a ring of Spanish-style mansions on a bluff overlooking a polo club where the playing surface has been transformed into a series of soccer fields.
Here, the top girls' teams in the nation have gathered for an extended weekend of games. The Elite Clubs National League is a collection of 66 teams that was formed in 2009 to promote high-level competition, and aggregate female talent for college and national team scouts. Participation in the ECNL can cost a family between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, including travel to cities such as San Antonio, Chicago and Orlando, Fla.
Today, two fathers from Utah follow their daughters from a rolling, 125-pound TurfYacht, youth soccer's answer to the luxury box with its padded, extra-wide bucket seats, built-in cooler and Bimini top with windbreak. The weekend's chosen venue makes it easy to characterize the ECNL as not just elite, but elitist. "Look, we're at the polo grounds in San Diego," says Chris Ducar, an assistant coach at North Carolina. "There's a whole untapped market out there."
I'm not finding many low-income girls here, as I move from team to team, talking with parents and coaches. Still, there's reason for hope: The ECNL itself is an invention that shows how resourceful the women's soccer community can be once it realizes that girls are being left behind. Unlike on the boys' side, the U.S. Soccer Federation does not sponsor an academy system of top-tier clubs to groom female prospects for its youth and senior national teams. So the best clubs in girls' soccer came up with their own circuit. Walt Stewart might not have done the spray-painting here, but there are make-do lines nonetheless.
The glass becomes half-full for me after I run into Anthony DiCicco, Tony's son, on the sidelines. "This league is a great example of what can be done when people put their minds together to improve our game," says Anthony, CEO of SoccerPlus, the club his father founded. "Now, how do we turn this mentality to finding better players? How do we take it to rec soccer? We're just starting to ask ourselves those questions. It's not going to be easy. But if we choose to take them on as a community, man, that's the key to winning the World Cup again."
For all the good vibes of last year's World Cup, it's worth remembering that the U.S. came up short again. "We're supposed to be the best team in the world, but we haven't won in 12 years," DiCicco says. "Why? Our system is flawed."
It's a system, he argues, that misses many of the best athletes. U.S. Soccer provides no scholarship funds to train promising, underprivileged girls, as it does with boys. Nor, of course, do NCAA universities, the chief beneficiaries of a system that develops talent at no cost to them. So the burden falls to the clubs, which are underwritten by parents and must cater to those with the means to pay. Some clubs might waive or discount the fees of a talented teenager, but it's cherry-picking at best.
DiCicco would prefer to build the base by training groups of girls in lower-income areas, at younger ages. He tried: In 2007, his club partnered with an elementary school in inner-city Hartford, Conn. Then the economy tanked, and the program was suspended after losing its sponsor. "The will is there," DiCicco says. "But we still need to figure out how to make it work."
If the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, I need to move on from the polo grounds. I hop back on the I-5 and continue north. A couple of hours later, I am in South Central Los Angeles, where, at long last, I might have found a soccer model that works for girls from low-income communities. At an outdoor turf complex adjacent to the L.A. Coliseum, I see two full fields of young Latinas playing with passion and technique. I'm struck by the smallest among them. Positioned up top, she scores with both feet and with her head.
Her name is Maria Parrales. She is 13, the daughter of a seamstress who speaks no English and raises Maria and her two little sisters alone while their father remains in Mexico. Their neighborhood is pervaded by gangs. They do not own a car. Maria attends a middle school where drug dealing is common and interscholastic sports are extinct. At 4-foot-7 and 65 pounds, she is the tiniest girl in the eighth grade, a wisp.
Maria is one of the vulnerable members of our society. In her culture, teenage girls aren't expected to play sports; they take care of siblings. And yet, Maria loves soccer. Loves it. "I want to be a professional soccer player," she says, her dark eyes twinkling. She hasn't heard of the Women's Professional Soccer league, nor that it suspended operations this season. She has never heard of Marta, who used to star for the Los Angeles Sol. That's the otherworld bubble in which Maria and her peers live.
All she knows is she wants to stay with this sport, because in the two years since she took it up, it has become a part of her. "I like how it makes me express how I feel," Maria says. At first, she was afraid of the ball and wanted to quit, until her coach advised her to attack the object she feared. Now, she plays with so much abandon that her biggest challenge is healing in time for the next game.
It's impossible to know whether the next Marta will one day emerge from this league. So much still has to happen for someone such as Maria, who will have to get recruited -- and be given a scholarship -- by a suburban club to slide into the pipeline for college scouts. But at least she is in the game. And no matter how far soccer takes her, there are transferable lessons that will help her live her life.
Organized sports for children require the three P's: people (to coach and administrate), places (to play) and programs (appropriate to age, gender and income). But the experience of Maria and her teammates highlights the value of a fourth P: partnerships. Because that's what it takes to coax out the first three P's in a community as barrier-laden as South Central.
Maria's team, the Pumas, was formed through the Woodcraft Rangers, a longtime after-school activities provider that has a joint-use agreement for school facilities until 6 p.m. each day. The Rangers pay for coaches who train the girls five days a week, and they partner with Kids and Sports, another not-for-profit, which organizes no-cut leagues in three sports for 8,000 area children (2,500 of whom are girls). Kids and Sports is funded by the LA84 Foundation, which has distributed $200 million to local programs since it was created with surplus revenue from the 1984 Summer Olympics. LA84, whose longtime president is U.S. Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz, helped pay for the new field next to the Coliseum, the one that Maria's team uses.
The price of participation for Maria and her teammates? Ten dollars, shiny blue uniform included. The Pumas got the cost down from $50 by forgoing trophies and the season-ending banquet.
"Sports are not expensive," DeFrantz says, insistent.
We just make them expensive, by privatizing recreation and not investing in more girls like Maria and, back in Texas, Treece. As a result, what hangs in the balance is not just their future, but also the once-durable notion that sports are still a tool of uplift, accessible to all.
Tom Farrey is an ESPN correspondent who can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @TomFarrey. He is also director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, which recently hosted a symposium to explore ideas and strategies that can help get more disadvantaged girls involved in sports.