A new generation of female athletes look at Title IX's impact
When Title IX became law 50 years ago, it had a resounding impact on girl's and women's sports. Participation skyrocketed and women's teams in colleges were established all over for various sports. However, the legislation only goes as far as prohibiting discrimination based on sex for schools who receive federal funding.
That means equality at the professional level has been its own separate fight for female athletes. A fight that the next generation is ready to take on.
Stephanie Verdoia is one of many impacted by the expansion of women's sports in the wake of Title IX. Verdoia grew up in Utah where she played youth soccer and competed at the elite level, making the Olympic Development Player squad and playing Division 1 soccer at Seattle University.
In 2015, the Boston Breakers, a now-defunct soccer club that competed in the National Women's Soccer League, drafted Verdoia. She played there for two seasons before going overseas for one year and then retired from playing professionally. Now, as a coach for younger girls through the OL Reign Academy, she reflects on what Title IX has changed and what it hasn't.
"I always loved soccer, but I always loved school and had a very balanced life. I wasn't ever the player or the person that only did soccer and made it my identity," Verdoia said in an interview with KNKX. "It was a huge part of who I was, but it wasn't the only thing and so I didn't plan on that being my career. "
At the point when Verdoia was considering whether to enter the NWSL, no women’s professional soccer league in the U.S. had lasted more than five years. After a strong senior year at the college level and being called up to the Under-23 national team she decided to give it a shot. She was the fourth round pick for the Boston Breakers in 2015.
"That first year in Boston, the league was still grappling," Verdoia said. "I would say it was a lot of being okay with that with minimal, minimal resources, minimal support, but doing it kind of in the furtherance of eventually this will build and eventually it'll be better for players in the future."
Verdoia recalled the number of sacrifices she and her teammates made in order to play professional soccer. Things that her male counterparts in Major League Soccer wouldn't even think of having to do.
"My salary at that point was $1,000 a month and, you know, I ate as much as I could from the locker rooms so I didn't have to buy lunch. I walked to practice. I used public transportation," Verdoia said. "That's what we had to do to survive..."
The grind was hard on Verdoia, but the chance to play professionally overshadowed any doubts she had about the path she chose.
"You're supposed to feel so grateful, right? You're supposed to be grateful that you're one of the few that were selected. It's the only league that pays women to play soccer. And there's not as many opportunities as men. So you feel like you should be just happy to be there," Verdoia said. "And I think that keeps off the feeling sometimes of, you know, I'm dedicating so much, I'm sacrificing so much to do this this game."
Now as a coach, Verdoia draws on her own experiences playing at the youth level and professionally as she guides her players in their own athletic careers.
"I would say if I have a main goal of how I want to impact the world now, it would be that it's helping to shape that image for them... and getting to choose how that experience looks," Verdoia said. "I think more than anything that's what I try to emphasize. It's truly my goal to make sure that the lessons they learn while they're on my team, they get to take in every environment they go into in the future and that they feel a little bit more empowered in that space."
Josie Hendrix plays for Verdoia on the OL Reign Academy team. Like her coach, Hendrix never really thought twice about her ability to play a sport in college. That was in part thanks to her grandfather who took her to see the University of Washington's women's volleyball and basketball teams play.
"For me it seemed kind of normal to be able to play in college. It was never like 'oh, it's going to be harder for you because you're a girl,'" Hendrix said.
But when Hendrix has watched professional women’s sports, she’s noticed the inequality Verdoia faced while playing.
"With my mom getting more into the OL Reign, we started to watch more of the games and I've noticed that the commentators speak differently about the players," Hendrix said. "They tend to bring in the personal lives like, 'oh, she just came back from having a baby' and that's a part of her playing. Whereas like with the guys, they just don't talk about that."
"I think it's still pretty clear that even with that law, even with that regulation, even with oversight, we still have to convince people to invest in women and in sports...and that's super frustrating."Stephanie Verdoia
Title IX has done a lot for female athletes. But where it falls shorts is promoting equality on a professional level; something that Hendrix noticed when watching the OL Reign and what ultimately made Verdoia walk away from playing.
"My body wore down after a couple of years," Verdoia said. "I'm gone most of the year, I can't make weddings, I can't see my family, my offseason I have to live with my parents or figure out some kind of housing and figure out how to stay in shape. I don't get paid very well. Those sacrifices started to build."
Verdoia recognizes what Title IX has done for her and so many other female athletes. She has no doubt that it was because of the bill that she was able to play college soccer. But reflecting on her professional career she ultimately sees a cultural difference in how male and female athletes are treated.
Title IX may have helped women in sports in schools but professionally, equality lags. For her and many other women who are a part of this newer generation, Title IX isn't enough. They want more than just an opportunity to play, but to be given the same resources, and ultimately the same respect.
"I think we're in the best way possible nearing the age of we no longer have to be grateful that you chose to make sure that both women and men and everyone can go to college and play sports," Verdoia said. "I think it's still pretty clear that even with that law, even with that regulation, even with oversight, we still have to convince people to invest in women and in sports...and that's super frustrating."