The United States has two national soccer teams.

One is the defending world champion; the other didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup.

One just scored more goals in a single game than the other scored in the last three World Cup tournaments it did qualify for — combined.

So why is the most successful of those teams paid less — and a lot less — than the least successful team? Some of you think you already have the answer: Because the public is a lot more interested in men’s soccer (even if the U.S. team has a hard time competing on the world stage) than it is in women’s soccer, where American women dominate. In other words, that disparity is OK because that’s what the free market wants.

We’ll let you ruminate on whether the free market should be the ultimate arbiter of fairness. The inequities between men’s and women’s soccer are not limited to pay. Four years ago, world soccer’s governing body scheduled some of the women’s games on artificial turf – something it would never do for men’s soccer, because players on artificial turf are more prone to injuries. (This is something any American football fan knows — our football, the pigskin kind.) In 1996, American soccer authorities promised bonuses to the women’s team only if it won the gold medal in that year’s Olympics, but not a silver or bronze. “We cannot reward mediocrity,” the head of the U.S. soccer federation declared. The men, though, were given bonuses for each win, whether they won a medal or not — so a certain level of male mediocrity was rewarded. The men that year won just one game; the women avoided the whole silver-or-bronze controversy by winning gold. Even if you accept that the men should be paid more than the women because that’s who fans are most interested in, should everything else be unequal, too?

Or try this argument on for size: When our nation sends two teams out into the world to represent us, isn’t it unpatriotic if we don’t support the one in the same way we do the other? (Guys, if you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this, ask your wife or daughter to do the thinking for you. We suspect she might see this issue more clearly. Just a hunch.)

In any case, let’s explore this question today: Why is the U.S. women’s soccer team so strong vis-à-vis other countries while the U.S. men’s team is, well, just not very good?

Let’s start with the men first, because, well, that seems to be how things work. The answer is also pretty easy. Soccer isn’t our number one sport. In other countries, the best athletes tend to go into soccer. In the U.S., they don’t, because there are a lot more options.

In theory, that ought to apply to both men and women, right? There are women’s teams for every sport except football — and at the high school level, volleyball is scheduled at the same time to provide an equal number of teams. This is where we start to get to the answer on why the U.S. women’s team is so strong: Because U.S. law mandates that schools provide equal opportunities for both male and female athletes. Other countries don’t. If they did, the U.S. might not have such a competitive advantage. But they don’t, so we do. Comparison: There are 24 countries represented in the Women’s World Cup. There will be 32 in the men’s competition in 2022, with the field increasing to 48 in 2026. The women’s competition is heavy with teams from Europe and light on teams from Latin America and Africa that routinely show up in the men’s tournament. While the American women are right to complain they aren’t treated the same as the American men, the women in some of those countries have even more reason to complain.

The U.S. law in question is the so-called “Title IX,” part of a much larger educational law that a Democratic Congress passed — and a Republican president signed —in 1972. The measure passed both the House and Senate by wide margins. If you’re curious (and we were), every member of the Virginia delegation voted in favor. In those days, that was Democrat Dan Daniel from the 5th District; Republican Richard Poff from the 6th District, and Republican William Wampler from the 9th District. Voting for the bill on the Senate side were independent Harry Byrd Jr. and Democrat William Spong. All those men have now passed on, but every female athlete today still owes them a debt. The sports section of the bill was championed by Democrat Patsy Mink of Hawaii in the House and Democrat Birch Bayh of Indiana in the Senate, but it’s unclear how much anyone truly understood the impact of what they were doing. Nixon surely didn’t. When he signed the bill, he talked at length about the “social crisis” of court-ordered busing and complained the bill didn’t do enough to stop that. He never mentioned the one provision we now most remember. Seven years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the law, the New York Times wrote: “It’s hard to exaggerate the far-reaching effect of Title IX on American society. The number of female athletes at the high school level has increased more than tenfold and at the college level, more than twelvefold . . . The year before Title IX was enacted, there were about 310,000 girls and women in America playing high school and college sports; today, there are more than 3,373,000.” Today that figure is even higher — 3,631,684. For comparison purposes, the figure for males is 4,844,194, also a record. By mandating equal treatment, Title IX seems to have expanded opportunities for everyone. Perhaps there’s a lesson there? Just another hunch.

Title IX helped make American women dominant in certain international sports. The U.S. has won three of the seven Women’s World Cups in soccer, more than any other country, and finished second or third the other years. In basketball, American women have won gold in the Olympics six straight times. When will the rest of the world catch up? Soon, most likely. Growth in women’s soccer in Latin America and Africa remains slow, but Europe is investing heavily in female sports. The number of youth teams for girls there is up 65% since 2012. Spending on development for women’s sports programs in Europe has more than doubled. Europeans are also doing something Americans tend not to do — show up for women’s games. In March, 60,739 fans turned out in Madrid to watch two Spanish clubs play. That’s a record for women’s sports. It’s also about the same number of fans that Lane Stadium can hold. In the meantime, the U.S. plays Chile today at noon. We’re counting on the team to make America great again. How about you?

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