The inspiring march of the U.S. Women’s National Team to the World Cup championship has elicited a fair amount of cultural commentary. Advocates of Title IX—the 1972 law requiring equal treatment of female athletes—claim that it set the U.S. apart from other countries by creating a competitive intercollegiate training ground for our best female players. To the global inequality crowd, first-world countries like the U.S. dominate women’s soccer because we pour enormous financial resources into player development. For others, it’s gender equality—the more your country has, the better—that generates victories on the field.
But as we look to understand why America’s women are so good at this game, it’s time to rehabilitate a phrase that has been overused, abused, and largely fallen out of productive use: soccer mom. As the players on the U.S. team themselves have told us, mom—and dad, and family in general—had an awful lot to do with their success.
The term “soccer mom” became popular in the 1990s as a way to describe a certain voting bloc. The Washington Post described President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign as targeting “the overburdened middle income working mother who ferries her kids from soccer practice to scouts to school.” Over time, however, the phrase became loaded with baggage. An online search now brings up expressions synonymous with soccer mom, but hardly laudatory, including “helicopter parent,” “stage mother,” and even “angry white male.” Not surprisingly, we heard little about soccer moms during the U.S. team’s procession to the championship.
On the other hand, listen to the team members themselves. They’ve explained that what we admire most about them—their tenacity, toughness, commitment to winning—came from their families in general, and their moms in particular. On a Mother’s Day video made by team members, Christen Press told her mom, “thanks for always pushing me,” and then added with a twinkle in her eye, “and never letting me take a day off.” In a video profile, Meghan Klingenberg talked about how her parents, after working all day, played in the backyard with her and her siblings “until the sun went down.” She also described a match when she was very young, in which she got kicked by an opposing player and fell to the ground in pain—about to start crying—until she heard her mother cry out, “Get up. You’re fine.” Those of us who have sat on the sidelines of youth soccer know exactly what Klingenberg is describing.
None of this is particular to soccer. Our best athletes—Olympic skaters, tennis champions, World Series MVPs, Super Bowl winners—often testify to the influence their families had on their careers. But the father who strings a batting cage in his backyard for his son is never derided as a “Little League dad.” Why, then, have soccer moms come in for such ridicule? Some of it derives from anti-suburban biases—what David Brooks describes as a steady “parade” of clichés about suburban life cooked up by cultural observers who abhor everything from suburbia’s supposed conformity to the carbon footprint of those who live there. Soccer moms, after all, drive gas-guzzling mini-vans and SUVs—the better to ferry kids about—rather than eco-friendly hybrids. Sometimes they inhabit homes with backyards—the better to erect that practice soccer goal—and contribute to sprawl. Sometimes they even put their own careers on hold to raise their future world champions. Nothing to admire there.
There are larger biases at work, too. The players can tell us what the support of their moms and families means to them, but according to the commentariat, only larger forces can explain America’s victory. In other words, your mom (and dad) didn’t help build this championship team, the government did. And so Title IX has become the most common, easy-to-describe reason why America has prevailed, as if all those coaches in college programs could take kids without much of a foundation in the game, kids who didn’t already have training and commitment, and turn them into world-class athletes in four short years.
Though the phrase “soccer mom” originated as a description of a political bloc, it’s a mistake to assume that soccer in America is largely a white suburban sport. Some 1.3 million people watched the World Cup final on Telemundo, the Spanish language network that broadcasts in America. And the composition of the men’s national team that’s now taking the field for the Gold Cup reflects the strength of the game in America’s immigrant communities.
Of course, the U.S. men have yet to win a World Cup. Are soccer moms neglecting the boys? Hardly. It’s just that men’s soccer in much of the rest of the world is already an enormously rich and dominating enterprise, where the best professional teams can invest significant resources to create developmental programs for younger players—training that our men’s collegiate programs haven’t been able to match. Soccer moms and dads can offer support and commitment and teach children the right values to succeed, but the expertise has to come from somewhere. America is still catching up to the best of the men’s game around the world in that regard.
Throughout this women’s championship run, we’ve heard a lot about how the players were inspired by the 1999 World Cup winning squad. Now, this 2015 team will inspire a new generation of girls to become world class. But kids rarely have the resources to reach such lofty goals on their own. That’s why the next generation will get ferried back and forth to training by mom, practice half volleys into a net set up by dad, get a hug from some family member on a bad day, and occasionally hear someone yell, “Get up. You’re fine.”