In 1999, Brandi Chastain became famous for, well, ripping her shirt off. That spontaneous celebration after delivering her World Cup-winning penalty kick inspired a new generation of girls to take up the sport of soccer. It was a significant moment for women not just in soccer, but in all pro sports
An Olympic champion, sports commentator, author and coach, Chastain is still encouraging girls to reap the benefits of sport through her organization, Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI), which pairs kids in underserved communities with athlete volunteers from local colleges and high schools.
Lauren Schiller: Why do you think, with so much momentum behind us, we are still lagging so far behind the guys in terms of awareness of and interest in women’s professional sports?
Brandi Chastain: It takes a while for the general public or those who consume sports to allow something new to come in. For us, it’s been a slow trickle. I think since the first World Cup in 1991, we’re significantly different than we were at that time. But if you look at business or positions of power, we’re still behind. That takes time. My mom said, “All good things to those who wait.” I’m trying to use patience in these moments, but I’m eager for them to make this big leap.
LS: What do you think it will take?
BC: Young girls who participate in sports have their life altered forever. They have a chance to learn the lessons that sports offer—to males and females. It just so happens that our young boys have had the luxury of getting those lessons much earlier. Now, because boys and girls are playing on the playground together, the divide between them is shrinking. Now, women in powerful positions can use women’s sports as a vehicle to get out a greater message or can support a women’s sports team or league. That’s what it takes, from my perspective.
LS: It’s just been a couple of generations since the passing of Title IX, the law that required girls to have access to sports in school. Do you think that a law like that is still relevant today?
BC: Yes! Yes, it is important. Even though young girls today, when I mention Title IX, they look at me like, “What is that?” it still impacts them. I remember when President George W. Bush was in office, they wanted to get rid of Title IX. That was terrifying because you worked so hard to get to a place where you seem validated and important, and to have that taken away—who knows what would happen? It’s very significant and it’s very validating and it’s very necessary.
LS: Why do you think playing sports is important for girls in particular?
BC: I honestly believe there are a few things that cannot be learned in other places. Leadership—the type of leadership it takes to not only think about a group of people but act with a group of people. Leaders who played sports understand everybody’s significance and can boost those who need help. Leadership truly is born from sport in a way that it’s not like you’re sitting kids down and saying, “Today we’re going to learn about leadership.”
And, how to be competitive. Competition brings out our potential—sometimes talents we didn’t know we had. Young girls learn about the goal-setting that it takes to be successful, the perseverance that is necessary to be a champion. And confidence. Soccer specifically taught me agility, and that’s not just can I get up, go forward, go sideways, go backwards. It’s also about how to think on my feet and feel comfortable not knowing what comes next.
LS: You think that it translates from the field to life?
BC: Absolutely. It literally translates to being in good relationships, being a good parent, being in the business world. They’re very relatable.
LS: Tell us about BAWSI, the organization you founded to connect girls and athletes.
BC: The Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative was founded 10 years ago. I, Julie Foudy and Marlene Bjornsrud were devastated by the closure of the WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association) for obvious reasons. We wouldn’t be playing as professional soccer players anymore. Way beyond that, there also wouldn’t be this collective group of women to influence the younger generation.
LS: The WUSA was founded shortly after you played in the Women’s World Cup in 1999, is that correct?
BC: That’s right. After ’99, with all the support that we got—with the 90,000-plus people coming to the Rose Bowl—we knew that a league needed to start.
WUSA was born in 2001. When those doors closed after the 2003 season, we were devastated, but we said we still needed to keep women’s sports alive.
We started BAWSI 10 years ago with 11 girls. Now, over 16,000 girls have been on our BAWSI teams and worn their BAWSI jerseys. We’ve had players from Stanford, Santa Clara, San Jose State, Menlo College and some very wonderful junior colleges as well as high school student athletes invest in the future of girls who live in underserved communities and don’t otherwise participate in sports for social, economic, geographical or cultural reasons. We’re not teaching how to be a world champion. We’re teaching how to be in charge of who they are and who they want to become.
LS: BAWSI, I know it’s spelled B-A-W-S-I, but is the pronunciation intentional?
BC: A friend called us and said, “This is the perfect name for you and Brandi and Julie!” Marlene’s like, “Whoa, why?” Our friend said, “Well, because the acronym will be pronounced ‘bossy’ and you’re bossy women.” Marlene’s like, “Oh, no, no, no.” She starts backpedalling. “No, we don’t want to do this.” She called me and I said, “Oh yes, we do. We’re going to get our bossy self out there because we are pretty bossy,” in a positive way.
LS: Own it.
BC: We explain to our girls that “bossy” is a term that allows you to be in charge of who you are. You’re going to be bossy about yourself. You’re going to take care of your health and wellness. You’re going to take care of your school. You’re going to take care of your friendships. You’re going to take care of your community. Bossy, in a positive way, is what we stand for.
LS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten about leadership?
BC: One of my grandfathers used to give me a dollar when I scored a goal. When I made an assist, he gave me a $1.50. That $1.50 was kind of in the back of my head, like if I gave something to someone, I would get more in return. That lesson in giving is really important, supporting other people, being a good teammate. I think that’s really the greatest gift that anybody’s given me in terms of lessons and how applicable it was in every walk of my life.
Photo via WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0