Black Women Diving into the Soccer Spotlight
By Robin M. Bennefield
WASHINGTON — Her teammates call her “The Wall” and it is easy to see why after Brianna Scurry’s performance during last month’s World Cup semifinal soccer game against Brazil. She made six spectacular saves against the Brazilians to lead her teammates to the championship contest against China. While Brandi Chastain made the game-winning goal to push the Americans past the Chinese team 5-4 in the shoot-out period, Scurry’s headlong dive to stop Liu Ying’s penalty kick played just as important a role in the victory.
“She’s just so intense,” says Shannon Brown, this year’s Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholar of the Year and former star soccer player at the University of Wisconsin, of Scurry. “She’s exciting to watch and flashy. The saves she makes are amazing and it’s that kind of excitement and flash that will attract not only more Black girls, but people in general to the game.”
Brown, currently a promotions assistant for The New York Times and 1998 All-American defender for the Badgers, grew up playing soccer alongside her older brothers and believes early exposure is the key to getting more young Black women interested in the sport.
“There are so few Black women in soccer it’s disappointing,” says Brown, who notes that in her entire soccer career she’s never met one Black female coach. “There are plenty of Black girls who are athletic enough to play soccer, but just don’t get the early exposure.”
Scurry, an all-star soccer graduate of the University of Massachusetts is one of two African American women on the U.S. women’s team, along with Saskia Webber, reserve goalie from Rutgers University. While in college, Brianna won two national goalkeeper of the year awards and led the Minutemen to the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four. She was also voted top female athlete in her home state of Minnesota in her senior year of high school.
“There is no visible weakness in her game,” says Jim Rudy, Scurry’s former coach at the University of Massachusetts. “What typifies Brianna’s style of play and sets her apart from other goalkeepers is her calmness, coolness, and composure. She’s great on the ground, great in the air, and great on breakaways. She appears completely unflappable.”
Rudy also remembers Brianna as a solid political science student, well-liked by professors and coaches. He hopes that more African American girls and women will be inspired by Scurry as a player and person.
“Bri is special by human being standards. She has integrity, honesty, reliability, and she treats people well,” he says.
But according to Rudy, the major barriers to more African Americans and other minorities entering the sport are financial and cultural.
“It’s an expensive proposition to get into Olympic development programs, so it is unreachable for many people,” says Rudy who estimates that competitive regional league games that require travel can cost parents $1,500 to $2,000. “Now, the U.S. is on top of the world in women’s soccer, but in five or 10 years, it may not be that way unless we get the African American and other ethnic populations on board. Soccer is not known as a major money sport, but it will be and it will be critical for the United States to provide opportunities.”
Rudy has already heard rumors that Pepsi is pursuing Scurry for an endorsement contract.
As the game grows in popularity and player payouts swell, Black participation is sure to grow as well. It may already be happening. Brown says that in her first year at Wisconsin, she was one of two Black women players. By her senior year, she was one of four. Additionally, the 1998 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship team at the University of Florida has six African American women on its roster of 31.
“We’ve strived for diversity on our team and we’ve made it a point to recruit players of different backgrounds. But most don’t think about diversity and you can see it on the field,” says Becky Burleigh, University of Florida women’s soccer coach who says soccer is still perceived as an upper-middle class White sport.
But Michele Street, head coach of women’s soccer at Howard University sees a changing face for the sport.
“When I go to the tournaments, I am looking at the Black kids and they are there in numbers and they are extremely talented,” Street says.
Howard is the first HBCU with a women’s soccer team to compete in the NCAA. Next season South Carolina State University will join them. Both teams compete in Division I in the Big South Conference.
According the NCAA, 14,829 college women played soccer as a team sport in 1996-97. The number of NCAA women’s soccer teams has increased steadily since 1982. That year, there were 80 women’s soccer teams that played for National Collegiate Athletics Association institutions — just 10.2 percent of all NCAA members. In 1996-97, there were 691 such teams — or 67.3 percent of the NCAA membership.
The growth in popularity of the sport among women is undeniable. But where Black women fit in is harder to determine. The NCAA only collects statistics of women from varying ethnic backgrounds participating in basketball and track. Of Black women playing sports at Division I NCAA schoolsin the 1996-97 freshman class, 1,279 played basketball, 1,477 ran track, and 797 played some other team sport like soccer, golf, gymnastics, softball, or swimming.
Soccer, a spring sport, is in direct competition with outdoor track, which draws strong participation from Black women and can point to track greats like Florence Griffith-Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and current fastest woman in the world Marion Jones as role models. Now soccer can boast of its own Black female role model.
“Seeing Black athletes perform at a high level is inspiring,” says Brown, who was invited to this year’s U.S. women’s soccer camp. She declined to attend because of a conflict with final exams. “Seeing people like Brianna play at a high level in soccer and be successful may inspire more Black girls to consider the sport.”
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