A level playing field

Women who could only dream of competitive soccer are in the stands with young women who take it for granted when the women's league debuts.

April 16, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

It was sometime in the spring of 1973 that Debra MacDonald realized what it meant to be a girl.

For as long as she could remember, MacDonald had played soccer with the boys and girls in her Rising Sun neighborhood in Cecil County. So although her high school had only a boys' soccer team, the pony-tailed ninth-grader thought nothing of asking the coach whether she could try out that spring of '73.

"He laughed," recalled MacDonald, a 42-year-old computer consultant who lives now in Highland in Howard County. "He said I could do that if I could go in the locker room and get undressed with the boys. I remember being angry, and I didn't think there was any hope of ever becoming a soccer player.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in yesterday's Today section incorrectly identified two soccer fans. In the foreground was Bethesda goalie Kerry York, 17. Seated next to her was Carly Rosin, 16. The Sun regrets the error.

"I knew I was a girl," she added, "and I was realizing what that meant."

And so it was with sweet, sweet pride that MacDonald took her seat at Washington's RFK Stadium on Saturday to witness a groundbreaking soccer match on American soil.

It was the inaugural game for a new professional league in a legendary stadium complete with almost 35,000 fans cheering in the stands. The difference was, the players for the Washington Freedom and the Bay Area CyberRays running up and down the field were all women - a fact that MacDonald and nine of her Montgomery County soccer league team-mates had gathered to celebrate.

Seated next to MacDonald was Liz Merwin, 42, who loved sports as a child but never got to play on any teams in her Silver Spring high school. Farther down the row was Lynette Scaffidi, 39, who tried out for her Rockville high school boys' soccer team but quit after three days because the coach ignored her and made it clear he did not want her on his squad.

These women were headed for high school when Congress passed a law in 1972 that required gender equity in school sports programs. They should have been assured equal rights to the playing field, but the benefits of Title IX often took years to reach some communities.

"It didn't exactly hit Rising Sun right away," said MacDonald.

For many women in MacDonald's group, the high school slights dashed any thoughts of trying out for college teams.

But as young career women they brought soccer back into their lives when they joined a Montgomery County league team, recently renamed the Ya Ya Chasers - after the best-selling female bonding book "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Equity at last

The Saturday game at RFK, however, gave them a taste of equity some thought they never would experience.

The Chasers, who mostly are in their late 30s and early 40s, entertain no grand delusions of trying out for a professional team. But they couldn't help but rejoice at what they saw in the stands - tens of thousands of women, men, boys and oh so many girls. There were girls waving pom-poms, girls in soccer jerseys that said "Mayo" or "Potomac" and, above all, girls who will grow up watching a player like Mia Hamm dazzle crowds at a pro game and not even think twice about aspiring to do the same.

"To think there are 35,000 people who are here just to watch women play," MacDonald said with a slight smile of disbelief. "They did all this for us, and it's big and it's really happening."

Just before the game began, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) kicked off the league's start with a parachuting display, fireworks and a dramatic bald eagle landing as the "Star-Spangled Banner" echoed in the stadium.

The Ya Ya Chasers stood silently for the opening festivities. But after the ball had been kicked, MacDonald looked around at her smiling teammates - they were all wiping their eyes.

Halfway across the stadium, 17-year-old Kerry York was squinting at the field, scrutinizing the Washington goal keeper's every move.

With her dark hair pulled back from her face, and her eyes intently focused on the game, it was easy to envision the mad-dog stare York must have when she plays goalkeeper for the nine-time state champion Bethesda Falcons. And the ninth-row seats near the goal provided a good viewpoint to pick up some tips for when she starts playing for the Florida State University team on scholarship this fall.

Now it's a given

The Severna Park High School senior is of the post-Title IX generation for whom playing soccer in high school and college isn't a luxury or a hard-won right. It's simply a given.

Like MacDonald, York kicked her first soccer ball as a child with the neighborhood boys. But when York grew to love the sport, she got to develop her game by signing up with a girl's soccer league a few years later. When she wanted to play in high school, the only thing that could have held her back was ability, not opportunity.

"When I started playing, I just loved playing because I loved playing in the grass," she said, laughing. "I loved the smell of grass. But then later on I wanted to do this possibly for a living, like play for an actual team."

And that's when she discovered the glass ceiling in women's soccer.

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