When a sports league suspends operations after three seasons, it's easy to conclude that the enterprise was a mistake from a business point of view.
John Hendricks and the rest of the founders of the WUSA assumed that the excitement evident as the 1999 World Cup tournament moved toward its extraordinary conclusion and the joyous rush of the championship game had built an audience, and that with that audience, or at least the promise of it, the league would draw national corporate support. Mr. Hendricks was, as he acknowledged in his announcement of the league's suspension, "intoxicated" by that possibility.
But to conclude that the WUSA was a failure in anything but a business sense suggests a lack of appreciation for what the teams and players in the league became to the girls and boys and men and women who attended the games. Critics of the play on the field knocked the best female players in the world for not being as strong or as fast as the best male players in the world. More thoughtful observers saw in the women's game all the finesse, precision, and imagination that makes soccer beautiful. That was sufficient reward for the price of what was, for many people, the only affordable ticket in town.
But there was more. The women who made the league happen three years ago and those who joined them over the next couple of seasons are not only accomplished athletes. Many of them are also thoughtful, articulate, personable young women who demonstrated in practice and during games the joy they'd found in their work which was, for long, brilliant, and delightful stretches, indistinguishable from their play. They reminded those fortunate enough to witness their games and get to know them even just a little that pro athletes don't have to be defensive and distant, let along smug, narrow-minded, self-absorbed, or aggressively vulgar.
Joe Cummings, the general manager of the Boston Breakers, told me that several of the players called him on Monday afternoon, shortly after the announcement that the WUSA was closing up shop, to ask "what could we have done?"
The answer is "nothing more." In a land where bigger isn't just better — it's the only option, a land where if you're not on commercial television you're unworthy of notice, and a land where grace won't outdraw gore, you couldn't have done any more than you did. Shame on us that while it was plenty, it wasn't enough.
This program aired on September 17, 2003. The audio for this program is not available.