Play Like a Girl by Jess Larson

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Obama,

My name is Ayla.  I am 13 years old. I live in Pembroke, MA.  Today I was watching the Women’s World Cup, which I love so much. And then my brother decides to come into the room and say, “Ayla, boys are so much better at soccer than girls.”  Whoever is reading this should know that I hate the fact that boys’ sports always get the most attention. I want to do something about it. It makes me mad that people do not treat girls equally. Plus a lot of girls are better at sports than boys. All I’m saying is I want to do something about it, and I need your help.”

Sincerely,

Ayla

CSVXIRzUwAAO6ogA few days ago, we posted a video of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) and Ayla reading Ayla’s letter to the press in the White House. Hearing her, I was instantly reminded of my own experiences fighting for my place in the world of sports.

I played co-ed soccer through my park district from 2nd grade until the beginning of high school. As my teammates grew older, being one of the few girls left in the league became a major issue. In middle school, I decided to switch from playing midfield to defense simply because the boys that made up the majority of my team would not pass to me. I remember thinking, “Fine, if you won’t pass me the ball, I’ll just steal it.” Like Ayla’s brother, the boys on my teams made assumptions about my ability to play the sport due to my gender, and like Ayla, I decided to do something about it by excelling as a defender.

Ayla’s letter reminded me not only of my experiences, but also about how the 2015 USWNT is fighting for their own place in the world of soccer. FIFA’s lack of respect for female soccer players really shone through in comments made by Sepp Blatter, the 8th president of FIFA back in 2004. When a journalist asked how to improve ratings for women’s soccer, he suggested, in all seriousness “tighter shorts”. And even after the phenomenal success of the 2015 women’s final when 22.86 million viewers shattered the record for any US soccer game- men’s or women’s- the salary cap for professional female soccer players is still 11 times less than  professional male soccer players.

Soccer: Women's World Cup-Final-Japan at United StatesYet the 2015 US Women’s National Team is fighting back.  Players Julie Johnston, Alex Morgan, and Shannon Boxx went to the Forbes Under 30 Summit to discuss their conflicts with FIFA and the salary cap. The USWNT became the first women honored with a ticker tape parade in three decades. And most recently, Ayla was invited to read her letter on national TV with the USWNT in attendance where President Obama remarked, “This team taught all America’s children that playing like a girl means you’re a badass.”

How wonderful to hear this message straight from the White House! But there are still so many girls that do not have the coaches, parents, or friends to tell them what it really means to play like a girl. Without support, many girls simply accept the idea that sports aren’t for girls and they fade quietly into the background. We need role models like the USWNT and organizations like Girls in the Game to fight for their place on the court or in the field or on the track.

Girls in the Game doesn’t simply provide the opportunity to play sports; you can find that at park districts, school teams, and many other venues.  We strive to create a distinctly girl-friendly and safe environment for girls to explore their athletic abilities without the fear of being judged.  For those girls who have never had a positive experience with sports, this is essential to their future participation. We believe that all girls should have access to the confidence that comes through learning a sport, the type of confidence that prompted Ayla to write a letter to the President about an issue close to her heart.

Because beyond the social media hype and the Presidential use of the word “badass”, my favorite part about this entire situation is that an average 13-year old girl’s letter brought the issue of girls and sports to national media attention. It is these young voices, seemingly unimportant actions, and small steps that will lead to tangible change in how the world views female athletes. Like Ayla, this is something in which we can all take part simply by advocating for girls’ sports. And Girls in the Game is proud to be right at the center of this movement by encouraging girls to speak out about what it truly means to play like a girl, as stated by the President himself.

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