Professional athlete, activist, and 1991 Santa Clara University alumna Brandi Chastain grew up at a time when the educational and sports anti-discrimination law Title IX was in force— but not really enforced. As an athletically gifted student, she participated in every sport she could in middle and high school, including baseball and flag football on co-ed teams. But it took a few years before she realized that the feeling that she and other girls often lived with —that they weren’t really entitled to the same athletic opportunities as boys—really struck her as fundamentally wrong and unfair. She’s been an advocate and pioneer for women’s sports, and women in sports, ever since.
In an interview, Chastain discussed Title IX’s impact on some of the key moments of her life and athletic career —including the iconic United States 1999 World Cup win in China; the first Olympic women’s soccer games in 1996 at which the U.S. won gold; and the women’s national soccer team’s recent victory for pay equity.
This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.
Santa Clara: Thinking back to your elementary and high school sports experiences, what was the impact of Title IX?
Brandi Chastain: Obviously, sports were coursing through my blood ever since I was really little. It didn’t matter who was playing, I felt that I belonged, and maybe Title IX subconsciously was a part of that. But since I grew up in a household where my mother was not encouraged to play athletics— even though she encouraged me to participate— I don’t think Title IX was something that we even talked about. I was born four years before the law was enacted, and then, when I was in middle school, I was already playing, sometimes on mixed teams like in baseball. In sixth grade, I played flag football, co-ed. It was called co-ed, only there were no girls.
On the middle school soccer team, a few girls came out with me to the co-ed team and the coach said, “What are you all doing here?” And we said, “We’re trying out for the co-ed soccer team.” He said, “It’s not really for you.” But then Steven Robertson ’90, —who went on to Santa Clara and played on the men’s soccer team— stood up and said, “Hey, they’re pretty good. You should check them out.” That really changed the trajectory of my life unknowingly. Just that slight action kind of put it in the back of my head that, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” And so any anytime going forward, that was kind of my stand. That was my foundation.
I think it was also recognizing that talent looks different. It doesn’t always have to look like you, and that’s not something to be afraid of, but something to embrace and to support.
You didn’t originally enroll at Santa Clara out of high school. Why did you transfer in?
I came from Cal (UC Berkeley) where I was the Freshman Player of the Year. And then in the spring, I tore my ACL so I had to red shirt that next year. I realized that I didn’t feel like I was in the place that I needed to be personally. So I came home to San Jose, and went to a local junior college, getting myself back on track academically, then was recruited to play at Santa Clara. I said, “Yes” to coming, and then I tore my other ACL. So I was training, and I was getting better. The first game that we played that season was against Cal. I didn’t play in that game. That was the first time Cal lost at home in a ridiculous amount of games—something like 80 games. So that was a really big game. I didn’t get to play it. But it was the start of my Santa Clara career.
The late U.S. Representative Patsy Mink (D-HI), a key original sponsor of Title IX in Congress, said that the bill was intended “to free the human spirit to make it possible for everyone to achieve according to their talents and wishes.” Do you see synergy between the aims of Title IX and Jesuit values?
Coming to Santa Clara, such a big part of the education was that we’re not just learning psychology or math or communication skills. There’s also community service and reaching out and being a really important, impactful part of the community where you live, and athletics isn’t the number one priority. It’s very balanced.
We’re learning how to integrate ourselves in the greater good, in the big picture, and how the picture is much more robust and more beautiful if it includes everybody, as opposed to just some who can afford it, or are the right gender, or come from the right place. I think coming to Santa Clara at the time I did made my life more balanced and more whole, because that was part of the missing piece. For both Title IX and a Jesuit education, the most paramount component is the people and caring for the people. And how we do that and what that looks like. They kind of go in lock-step together.
How do you see the impact of Title IX during some of the most important moments in your athletic career?
I think of three significant moments. First, the World Cup. The significance of that was the audaciousness of the World Cup Committee —run and led by Marla Messing—and the desire for the organization to really showcase the event. FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) had wanted to put the 1999 women’s World Cup championship events in small stadiums in one area and just kind of give it lip service. Marla and the committee said, “No, that’s not how we’re doing it. We’re going to do this really big, from coast to coast in the biggest stadiums and we’re going to show you the power of women’s soccer— the appeal, the love for it, the passion for it.”
FIFA hadn’t really supported what was happening. The organization putting it on in China, though, did a great job. The 1999 World Cup is just an example of women who had been influenced by Title IX, now running an event that was now for women. So they could imagine it, even though we not seen it before.
Another moment is the first Olympics featuring women’s soccer in 1996. Even though it’s not directly connected to Title IX, because it’s an international event and because it was in the U.S., it allowed for the female athlete to really be elevated. It wasn’t just the individual sport anymore. It wasn’t the swimmer; it wasn’t the gymnast. It was team sports like we had never done before. It was incredible, and our women’s teams were so elevated and so successful that summer, and undoubtedly Title IX was the undercurrent running under all of that.
Finally, pay equity (in which the women’s national soccer team will be paid equally to the men as of May 2022). I say it with great respect and great pride that this group of women stood the test of time in terms of fighting for it, believing in it. And then it finally happened. But that same fight was nearly four decades in the making. So this has been persisting with this women’s national team for every single generation. I feel that Title IX, again, is really the unsung, unspoken hero of pay equity, because without Title IX, so many of these young women would not be participating in college sports, would not be participating in professional sports, and would not be making national teams and going to the Olympics and the World Cup. Therefore, their voices would not have been shared, and we would not have come to this decision. So, thank you Title IX, and Patsy Mink, and everybody else who committed to something that was seen as so far out of the norm.
I just think Title IX is responsible for so many great outcomes. Maybe it doesn’t come up on people’s lips every day, but we know that Title IX was absolutely the foundation for all of these young female collegiate athletes, these young high school athletes who are aspiring to go on to be professionals, and whatever it is they choose, and using sport as a vehicle for change. Whether they go on to be professionals doesn’t matter—they will use the lessons in sport to drive home their ambition wherever it is that they choose to go.
By Deborah Lohse, Director of Media and Internal Communications, Santa Clara University