Briana Scurry, the trailblazing 1999 Women’s World Cup soccer goalkeeper who saved the day, literally, for the United States in its riveting victory over China in the packed Rose Bowl 23 years ago, has helped lead the way for many changes for girls and women in sports.
But one groundbreaking development has been slow in coming, and that troubles Scurry, the best-known Black player in the history of American soccer. The US roster for the 2019 Women’s World Cup featured only four players of color out of 23 on the team, while the US women’s soccer team for the 2021 Olympics included just six players of color on a roster of 22.
“There are definitely more talented players of color who should be up there,” Scurry said in the telephone interview with USA TODAY Sports to discuss her autobiography, “My Greatest Save: The Brave, Barrier-Breaking Journey of a World-Champion Goalkeeper. “
“If I had a magic wand, I would have to go deep into the (US Soccer) system to see the pattern of how players got there and find out where the diversity ends,” she said. “There’s got to be a place where that happens. Lots of kids of color do play but then they don’t get through the next door. Is it a financial issue at that door, is it a geographical issue at the door or is it the people who are holding the keys that are opening and not opening that door? The people who decide, there’s something going on there in my mind.”
Scurry, 50, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, knows all about the racial barriers in sports. In her book, written with sports journalist Wayne Coffey, she writes:
“After the 1999 World Cup, the vast majority of the publicity, and endorsements, went to Mia (Hamm) and Julie (Foudy) and Brandi (Chastain). I was a world-class goalkeeper who made a penalty-kick save that helped win the final match, but I lagged far behind. Maybe it was as simple as corporate America not being ready to have an African American lesbian be the face of whatever they were trying to sell. Maybe they were too closed-minded to realize that people of all genders, of all sexualities, and of all races can look up to a champion.”
But the times have changed, she said in the interview the other day. Were her 1999 self to have traveled in time to 2022, things would have been very different.
“One of the main issues that is available now that wasn’t in 1999 is inclusion,” she said. “Diversity is in; honestly, being gay is in. If what happened in the 1999 World Cup happened now, I probably would have been much better known worldwide, because of social media and the sheer drama of the final and making the save. The pie is so big now for female athletes. Honestly, the more unique you are, the more popular you are. Megan Rapinoe is a perfect example: she’s out front on issues, she’s controversial, she had the pink hair, she embraces being unique and being her authentic self.
“I think it would have been similar for me. I don’t think people would have been turned off to the fact I am a Black lesbian. I think it would have been very intriguing to companies now to be in a partnership with me and see where we could take that. In fact, I just spoke at a couple of diversity events in the last month or so. Companies are really wanting to be inclusive. It’s important, it’s on everybody’s mind, it’s relevant.”
Scurry said that if and when people treated her differently, she was always hopeful it wasn’t because she is Black.
“I never wanted to say that it was racism,” she said in the interview. “I didn’t want to think the color of my skin was an issue. I didn’t want to believe that. I’m not that person. I’m the kind of person that has got to find some other reason. But gosh, maybe it was. And I hate that because that’s messed up. I can’t change that. I can’t change the color of my skin.”
In the book, Scurry, now a CBS soccer analyst and public speaker, details her rise from her sports-playing childhood in Minnesota to her starring role on the US national team. Her story also includes a lengthy recovery from a career-ending concussion in 2010, which has led to her work on issues of concussion awareness.
But the seminal moment of his career remains the US-China final on July 10, 1999, when a series of magical events gave the nation one of its most gratifying and unifying sports results.
As she writes, “If Kristine Lilly hadn’t headed the ball off the line on that corner kick in extra time in the 1999 World Cup final, China would’ve scored the golden goal, and we would’ve finished second. I never would’ve made the save in the shootout because there would not have been a shootout. Brandi would’ve kept her shirt on because she wouldn’t have had a PK to kick. I would never have been on a Wheaties box, and the cover of Sports Illustrated probably would’ve been a New York Yankee or a San Francisco 49er, not Brandi and her black sports bra and her rippling six-pack. The WUSA might never have gotten off the ground. The whole arc of my life would’ve been different.”
She continued: “You get no advance notice about when that decisive moment might come. I don’t believe what happens in life is random, ever, but the idea that you have no clue what is going to be the pivot point that changes everything is, from a goalkeeper’s perspective, both exhilarating and terrifying. It demands hyper-alertness from the first moment to the last. It was why I would come off the field feeling like I’d played twelve hours of chess.”
In the interview, Scurry said that the process of telling her story brought all kinds of memories of that famous World Cup rushing back to her.
“Writing this book made me truly appreciate our summer of 1999,” she said. “We helped little girls dream and see something that they could live for themselves. Men’s sports have done that for boys for decades. Now girls could paint their faces and cheer for us and have role models. They had something to emulate too.”