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Soccer Star Mia Hamm Retires

December 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: A cut to the left, a cut to the right, a perfect pass to a teammate. (Cheers and applause) Vintage Mia Hamm, widely considered the greatest player in women’s soccer history. It came last night in Carson City, Calif., in her final game, a 5-0 win for the U.S. over Mexico.

For Hamm and teammates Joy Fawcett and Julie Foudy, it was the end of nearly two decades of international play that transformed their sport. Together, the three women played on teams that won two Olympic gold medals and two world championships.

ANNOUNCER: Coming in…

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night: arare miss off the crossbar. But through the years, Hamm’s total of 158 goals made her soccer’s all-time leading scorer, female or male. After the game, she characteristically put the focus on the team.

MIA HAMM: This atmosphere, this team, how hard these guys played today is a testament to why we’ve stayed on for 18 years. I mean — and we just enjoy being around these people. They make us better, and we just want to thank everyone who has watched us along the way and who has made a difference in our lives, and it’s always nice to come out on top.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the greatest moment for Hamm and her teammates was the 1999 World Cup win over the Chinese. Forty million Americans tuned in that day, giving women’s sports a spotlight it had never received.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Including commercial recognition for the star player, up there with basketball legend Michael Jordan.

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JEFFREY BROWN: For many young girls in particular, Hamm’s success and style of play was an inspiration.

GIRL: You get to, like, be aggressive and you get to run a lot, and you can score goals, and it just feels so good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, Hamm waved one last good-bye to her fans, and left the field for the last time. Now, the legacy of Mia Hamm and her fellow players from Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today and commentator for ABC News. Christine, welcome.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s always interesting why one particular athlete becomes iconic, but I would imagine it must start with the basic athletic skills. So what made Mia Hamm special as a player?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You’re absolutely right. It’s certainly the incredible skills, the ability to see the entire field, not only of course scoring goals, which she did more than anyone else, but also the ability to pass and find the teammate, very much like Wayne Gretzky in hockey: The knowledge of where your teammates are even before they know where they’re going to be. And the ultimate team player who then, of course, scored so many goals on their own because of that great, great talent. So speed, ability, and then intelligence.

I think it’s important to note that Mia Hamm is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She’s a very well-educated woman. The entire team, all of them have college degrees, that she’s been on for so many years, and when you look at it, you can make a strong case that that is the best educated team the United States has ever fielded in any sport, and I think that mattered.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can see that on the field?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, no doubt about it. First of all, they knew each other so well. They played together for so long — Brandy Chastain, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, et cetera, all of them very well-educated, all of them college graduates. They knew what each other was going to do before they did it. Mia Hamm knew were they would be, and that’s why that experience combined with the education and the intelligence made them so unbeatable on the field.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you take the athletic skill and then you add the historical context. I noted today in reading that Mia Hamm was born in 1972, the same year that Title IX came into existence. You see a real connection there.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I do. I see Mia Hamm, really, as the personification of the law, Title IX, that changed the playing fields of America; that made it not only possible but mandated that our daughters would have the same opportunities as our sons to play sports in this country. And when you look at Mia Hamm being born of March of 1972, Richard Nixon signing Title IX into law in June of 1972, Mia Hamm’s entire life has been about having equality, having the opportunity, the great coaching. It was a launching pad for her, and obviously she took full advantage of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you once called the U.S. women’s team the “Johnny Appleseeds of their game.” So what did you mean by that? What were they able to create?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Very much like Billie Jean King, a generation earlier in tennis, these women — not only Mia Hamm, but also Julie Foudy, Brandy Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Christine Lilly — they understood as well as any athlete on the playing field today in any sport, men’s or women’s, what they meant to the next generation.

It wasn’t about making lots of money, although Mia Hamm has done very well, but it was about bringing kids along, fighting for Title IX when the Bush administration wanted to weaken its effort. That’s what Julie Foudy did and was successful. It was about understanding you have to sign every autograph and watching them literally autograph as the stadium lights are being turned off, and yet they’re still signing for the little kids who are still waiting and bringing the next generation along with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now as we said in the setup, Mia Hamm liked to turn the attention — or keep the focus on the team. She was in some ways a sort of reluctant hero, wasn’t she?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, yeah, in fact, what you see on the field is not what you see off the field. This is a woman who would much rather have the stardom, have the limelight, have the interviews with her teammates. During the 1999 women’s World Cup, when all the networks were out there, that incredible week at the Rose Bowl, Mia Hamm was asked often to be the only one interviewed by most of the network news shows, and instead she said, “Uh-uh, I’m not going to do it unless all my teammates can join me.” And almost every single network then had to settle for four or five of the members of the team, not just Mia Hamm.

So I think — I think one of the reasons she is so endearing to so many people is that she is the ultimate teammate, and in this era of “me, me, me,” and big money and all about the arrogance of professional athletes, Mia Hamm is one of those great superstars who was completely opposite of that image and impression.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, even with all the success, there were some setbacks, notably the failure of the professional women’s league. As Mia Hamm and her teammates retire, where do things stand?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: The league right now doesn’t exist. They’re talking about getting it going again in a year or two. I think it’s very important to look at the perspective here of the economy, of the fact that the sports landscape is so cluttered right now and there’s so many men’s teams and women’s teams, college teams, and to think of trying to start a new league, professional league, especially in the sport that Americans have never felt particularly fond of as a spectator sport, and that is soccer. Men’s or women’s, it is not one of those sports that people are going to flock to.

And I think the reality is for women’s soccer — Mia Hamm, others are great ambassadors for the sport — it may take another generation or two for girls growing up now, maybe that 5-year-old girl, when she becomes a mother and she feels that sports is the birthright for her that it is for her brother, then I think you’ll see people spending money on women’s sports more than they are now.

JEFFREY BROWN: That girl we saw in the setup and many others like her, there may be — may still be a future because of Mia Hamm and others.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I think so. And they all still have their No. 9 jerseys. There’s no doubt about that. But when they look back and say what was it about the sport, what got them going, it would certainly be Mia Hamm and this great team that she’s a part of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Christine Brennan, thanks for joining us.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Jeff.