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Women's World Cup Soccer celebration, AP photo

Megan Rapinoe, center, and her U.S. women's soccer teammates, celebrate at City Hall following a ticker tape parade Wednesday in New York. The U.S. beat the Netherlands 2-0 Sunday to capture a record fourth Women's World Cup title.

SAN DIEGO — The MVP of the U.S. women’s national soccer team that won its fourth World Cup on Sunday was not Megan Rapinoe, who was presented the golden ball as the tournament’s best player. Or former University of Wisconsin athlete Rose Lavelle, who got the bronze ball. Or Alex Morgan, who tied Rapinoe for most goals with six.

Or Julie Ertz, the rock of the midfield. Or the skillful Tobin Heath on the right. Or the steady Alyssa Naeher in goal. Or Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Lindsey Horan off the bench.

It wasn’t No. 15, 16, 13, 8, 17, 1, 10, 23 or 9.

It was IX.

Title IX.

It has been nearly a half-century since

The U.S. women never trailed in seven World Cup games, outscored opponents 26-3, knocked off five straight European foes to close the tournament. They were big, fast, powerful, athletic, dynamic, determined. Dominant.

But as much as anything they did on the field in France, their greatest advantage — their secret weapon – is Public Law No. 92-318, 86 Stat. 235. That, and football.

American football.

Title IX contains no language about corner kicks or World Cups. It was enacted to close a loophole in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited public discrimination in race, religion and gender but did not encompass educational institutions. Title IX banned discrimination in all federally-funded schools, which pretty much includes all universities because pretty much all universities receive research grants and other lucrative government subsidies they don’t want to lose.

At the time, the NCAA had no athletic scholarship limits and college football was the Wild, Wild West. Some programs had as many as 150 players on full rides, the idea being that if USC could stockpile the top 10 running backs then that was one fewer than rival UCLA would have.

In 1973, 38-year-old Pitt coach Johnny Majors took it to another extreme. Tasked with rebuilding a 1-10 program, he ordered his assistants to assemble the biggest freshman recruiting class they could find. Some say they gave scholarships to 73 freshmen. Jackie Sherrill, a young assistant on Majors’ staff who would become a famous head coach himself one day, has said it was 76. Others put the number closer to 90.

It would pay off. Four years later, when those freshmen were seniors, enough had blossomed into star material (most notably running back Tony Dorsett) that Pitt won the national championship.

The following year, the NCAA imposed scholarship limits. Instead of a reasonable number for football like, say, 45 — enough for a starter and backup on each side of the ball — the coaches and their runaway culture of excess lobbied that they couldn’t live with anything less than 105. So that was the starting concession, later reduced to 95 in 1978 and 85 in 1994 but holding firm since.

Which is fine, except Title IX’s legal interpretation for athletic departments was that the scholarship pie more or less must be divided evenly. With no equivalent female sport to football, that meant roughly 85 scholarships on the other side of the ledger. Soccer, one of the more developed women’s sports at the time, was among the first beneficiaries.

It’s why there are 206 Division I men’s soccer programs … and 335 women’s. Why seven schools in the Pac-12 (USC, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Washington State, Utah and Colorado) don’t field men’s teams, and why the San Diego State men are a guest member to meet the minimum of six required for an automatic NCAA tournament berth. Why Division I men’s programs can distribute a total of 9.9 full scholarships, and women’s programs get 14.

The math: There are 2,039 Division I soccer scholarships available for men, 4,690 for women.

All but one member of the current U.S. women’s national team in France played college soccer, as did every national team player before them. And as dominant as they seem, winning two straight World Cups and four total, they’re hardly the exception for American women’s sports — just the highest-profile exponent of Title IX’s titles.

Take rowing.

Still needing more women’s scholarships to counterbalance football, the NCAA designated women’s crew as a sort of female football, with no male equivalent. Men’s crew wallows as a club sport at the intercollegiate level. Women’s teams can provide up to 20 full scholarships in Division I and went from 204 participants in 1990 to 4,488 a decade later.

And what happened?

The U.S. men have won no Olympic or World Championships titles in the marquee eights event over the last 13 years. The U.S. women have won 12, including three straight Olympic golds after only one in the previous seven Summer Games (and that was the 1984 Olympics boycotted by the Eastern Bloc).

Water polo? The NCAA allows 4.5 scholarships for men, eight for women. The U.S. men have medaled once since 1992, a silver in 2008. The U.S. women have gone silver, bronze, silver, gold and gold since joining the Olympic program in 2000.

Volleyball? The NCAA allows 4.5 scholarships for men, 12 for women. The U.S. men have medaled twice since 1996. The U.S. women have been on the podium in three straight Olympics.

In the last three Summer Games, in fact, U.S. women have won more medals than men, most in sports where athletes are developed through college programs.

Other countries have tried to play catch-up with the U.S. women in soccer, starting modest “pro” leagues, providing better funding through their federations, pretending to pay attention every four years. Their one advantage over the Yanks is most have a true soccer culture with a passion and understanding and innate feel for the game, where the sport is part of the social fabric, where it’s not something you do on Tuesday and Thursday from 5:00 to 6:30 like piano lessons.

That closes the gap a little. But money and resources and sophisticated tactics only go so far.

The gulf they can’t bridge is opportunity, and opportunity in numbers. The U.S., according to the most recent surveys, still has as many registered women’s soccer players as the rest of the world combined. Give them 4,690 Division I scholarships to play soccer during the crucial development period of ages 18 to 22, instead of finding a job to support their soccer hobby on evenings and weekends, and the result is wave after wave of big, fast, powerful, athletic, dynamic, determined players.

Next on the agenda for the U.S. women is their equal pay lawsuit against the federation, a complex, nuanced legal issue that, as much as they want you to believe, is not as straightforward as it might seem.

They may or may not ultimately receive what they deem equal pay. But if they proved anything over the past month in France, it is what women can accomplish with equal opportunity.

Thank you, Johnny Majors.

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Mark Ziegler is a sportswriter and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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