Shannon Boxx of the United States sprints past Kozue Ando of Japan during the Women's World Cup final: Though the American squad lost, their gutsy performance still triggered American pride.In celebration of Nelson Mandelas birthday today, my friend Steve Wymer sent around thisFrancois Pienaar receives the world cup from Nelson Mandela in 1995SportsIllustrated piece re the 1995 South African rugby team, the Springboks, and the role they played in unifying South Africa post-apartheid.(I loved themovie Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.) The article concludes with the following paragraphs:

“Rugby, this great, stupid, odd, confused game,” wrote one former Springbok, Nick Mallett, “had given us its best attribute: its ability to unite different characters and groups and create respect, affection and unity.”

Given the right time and place, sport is capable of starting such a process in a society. It is only a start, of course. The hard work always lies ahead, after the crowds have dispersed and the headlines have ceased. South Africa’s racial and economic woes are not behind it. Far from it. But thanks to the common ground supplied by a rugby pitch, those problems appear less imposing than they did only a month ago.

It seems fitting that I read this piece the day after the US and Japanese women riveted us in theWomens World Cup game,and we saw the amazing interest in this game and tremendous women athletes who played on both sides. I was surprised to hear so many people talking about the game and both men and women making their Sunday plans around watching the game, a sure sign that we are gaining ground in recognizing women’s sports and women athletes. Weve come a long way, thanks to Title IX of course, and I look forward to even more progress.