If the United States men’s World Cup team goes on a run this year in Qatar, and Pennsylvania native Christian Pulisic, pride of Hershey, turns out to be a driving force for the old USA, there’s a piece of federal legislation that deserves a bit of credit for how it unfolds.
Title IX, take a bow.
What, you say … isn’t that for women’s sports?
Follow the bouncing ball. If George Mason University had not started a women’s varsity soccer program in the early ‘80s, Christian’s mom would not have shown up at George Mason in 1989 after playing high school and club ball with Mia Hamm. She wouldn’t have been an immediate starter as a freshman and a star George Mason defender for four years, scoring goals from the back line. Just as important, she would not have met Christian’s father, already there playing for the men’s team.
Although Mark Pulisic went on to be a professional, mostly indoors, he was clear in a 2016 interview about one feature of Christian’s genetic makeup: “He definitely has more of my wife’s athletic ability.”
It’s an aspect of Title IX hiding in plain sight, how more elite male and female athletes are ending up in the same places and end up producing more offspring who can claim athletic genes from both sides of the family.
“It’s far less random to see two athletes get together,” said Stephen Roth, professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, noting that the same genes were present all along for female athletes — “it really came down to opportunity. In not too long a period, you’ve seen that change.”
Pulisic isn’t the only member of the U.S. men’s soccer team to have parents who played at an elite level. Gio Reyna’s father, Claudio, a USMNT star, had ball skills as refined as any player in American history. But if Gio has an extra layer of athleticism built in, maybe that comes from his mother, Danielle Egan Reyna, who played for powerhouse North Carolina (again, alongside Mia Hamm) and earned some midfield starts with the U.S. women’s national team.
The first guard expected to be selected in this week’s NBA draft, Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, is the son of a former NFL player, Javin Hunter. But his basketball genes come from his mom, Niele Ivey, now the head coach of the Notre Dame women’s team and a former Irish star on a national championship team and a WNBA guard.
It’s obviously not just men benefiting from having star moms. Ashten Prechtel helped Stanford to the 2021 NCAA basketball title. Her mother played volleyball at Drexel, and her father rowed at Pitt and kept rowing competitively while getting his master’s at Temple.
There is no way to predict which parent’s chromosomes are responsible for which skills. There’s also no reason to think elite athletes having children automatically will produce elite athletes. (Think of siblings of superstars, not all great athletes themselves.) Roth points out that the human genome contains more than 3 billion base pairs.
“It’s going to come down to hundreds that are the key spots that factor into strength, coordination, competitiveness. … There’s a lot of random chance in how they get distributed,” he said.
A 2014 paper titled “Genetic influence on athletic performance” was co-authored by Lisa Guth Pitchford and Roth, who subtitled it as a “review … to summarize the existing literature on the genetics of athletic performance, with particular consideration for the relevance to young athletes.”
The paper noted “the heritability of athletic status (regardless of sport) is estimated to be 66 percent.” It also noted, however, “few studies have examined the association between genetic variation and athletic performance. … This is unsurprising given the potential ethical considerations of genetic testing in children.”
The paper’s overall conclusion: “Current evidence suggests that a favorable genetic profile, when combined with the appropriate training, is advantageous, if not critical for the achievement of elite athletic status … not strong enough to be predictive.”
Advantageous seems like a pretty good description of how Title IX has impacted the entire sports scene for this currently competing American generation. It doesn’t seem entirely random that three members of Penn’s women’s basketball teams have mothers who played Division I sports.
“My parents were both extreme endurance athletes,” said Penn’s 6-foot-1 forward, Silke Milliman, on what she figures she inherited from a pair of Division I rowers. “I would say my endurance. I pride myself on that.”
Her mother rowed at Washington, her father at Cornell. Milliman said her father always credits her mom as the better athlete.
“I think she rowed at a higher level than my dad,” Milliman said. “My dad says that all the time.”
The Washington men’s rowing team has been a storied program for a century. But the women’s rowing website outlines specifically how Washington, in 1980, “took a bold step. Pushed by Title IX deadlines for compliance as well as by our athletes, the athletic department created a model that helped us be successful almost right away.”
The site noted … “Fast forward to today: There is more and better technology. Look around, there are boats, oars, and ergs all over the place and all the best available. The recruiting and training are better funded and more sophisticated.”
Penn basketball seems to have benefited from it all. Another Quakers player, Mia Lakstigala, is the daughter of an Iowa volleyball player and an Iowa basketball player.
Another teammate, Sydnei Caldwell, is the daughter of former Eagles linebacker Mike Caldwell, currently defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Her mother was a track Hall of Famer at powerhouse Tennessee, another school that ramped up a women’s program after Title IX came along. Sue Walton Caldwell’s University of Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame bio notes “Walton was a 12-time All-American and carved out career marks which still stand in the Lady Vol record books.” She twice competed in the U.S. Olympic trials.
When asked which parent gives her more of her athleticism, Sydnei Caldwell said, “I’m going to have to say 50-50. When you have two parents who are both in their Hall of Fame at their school – it’s a good discussion in the family.”
It was definitely sports that made the connection between her parents, Sydnei Caldwell said. Her mom’s close friend Nikki Fargas, now the president of the Las Vegas Aces WNBA team, had been a star basketball player at Tennessee and introduced Sue to Mike Caldwell, who had been a top football player at Middle Tennessee State before a decade-long NFL playing career.
Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin said athleticism from parents “isn’t something we seek out. However, we do look at that after we think the kid can play for us.”
His reasoning doesn’t have all that much to do with athleticism.
“It’s always great when you have a player whose parents are athletes and totally get it and let you coach the kid,” McLaughlin said.
Many of the City 6 basketball programs, women and men, had mothers who played college sports. Penn men’s player Andrew Laczkowski has a father who played at Division III Washington University. But his mother was the star in the family. She’d begun her college volleyball career at North Carolina. Told of the Mia Hamm connection to Christian Pulisic, Amy Laczkowski said, “I knew Mia. Mia was a suitemate.”
After her freshman year, Laczkowski transferred to Washington University, where she was a two-time NCAA Division III player of the year and part of three straight D III national titles. She believes, however, that she gave more than athletic genes to her son.
“A love for sports,” she said. “I like ESPN. As a mom, it doesn’t bother me if ESPN is on all the time.”
It’s also possible that parents who have been there, played that provide opportunity and perspective to their children. Kelley Pulisic was instrumental in providing a pivotal soccer opportunity for her very young son. A school teacher, Christian’s mother was offered a chance to teach in England for a year on a Fulbright grant. The whole family went along to a little village near Oxford and both parents talked about how their young son suddenly was in a fully immersive soccer experience.
“They grew up in this — they had opportunities,” Roth, the Maryland professor, said of children of athletes. “I always say the best sprinter in the world probably isn’t sprinting. They don’t have the opportunity to find their gifts.”
If Title IX wasn’t intended to enhance men’s athletics … you can still follow the bouncing ball, all the way to the World Cup.