Sue, Serena and Letting Us Play

Author: Cameron Wicker

Everyone who's dedicated their career to advertising has one—the ad that made them want to get into advertising.

For me, it's the 1995 Nike spot from Wieden+Kennedy, "If You Let Me Play."


This message encouraging parents to introduce not just their sons, but also their daughters, to sports was incredibly powerful. Young girls asking to play because it will make them more self confident, more likely to leave an abusive man, less likely to get pregnant before they intend to, and learn what it means to be strong. There are benefits of organized sports long enjoyed by boys, but not perfunctory for girls

In June, 1972, Title IX was signed into law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding (which is most of them). Title IX opened the door to sports for many girls and women. Since its passage, female participation at the high school level has grown by 1057% and 614% at the college level according to Billie Jean King, who advocated for the law.

Here we are, 50 years after the passage of Title IX and 30 years after "If You Let Me Play" debuted. This year both Sue Bird and Serena Williams—each a GOAT in her sport—have announced their retirement and I can't help thinking about how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.

Sue Bird was drafted to the WNBA as the #1 pick and has won four WNBA championships, five Olympic gold medals, and four FIBA World Cups. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any woman or man during the open era (not to mention the 14 Grand Slam and Olympic doubles titles she's won with Venus). They have proven, along with countless other women athletes, that women are strong, powerful and worthy of our attention and awe. Let them play.

Yet, women are still treated differently. And let's be clear, by "differently," I mean less-than. And there isn't a clearer demonstration of less-than than pay. In soccer, the USWNT sued the US Soccer Federation and took on a six-year battle for equal pay. Serena Williams fought for equal prize money, with Wimbledon finally capitulating in 2007, the last of the majors to do so. All the while, these women are grinding it out on the court, acting as role models and representing their country. Let them play!

But there's more to the story than pay. And that's where another Nike ad comes in, "Dream Crazier," also from Wieden+Kennedy. The spot is narrated by Serena Williams and shines a spotlight on how female and male athletes are judged for the same behavior, for wanting to win.


In my lifetime, we've gone from advocating for simply being on the field to advocating for equal pay and equal treatment as athletes. We've come a long way. But it doesn't escape me that the same year Title IX passed, Roe v Wade became the law of the land. Women are on the court, but if often feels like we're losing the game. 

My generation grew up with only a handful of female athlete role models. Sue Bird and Serena Williams have shown a new generation of young women—and the world—exactly what the girls in the 1995 Nike spot craved, "what it means to be strong."

I long to think that in another 30 years, we'll have more progress, new Sue Birds, new Serena Williams, and new Nike ads that will continue to shatter how we view women—not just in sports, but across government, commerce, music, art, education and up through the highest ranks of power.

And I still believe advertising can help us get there.