September 22, 2003

Women's World Cup, Part I

Yesterday, I took the day to support a group of women who I've admired for a long while--the women's US national soccer team. I've been a soccer player since I was 6 years old. I played in county leagues, parochial leagues, high school, college and adult co-ed indoor and outdoor leagues. This could very easily turn into one of those testimonials about how there were no soccer heros for little girls to look up to. That's not entirely true... I do remember after winning our 8th grade championship game going back to a teammate's house and watching Victory--the movie about Pele, for those who aren't soccer enthusiasts. It's well-known, though, that soccer (or football as its rightfully called anywhere else in the world) has struggled for significant status in the United States. The game is slower, requires sustained activity and constant strategic repositioning. American culture (the best example of ADD I can offer) doesn't have the patience for such a thing.

Still, you hear over and over again that soccer is rising to real prominance. More boys play soccer than football now. That number changes the older children get, but early on, soccer comes first. Soccer, however, has been the number one female team sport in the United States since the late 70s and early 80s--and has done nothing but increase in popularity among young women since the early 1990s. There is such a thing as female idols in women's soccer now. Young girls recognize names like Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain.

1999s Women's World Cup was such a success among American audiences across the country (selling out the Rose Bowl for the final game between the US and China) that sponsors were even willing to attempt a women's league--the WUSA. It was a small league, only 8 teams to start. The league didn't just grow out of nowhere... it had a large network of college and semi-pro teams to recruit support from. Still, this week the league announced that they have not had the support from sponsors or fans that was necessary to keep the league going. It will be disbanned.

That didn't take away from yesterday's World Cup opener for the US. In an excellent demonstration of focus, committment, and athleticism, the women's national team carried off its first victory of the 2003 World Cup. Despite the loss of Brandy Chastain to a broken foot, the team perservered with all the dynamism and grit expected from a World Championship team. Yesterday's victory even comes against Sweden... a country where women's sports are actually treated with respect. In Sweden, the professional women's soccer league is well-established.

So this week, I've heard a lot of discussion about, "What's wrong with women's soccer?" and "Why can't women's soccer succeed?" and it's about driven me delusional with anger. Let's rephrase the question... what's wrong with the league? Why didn't the league succeed?

If this post is a little scatter-brained, it's because I'm really angry. As I was looking through articles all across the internet about the WUSA's end, I happened across this real "brilliant" piece by Ted Dunnam in the Galvistan County Daily News. If there's any justice in this world, it's Ted's ignorance that has kept him from doing any better than writing for this local, slap-dash periodical. In any case, it made it even more clear to me that we're asking the *wrong* questions. People like good 'ole boy Ted, over here, think that the problem with women's sports is either lack of interest or lack of money. The problem has nothing to do with either. Ted believes that it's only the financial support of male basketball supporters that keeps the WNBA afloat. Perhaps that's the case. But that has nothing to do with the position of women's sports in the US.

Women athletes are athletes first. Men athletes... they get older, pot-bellied... and they turn into couch potatoes who sit in front of ESPN Sports Center every night and watch box scores... living vicariously through the men who have the talent to do what the average male never can or will. Women? They're still out there playing, coaching, teaching their children how to play. Quite frankly, women aren't watchers. Women do. They like to be involved. They like to participate. Without an element of participation, you'll never get women involved.

It runs counter to what women in the past have been told about themselves. Women in the past have been taught to go to the men's games and watch... and if they're athletes, they can run play their game, and come back to the barbacue celebrating the loss of the men's team. I'm not kidding. I may be painting with very wide brush strokes here, but let me give you an example from personal experience.

I mentioned before that I've played soccer for a long time. I also participated on swimming, basketball, lacrosse, and softball teams. Usually, when you're younger, the games take place either on weeknights or on Saturday mornings. Games are scheduled for the fields where men's teams aren't playing. Fathers, brothers, families, when they come to the games, come and make a family day out of the event. Still, many dads come with radios and headphones or schedule the games so that they can get home to watch... "said sport"... on TV. That's how it starts.

Later, in high school... there's the matter of game time. Women's sports... they take place on weeknights or alternate times on Saturdays. Generally not Friday and not Saturday during the varsity football game. Rallys are held for the varsity football game... and women athletes are usually expected to show up at the men's game later to meet up with the crowd. Women's sports have garnered more attention, but there's one thing we haven't done very well... We don't know how to watch each other. In point of fact, we'd rather be playing than watching. Now, again, that's a broad stroke... There were 34,444 people who showed up to yesterday's World Cup Game. But is that 34,444 people representative of all the women who play soccer in this area? Not hardly.

Another example. In college, my team won our regional division (NCAC) outright during my sophomore year. We were 19-2-1 on the season. We were ranked #1 in our bracket for the NCAA tournament. As rankings go, we had earned home field advantage for the first round of the tournament. This was the kind of break we'd been working for all season. The season had started with a grueling pre-season camp with 4 practices per day. The heat was extraordinary, but our coach continued practices inside, in the pool, or right out on the field. We watched the football team take abbreviated practices... only 2 per day. They practiced without pads... and quite frankly, I don't remember them doing much else other than standing around! In any event, it wasn't like we got to watch much... it's just that they occupied the larger practice field next to us. They would come out for warm-up after we'd already begun practice, and would head (walking) to the locker room before we'd finished.

The seasons went much the same way for both teams. The football team eeked out a win against Oberlin (the losingest school in football history) somewhere during the season, but that was their only win for the year. We were undefeated within our conference. Trainers would comment on the women's soccer team's committment. One time when I had to go to the training room to treat a partially torn ligament in my wrist, the trainer commented that he had to "drag" women into the training room, while the men were using the training room to try to avoid getting slaughtered on the field.

In any case, it came time for the NCAA tournament, and guess what? The football team had a home game that weekend. University, NCAC, and NCAA officials determined that a tournament could not take place the same day and time as a home football game. As a result, the game site was moved to 2 1/2 hours north to a rival school. We did well that tournament. The 2 1/2 hours made a significant difference weather-wise. It snowed. At home... clear skys... at the game, we needed snow blowers to find the lines on the field. We won the first game. By the second day, however, after 3 games had been played on the wet, snowy field, the conditions were miserable. Our team's edge was our quickness. Our game was based on finesse and skill in combination with being faster than our opponents. Field conditions change that. We played a remarkably good game anyway. It came down to the last one minute and eleven seconds in overtime when a stray ball made its way into the net, and we were defeated. No one wanted to say anything about it on the way home, because it was too difficult to come to terms with. It would have been a different game if we had played it at home.

Meanwhile, back at the University... where all 50 spectators of the football game had had plenty of seating space for the team's home game... the football team was slaughtered, again. 50-0.

The women who are interested in soccer don't go to big games that cost lots of money (yesterday the ticket prices ranged from $35 to $175). They aren't used to having to pay to watch themselves play! Paying outrageous fees to watch a game isn't the way women see sports. It's the male model. As long as we continue to impose male-sport models for spectatorship, we'll continue to kill out leagues like the WUSA... and (as predicted possible) the WNBA. There are two possibilities. Either someone decides to bankroll womens sports long enough to aculturate women into watching themselves play sports... or women's leagues wise up to the fact that women aren't used to it. Women are used to playing their sport and then watching the men. Does that mean they don't want a league? No. It means that they'd like to have a chance to play in it first.

What will make women's soccer leagues work? Participation. When professional women's soccer games have local women's recreational teams come to play during half-time, when women's one-on-one tournaments are held directly following a game, when players sponsor camps and workshops for improving your game that are attached to coming to view the game... that's when the league will take off. Make it open. Make it something to participate in. Stop trying to mimic male methods of spectatorship. Learn what works for women... and then use the method that will actually attract a group that comprises over 1/2 of the population world-wide.

Oops... it's way later than I had hoped... again... warning... this message is making very broad generalizations about "typical" men and "typical" women athletes. I've met plenty who break the mold--just not enough.

Posted by c_jane at September 22, 2003 12:21 PM | TrackBack


"Quite frankly, women aren't watchers. Women do."

What a neat entry into your considerations of ekphraksis in women's poetry. Writing poetry not only in an observation mode but also in a doing mode.

Substitue "poetry" for "football" in the entry and it makes grand sense.

I admire the verve of the prose you've let flow in this blog entry. Clear focussed passion. I hope it gets transplanted to your study of the women poets.

Posted by: Francois Lachance at September 22, 2003 2:54 PM |

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