I was a preteen athlete. Specifically, I played softball in my home region of rural Northwest Mississippi, and I was good at it. I had a key spot in my teams’ batting orders and almost always hit at least one home run per game; I played on countywide all-star teams; my teams and I contended for state championships. For a good chunk of my childhood, I was consumed with the sport. During softball season I practiced every day. I slept with the game balls I’d received for playing especially good games stacked next to my bed, dreaming of rocketing around third base towards menacing, faceless catchers who waved their gloves in my face like snapping lobster claws. Games meant everything: wins felt better than Christmas, and losses were devastating. Once the season was over, I spent much of the off-season in the baseball field next door thwacking softballs off of a battered, broken tee ball stand; my father helped me hone my skills by coaching me on every aspect of my game, from base sliding to palming line drives with my bare hand when my glove wouldn’t quite make it that far.
And then one day I quit for good. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the sport anymore, because I did; by then softball felt like an inherent part of myself, as much me as my blue eyes and the big brown freckle on the inside of my left elbow. Mainly, I quit playing because I was putting so much work into softball, but I didn’t see where any of it was going. Over the years people had mentioned the possibility of college scholarships to me; I was unable to see any reality in that. The only grown women I’d ever seen play softball were the members the amateur recreational leagues my mom and aunt participated in, full of clumsy, awkward mothers who were playing softball either to quell boredom or to fulfill unrealized dreams, their diaper-clad children plastered against the backstop fence wailing for their mommies. That, I decided, was definitely NOT my future.
However, the boys I shared a field with, even the ones whose parents had never graduated high school, much less attended college, were very cognizant of the possibility that their own dreams of baseball stardom could be realized one day. The mechanics of a boy’s steps toward baseball greatness were quite familiar to all of us, as easily recited as the Lord’s Prayer- youth league to high school to college to the farm system to (gasp!) Major League Baseball. My team was expected to leave the field when the boys wanted to practice, even if we had it reserved. Our boys were affirmed, supported, even coddled, all in the hopes that they would be able to make a future out of baseball. A few boys around whom I grew up made it into the farm system, and at least one still plays for an MLB team. As far as I know, none of the girls I grew up with played softball past high school.
My years in softball taught me a lot about the mechanics of sexism. It wasn’t that we were thought of as cute or precious or incapable by the adults around us; we were coached by men who worked us the same way they would our male counterparts. The entire community came out to watch us play games, cheering us on the same way they did for their boys. During the season where our girls’ team went undefeated and the boys’ team was abysmal, we were the hottest ticket in town. In retrospect, it’s pretty easy to see that the problem wasn’t that our game was boring for people to watch, or that we were surrounded by sexist haters who were happy to see us fail; our problem was that we had no prospects, no future in sports. When I look at it that way, the way we were treated almost feels fair, in a horribly self-defeating way. Why should we get to practice our way to nothing when baseball could be some boy’s ticket out of Mississippi?
All of that said, it is with great joy (and, I’ll admit, a bit of smugness) that I have spent much of my summer obsessing over the ascent of women’s professional soccer in the US. It is currently residing somewhere near the forefront of America’s collective sports consciousness, even though it’s been more than a few weeks since the final match of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The fact that the 2012 Olympics are less than a year away means there’s a good chance that women’s soccer will stay there for awhile. Like everyone else in the country, I watched that awesome YouTube video of reaction shots to the end of the USA/Brazil match, where women and men in bars and living rooms throughout the country went totally wild over the final two goals of the game. To me, a key part of that last sentence is “and men”- it reinforces my lifelong belief that for sports fans who are about the game rather than the beer, snacks, and drama, good sports is good sports, period. It doesn’t matter who’s playing the game; it matters that the game is worth watching.
A couple of weeks ago some friends and I attended a Boston Breakers game here in Boston. It was my first Women’s Pro Soccer match, not to mention my first “adult” soccer game ever. We chose this game because it was the Breakers’ game against magicJack, the WPS team that features arguably the two biggest breakout stars of this year’s World Cup, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach. What was so surprising to me, besides the general awesomeness of the game and players themselves, was that the seats were filled to the brim with a really broad variety of sports fans. There were serious Breakers fans (known as the “Riptide”), many of whom were shirtless men with their chests painted in blue and white, the Breakers’ colors. There were female former soccer players-turned-fans, and gaggles of queer ladies who had turned out to gawk at the attractive ladies on the field (guilty!). I was moved to tears by a large contingent of Japanese fans who had turned out to wave their flag for the Breakers’ Aya Sameshima, a member of the World Cup champion Japanese team who plays in Boston because her club was derailed for the 2011 season due to the tsunami in her home country.
And, of course, there were young girls. Entire soccer teams, sullen teenagers, hyperactive girls with braces and Justin Bieber shirts, toddlers- I’d say that at least half the crowd (but probably more) consisted of girls and their families. Although I had certainly expected to see plenty of young girls (I’ve had the same experience at women’s basketball games), I was overwhelmed not just by their numbers, but by how intensely diligent they were regarding their intake of the match. Barely a word was spoken throughout; everyone, kids and adults alike, was studying the game. The game itself was pretty exciting, and definitely worth the intensely studious atmosphere that the crowd cultivated. The Breakers lost, but nobody in the crowd seemed to care because Abby Wambach scored two goals- and let’s face it, everyone was there to see Abby.
This brings me another interesting aspect to the rise of women’s soccer: the Abby Wambach phenomenon. Just to put it out there- I’m never one to out people who are in the closet, or to make baseless assumptions about people’s sexuality. However, there’s also a certain part of queer people that knows when other people are queer and well, let’s just say my gaydar pings all over the place for Abby Wambach. It doesn’t ping in a “hey, I think she might be gay” way; she comes across to me as a pretty butch-y lesbian. (I mean, come on. I’m sure she wouldn’t deny it.)
It has been completely fascinating for me to overlay her seemingly obvious, glaring queerness with how she has become America’s hero in the past couple of months. I can’t think of any other moment in my lifetime when this has happened, when a lesbian, out or not, who doesn’t present her gender in the way she is societally expected to wins the country over. Ellen came out and was shamed into temporary obscurity. Rachel Maddow is beloved by the left, but demonized by the right: and, of course, her gender presentation is constantly held against her by homophobes on the other side of the fence. With Abby Wambach the only people I hear saying anything about her sexual orientation are other queer people. Straight people either seem baffled by the idea that she could be a lesbian (really, guys?), or they claim not to care one way or the other. There’s probably a little bit of denial going on there; I guess most of America wants her to be straight, or prefers not to think about it. But there’s been barely a rude comment from the peanut gallery of sports fans, which is usually filled to the brim with people who will hate on anyone simply for the sake of hating. I assume that might change if she were to come out, but who knows. For now, I will be content to be completely awed by this photo taken on the night of the game I attended, which I found on Flickr (if the owner of this photo finds this and wants me to take it down, please let me know and I will):
After the match my friends and I had to walk around Harvard Stadium in order to get to the parking lot. The whole thing took awhile, because the entire area around the stadium was filled to the brim with people hoping to catch a glimpse of Abby. No one cared all that much about her Team USA teammates; it was all about Abby, Abby, Abby. My friends and I tried to do a quick headcount, but we stopped somewhere around four hundred and assumed that it was at least twice what we’d counted already, maybe more.
In the same way that it’s wrong to believe that we are no longer a racist country simply because we elected a black president, it would be foolish to assume that because the US team performed so excellently at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, sexism and homophobia in professional sports are things of the past. It still seems to be a societal expectation that once she achieves something truly spectacular, a conventionally attractive female athlete must follow with a partially or fully nude photo spread in a men’s magazine. Members of the German national women’s soccer team took this to a stratospheric level, posing in Playboy at least partially for the purpose of promoting their sport. Women’s professional sports leagues struggle to stay in business; Women’s Professional Soccer is rumored to on the brink of collapse, with little return on investments of $100 million.
It would, of course, be even more ridiculous to think that America’s love affair with Abby Wambach is some grand step that America is taking towards acceptance of people who don’t conform to societal gender expectations, or even towards gay people at a whole: on that front, clearly we have a ridiculously long road ahead of us. But it does say something. The phenomenon of Abby Wambach, I believe, would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten years ago. Her popularity speaks volumes about the personal and career possibilities of all these little girls who look up to her, and, to put it plainly, about most of America’s refusal to put the game of soccer on the back burner in order to worry about the petty things that often go hand-in-hand with women’s sports.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Women’s Professional Soccer: whether it succeeds wildly, breaks even, or fails. I imagine that much of the focus of the league is on garnering fans who aren’t preteens; for what it’s worth, I’m very seriously considering buying Boston Breakers season tickets next year, even though I probably can’t afford it. In the end, this has nothing to do with how excited I am about women’s sports, or little girls having role models. The Breakers play good soccer; I like sports, and it’s an investment that will pay out for me. Period. Hopefully others will feel the same way.