In the wake of the success of the Women’s World Cup, there’s been a lot of talk about sexism in soccer. Let me just say, yes, I think there is, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.
The issue took off, so to speak, after the German team stripped for Playboy. The French players then followed up with their own nude spread in a German magazine, though with a line about whether nudity is a deal-breaker for men to enjoy women’s sports. So at least there was a cheeky nod to the problem. Still, the idea that some men still find women’s bodies more exciting than the sport they play is troubling and infuriating. And that women athletes perpetuate this sexism by mistaking sexual freedom for equality.
I mean, show your boobs to the world if you like. Fine by me. But then don’t expect dudes to rave about your awesome corner kick or passing game. Even most of FIFA’s all-male board didn’t bother to take their seats in Frankfurt. Seep Blatter, the enlightened head of FIFA, once suggested that the women’s game might be more popular if the players wore “tighter shorts.”
Despite this, I can’t help but thrill over how far women’s soccer has come, and the positive changes the sport has brought for girls all over the world. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t even a women’s World Cup. Just for perspective, I grew up in the bad old pre-Title IX days. Then the most arduous sport girls played in high school was paddle tennis. Soccer didn’t exist. Hell, there wasn’t even a girls’ basketball team at our school.
Here’s another example. I lived near the beach and nearly everyone surfed. Everyone, that is, except half the population. (I assume you can guess which half.) Girls were not supposed to surf, and if you were one of the few girls who did in my community you were quickly labeled a dyke. And we all know how popular lesbians were in high school.
Fast forward 20 years. Having never gotten the opportunity to play the sport myself, I’m a rabid soccer mom. My daughter is 4, and she’s playing AYSO soccer along with a million other girls in Southern California. Her team is called “Tough Cookies” and her coach calls her “Fast Kate” because of her lightning speed on the field. I am so proud. A few years later, the Women’s World Cup comes to the Rose Bowl with a trio of American players named Mia, Julie and Brandi. No one’s ever heard of them. Predictions are that the event is going to be a bust. No one’s going to come because women’s soccer is boring. But my daughter and her teammates are ecstatic. They paint their faces red, white and blue and head off to the Bowl, which is a few soccer fields from our house.
We all know what happened. The Rose Bowl, far from being empty, was packed with thousands of screaming young women and girls and their families. The Americans won, and Mia Hamm became a bona-fide star with her picture on the Wheaties box. And because of the intensity and skill level of the women’s game, no one says anymore that women’s soccer is boring. Or if they do they’re idiots.
Back to my daughter. After the World Cup, she eventually gets drafted to a club soccer team—she’s in the big leagues! She travels to exotic locales like San Bernardino where she gets kicked, knocked down, scratched, her braids constantly pulled. I can’t believe the violence! But she’s testing herself and thriving. And the camaraderie of her teammates is so moving to watch. They support each other in ways I never did with my friends when we were that age. They’re competitive, not afraid to win. In high school, she goes on to play varsity and is captain of her team.
Which brings us to last Sunday, and the enduring legacy of women’s soccer. Now the names are Abby and Hope and I’m in the family room watching the U.S. and Japan battle it out. My daughter comes home with one of her college friends just as the penalty kicks are taking place. They stop talking, sit down, and watch like it's the finale of Project Runway. When Japan scores its game-winning kick, my daughter gasps. But she also thinks Japan deserved to win because they played better. And that to me says everything about how far women's soccer has come.
“I miss playing soccer so much,” she says.
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