Given that the league, the rules, and the teams were going to stay the same, I was a bit doubtful that a truly “chill” rec soccer game would happen. However, it’s been a few months into the season, and I have noticed three differences from seasons past.
Shared effort to support friendly play
The FB “+40 Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Soccer,” posts are public to members. This means transparency: players have seen most of what had gone on in terms of planning the league. Group members were encouraged to self-organize: find others with a similar “chill” mindset, assign themselves to teams, volunteer as captains, and make other decisions. Consequently, there has been a shared investment in the building of the league.
As I described in Part 1 and Part 2, the entire FB group was polled a few times during set up time, giving everyone say about what was important to them. For instance, folks were given a choice about whether they wanted control over their team rosters OR game times to play.
The majority of the group selected roster control over time and team number limits. This democratic and transparent approach allowed players to feel that their choices mattered.
Now during the season, teams have also gone back to saying good game after the match is over, a tradition of goodwill that has finally resumed after COVID.
Leadership and communication
The building/league manager has vocalized his support of this group. Just before the season began, a league meeting was held for all players—not just captains—to remind everyone about the rules that penalize rough play. The FB group was used to communicate these messages and invites.
Cindy and the team captains have had their own private FB communication channel. Competitors off the field, yet social on social media while off the field. I am told this additional communication among the team leaders has helped to reinforce the goodwill expected from players and teams.
As well, the FB group members had advocated for more women officiants for the games, and now we have a female referee who I have been told makes many calls during the game. So, the league has listened and responded to some communicated requests.
Accountability and commitment to “chill”
When the league was eventually finalized at the end of the summer, with 7 full teams, it truly felt like a group effort. And it was cause for celebration.
At the same time, Cindy, the group and chill league’s originator, encouraged everyone to continue to be be vigilant and accountable in regards to aggressive behaviour on the pitch. For example, she has encouraged us to take immediate action if play seems too rough:
So far, I have seen some apologizing for rough play when it occasionally happens. Refusing to play is probably a tough decision for a team to make in the middle of the game, and something I haven’t seen so far.
What’s next for the chill league
I admit I was in the minority on the polls, as I assumed that the game itself needed to change to reduce aggression. But maybe a soccer community borne of a shared “will to chill” is enough for us. I hope that fun and friendliness is what continues throughout our season.
I want to leave the last words of this post series to Cindy, who started it all:
“The only thing I wanted to gain from this was to bring women together again, in a sport that so many of us love, but have felt threatened by those that think there is something to gain from being overly aggressive at the age of 40+. I have been injured, and I know others who have been injured too. I was going to stop playing, but really didn't want to. I love the community that is being created in the group, even just by the teams all having a chance to speak with one another, off the pitch.”
What does it mean to play aggressively? It might be described as specific behaviours, such as offensive charging and defensive tackling. Or, aggressive play might also be described more broadly to include any violent, reckless, or dangerous actions that increase—or are perceived to increase—the chances of injury.
What aspects of the game contributes to making soccer aggressive? It may be scores and league-tabling, but it’s also the division or level of play. Those who have been trained for competitive divisions may play more aggressively, especially if it is encouraged. According to the Barcelona Premiere Soccer Club,
“Aggressive Soccer is important for competitive players. It helps them play the game with more accountability and responsibility. Playing soccer requires a lot of hard work and determination.”
Some may play aggressively due to their prior competitive training. Conversely, players without prior training may also appear aggressive if they lack the skills to avoid collisions or strikes.
Then there are “old feuds” between players on opposing teams, which can easily spark tensions and aggressive play. Some folks may seem to be playing aggressively based on their reputations alone.
How to manage aggression in soccer that is part game structure, part skill level, and part perception? League organizers provide divisions to create play at different levels of competition levels. Rec divisions—the least competitive—would also presume to have the least aggressive play. Leagues also enact safety policies, rules, penalties, and paid referees in order to keep gameplay in all divisions fair and safe for everyone.
But judging by the number of women who joined Cindy’s FB soccer group, it seemed that typical measures were not enough. By attempting to self-organize, the group could perhaps find new ways to minimize competitive and aggressive play.
So, it was interesting to me that when Cindy asked what folks wanted, the vast majority of FB members voted in favour of keeping “typical league” with scores, statistics, and teams.
Judging by the result, the group seemed to think that the source of aggressive play was the players, not teams or scores. They still wanted competition, just not the aggression competition can bring. Rather than change the game, perhaps the league could enact measures to prevent aggressive players from playing or playing the way they tend to do.
But when approached with requests to prevent players or teams with a reputation for aggression, the league manager explained that the group could not form a private “chill” league so long as actual scored games were being played (which the women voted they wanted). The provincial association overseeing all rec leagues (Ontario Soccer) puts no restrictions on barring skilled players from joining non-competitive divisions. Anyone could join this new “chill” division, even if they weren’t part of Cindy’s FB group.
As well, the league wouldn’t implement stricter penalties in just one division. As I understand it, the league manager was supportive of the idea of a non-aggressive league but wasn’t prepared (or perhaps resourced) to enforce unique rules that could lead to multiple complaints or challenges to rulings.
So, neither the players, the league manager, nor the governing professional association were willing to make systemic changes to the division or the game to avoid or minimize aggression. The “problem” of managing aggressive play still seemed to reside at the level of individual players.
Meanwhile, by the time all the information started to surface, it was late in the summer and the FB group had over 100 people in it—everyone still wanted to play in a non-aggressive league.
Could a group of women wanting “chill” soccer address aggressive play if everything about the division and the game stayed the same? Find out in Part 3!
There are a few typical ways to deal with an aggressive player in women’s recreational league soccer games: 1. confront the player (not very common), 2. avoid the player (somewhat common), or 3. complain about the player after the game (very common).
This summer, Cindy found a new way to address rough soccer play. She started an open Facebook (FB) group called “Womens’ 40+ Just Wanna Have Fun, BMO Soccer.” The call for the fall season made this group’s raisond’être clear:
“We need at least 60 women so we can create a CHILL soccer league. One where we are not out to kill each other. We will have very little person-to-person contact. If you are an aggressive player WE DO NOT WANT YOU.”
I was intrigued by this group because in the past I found it hard to distinguish normal from aggressive play. When I first started playing a few years ago, I mistakenly equated aggressiveness with skillfulness. But Cindy emphasized in the group that seasoned players can also be “chill”:
“Most of us have been playing for a number of years, but are tired of the players that seem to be out to kill. We want to just have a chance to get away from our daily routine, get some exercise, and socialize with others.”
If the regular rec divisional structure and rules weren’t sufficiently discouraging aggressive play, and the typical ways of players dealing with each other weren’t working to minimize it, then why not self-organize a new division to eliminate rough play altogether?
The initial proposed plan involved not only having a shared understanding that the entire division would be “chill” but also enforcing a zero tolerance for aggression policy and thus stricter rules of play:
“You will be benched if you are deemed playing aggressively. You will be warned once, and then kicked out of the league without any fees being refunded. We do know the difference between skilled and aggression.”
Another idea surfaced in the FB group to reduce aggression: eliminate scoring and statistics. Without wins and losses, there would be no league-tabling and therefore less competitiveness. A third suggestion was made for the division to do away with season-long teams altogether. No “us vs them” mentality, no fuel for aggressive play.
Cindy gave the choice to the then 60+ group members through a poll vote:
“Option 1. I want to play in a non-aggressive league without scores, stats, etc.
Option 2. I want to play in a typical league, just not with anyone aggressive.”
Which option would the rec women’s soccer FB group choose for a “chill” soccer league? Stay tuned for Part 2!
In the second half of my rec women’s soccer game, I rolled my ankle. As I tried to stand, it hurt. The game kept going on around me, and I heard someone yell at me, Go down on your knee. Go down! So I did.
That was the first of a series of supports and advice my teammates gave to help me to manage my ankle. Two teammates immediately put my arms around their necks and cinched my sides closely to hoist me up and walk me back to the bench. (I was surprised how easily the arrangement of our bodies helped me to get off the field quickly and with minimal weight on my foot.) A third teammate got me a bag of ice. Everyone checked in with me while the game continued and the lines were readjusted in my absence. After the game, from my teammates I got more compress and elevation ideas, Tylenol, and a drink.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am a relative newbie to soccer, and that apparently includes soccer injuries. So, in the midst of my own self-inflicted discomfort, I noticed the swift dispensing of just the right amount of knowledge, care, and support from my team.
No one on the team made me feel as if I were putting them out. No one judged, minimized, or questioned my “injury” (which quickly became clear was not serious). I also wasn’t coddled or patronized, which can feel awkward. Instead, I got everything I needed–physical support but also a silent assurance–that the team had my back when I was down. I know that I am not one of the stronger team players, but when I was hurt my teammates treated me like I was an MVP.
It’s easy to look at a team that is winning all the games, or playing with the best formations, and think, Wow, that’s a strong team. But that night my soccer friends showed me that perhaps an even better measure of a strong team is how it responds to moments of challenge and weakness. A team that is strong together doesn’t just bring out the best in its players: it willingly brings back and brings up its players, especially when they are feeling at their worst.
In Apple TV’s Emmy-winning show, Ted Lasso (TL), the titular character is a goofy, Kansas-born football coach who must adjust to a very different life as head coach of a pro football (North American soccer) team in England.
But you don’t need to be a football fan to participate in the lively conversation. TL fans love to ask and answer questions about all aspects of the show (many have watched both seasons multiple times). So I asked folks to share what they’ve noticed so far about any representations of exercise and fitness.
[WARNING: Modest show spoilers]
Exercise Made Fun(ny)
Coaches have to find the right words to inspire their teams during practice. Here are a few of Ted’s choice expressions to get his team in action (crowdsourced enthusiastically by the FB group fans):
“Your body is like day-old rice. If it ain’t warmed up properly, something real bad could happen.”
“Touch your toes. Now touch each other’s toes! Your feet fingers!”
“Making quicker transitions from offense to defense. Y’all gotta start making your hellos your goodbyes.”
“We all know speed is important. But being able to stop and change directions quickly? Well, that’s like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. It don’t get nearly enough credit.”
“We’re gonna call this drill ‘The Exorcist’ ’cause it’s all about controlling possession.”
Ted doesn’t use the traditional language of training and exercise; rather, he makes quirky comparisons and memorable pop culture references to get his team moving.
What Fitness Looks Like
All the players on the fictional AFC Richmond team appear physically fit. In the locker room scenes, outfit changes reveal lean, muscular, ready-to-run bodies. A few times we see players using the treadmill and free weights, but there aren’t a ton of game, practice, or training scenes that highlight the pro players’ peak athleticism.
Instead, as one TL fan noticed, in the S2 finale it is the rival football team that is shown doing physically intense calisthenics (while Nate, recently defected from AFC, looks on). By comparison, Ted has his team on the pitch practicing a choreographed dance routine to N’Sync’s 90s hit song, “Bye Bye Bye.”
Other fitness activities portrayed relate to characters’ hobbies and social lives. The sports psychologist loves cycling. The gruff former star player-turned-coach shares a weekly yoga practice with retired women (then drinks rose wine with them afterwards). Ted is a crackerjack darts player, and he walks to work with his Assistant, Coach Beard. There are some pre- and post- sex scenes. So mostly, it’s regularpeople fitness.
Nutrition and Food
Representations of food and eating in TL do not follow sports nutrition myths, fads, and stereotypes. The players scarf fast food kabobs, drink beer in the locker room and out at the bar, and share potluck dishes they bring to a holiday meal. There is no excess of supplements, restrictive eating regimes, or protein shakes.
Coach Ted is as sweet as the food he shares and enjoys. He brings club owner Rebecca Welton home-made biscuits (sugar cookies) everyday. On the topic of sugar, Ted says, “I’ve never met someone who doesn’t eat sugar. Only heard about ’em, and they all live in this godless place called Santa Monica.” And on his favourite dessert, he says, “Ice cream’s the best. It’s kinda like seeing Billy Joel live. Never disappoints.”
The Fitness of Teams
In this sports dramedy, characters manage the stress not of the daily grind of elite level fitness training but of various personal issues and relationships. Although they come from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds, the team players chat, bicker, and support each other as a team. As one TL Facebook group fan responded, “I love how fitness is not the centre of the story. Football and exercise are their job, but community and relationships are the centre.”
This LA Times article interviewed pro soccer coaches and players who are also TL fans because of the way the show features the interpersonal and psychological aspects of team play. The article quotes one American men’s national team coach who says that the strength of TL is not football itself but rather everything around football: “I don’t watch the show for what I see on the field. That’s not the point […]. But I think, in any sport, a lot of team success is what happens in the locker room. And they get that absolutely right.”
So, with the help of the fan group, I have discerned that TL is not, ultimately, a show about the fitness of professional football. However, there’s much more to say on how TL represents team dynamics, psychological health, and gender in sports. But I’ll have get back to you on those topics—after consulting further with my 22K fan friends.
Have you played scrimmage, shinny, or pick up? Until this past summer, I had not (as for many years I lacked a team sport to play, as I guest blog about elsewhere). Friends, let me tell you that I think scrimmage is AWESOME. I didn’t realize how awesome until after the end of our short “season” these past few months.
If you already know scrimmage or pick up is awesome, this post will not be news to you. But still, read on to re-affirm what you and I now know together.
No Refs = Self-Regulation
In regular team games, a referee is there to make calls so no one else has to. But when you are self-reffing, everyone has to monitor their own potentially illegal moves. Obviously, this leads to more individual accountability during gameplay, but it got players talking to each other about the calls. One time I saw players stop to discuss what might have been a hand ball, and compare what they knew about the rules about hand balls, but then play happily resumed.
In reffed games you always want rulings in your team’s favour, but without refs everyone seems to take more responsibility to play fairly, and the talking creates both game understanding and player camaraderie.
Slower Pacing = Safer Play
When you’re in a traditional team game, everyone wants to hurry up and score. But in scrimmage everyone takes their time, sets up, passes more. One striker with a killer goal shot deliberately eased up when she came in to shoot (which was fortunate for me when I was in goal). The result of slower play seemed to be that everyone got more chances to touch the ball, yet folks didn’t get tired out.
Also, no injuries. In the half dozen games I played in, I think I was the only one to get a minor injury—because I overextend myself. Once I took cues from others about pacing, I eased up and could play the whole game without getting myself hurt.
Friends on Both Sides = No Losers
In regular games, things are pretty fixed: everyone on your team has their positions, sub rotations are often pre-set, and the point is to win the game. In scrimmage, there is much more fluidity and choice. People felt free to take a water break whenever they needed, even if their team was short-handed for a minute. Most everyone took turns in goal, unless someone was nursing an injury and wanted to play there longer. I spent a little time as a forward, where I learned that “give and go” passing is not a skill that is totally beyond me. I even scored a goal! 🙂
When friends are on both sides, the stakes were lower. Goals were scored (or not), efforts were congratulated—but no one kept score. Maybe there were no winners each week, but no one walked off the pitch on the losing side either.
Is Scrimmage for Everyone?
As someone trained to look at stuff through the lens of feminist theory, I see many overlaps between the values for which many feminists strive and the kind of play that scrimmage affords. Why aren’t we playing more scrimmage? If feminism is for everyone, and certain aspects of scrimmage reflect the values of some feminisms, then is scrimmage for everyone too?
Three reasons why not all of us are playing more scrimmage:
Logistically, scrimmage only works up to a certain numbers limit, and someone has to volunteer to take the added responsibility to be a convenor. (One of our wonderful friends put the extra work in to make ours happen.)
Usually the fields, courts, and ices are perhaps usually spoken for by organized sports associations, so it’s only in these strange pandemic times that these spaces may be more available than usual.
There are probably plenty of skilled and competitive types for which scrimmage/pick up is not speedy or challenging enough. Some people thrive most when there is structure and competition.
So, maybe scrimmage isn’t for everyone all the time. But for me, as a late-to-the-sport rec soccer player, the less structure the better. Whether you get to play for fun each week with a long-time bestie or a sister, or make some new friends (as I have), scrimmage is WHERE IT’S AT.
This week I’ve shared a post with my online teaching community, The Activist Classroom, about Sarah DeLappe’s amazing 2016 play, The Wolves. The play follows nine powerful young women, 16- and 17-year-olds, through their indoor soccer season; in it I find a different kind of future to the one that Elizabeth Warren imagines when she fears, in her primary concession speech on 5 March, that we might need to wait four more years for an American woman to come into real power.
If you’re wondering how to inspire your teenage daughter – OR your teenage son, or young people of all genders around you… and maybe yourself too! – this post is for you.
Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.
Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.
As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”
True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”
Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.
(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)
So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.
What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?
It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.
Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.
Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.
I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issue, please check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.
Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.
(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)
The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.
She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!
I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.
Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.
The main idea as I recall it was that when you are working with elite athletes at the top of their game you aren’t going to be able to make big changes and see big improvements. All the athletes are working at near capacity. Instead you focus on making lots of small improvements in all areas.
My favourite example concerned cyclists and sleep quality. It turns out, not surprisingly, that athletes sleep better at home. How to replicate those conditions on the road? The coach had them bring along pillows and blankets from home.
But coaches traditionally haven’t much attention to women’s menstrual patterns. Until now.
” One emerging issue in women’s sport is the menstrual cycle and its impact on performance, player health and injury risk,” explains Dawn Scott, the USWNT’s fitness coach, exclusively to The Telegraph. “I’ve known about these effects, the research, for a long time – but working with 23 players, I had always struggled to know how to accurately monitor that and how to individualise strategies for players.”
It’s a great story. Go read it! But what I love is that the coaching team decided to be open and talk about it–not keeping the competitive edge a secret.
““We want to end the taboo,” says Scott. “At the elite level, but also for teenage girls. They should feel comfortable talking about this with their coaches.” Bruinvels admits that awareness and improved education are key motivations for her work. “Often we are afraid of discussing this because we don’t really understand it,” she says. “I feel particularly for male coaches, who wonder how they would start this discussion.”
Thursday night was the last game of the season for my Co-Ed soccer team. We, for the fourth year in a row, won B division.
There are few original players from 4 years ago. We range in age from 20 to 50 something. I often joke I’m the second oldest player and nearly double the age of half the team.
The skill range is wide, from those who played internationally and in university or college to beginners and dabblers. I love it.
I learn a bit more about the sport each year. Apparently there are rules?
My biggest achievement is not injuring myself the past couple seasons. It means I’m not the most aggressive player on the team and occasionally find myself flinching from the ball. But hey, we aren’t out there to make money, it’s supposed to be for fun & fitness.
I love the energy of the younger players and appreciate seeing colleagues in a different mode of being. It’s given me a few more friendly faces at work and offered me new friends.
Soccer is the only team sport I do these days and I’m going to miss these lugnuts. Until next year Zidane!
1.Question of pay. is the USWNT paid equitably? By “equitably”, we could mean something like “paid the same as men’s professional soccer in accordance with”:
their win-loss record, compared to those of the men’ teams
their tournament play/record, compared to mens’ teams
the prize money offered in the tournaments they play in
prize money offered in professional soccer tournaments in general
revenues generated by league and tournament games
revenue generated by sponsorships, merchandise, viewership, etc.
I could go on
Yes, we know: economics is complicated. But do we have some idea of the answer? We do– the answer seems to be “no”. The USWNT is not paid in accordance with any of the above-listed measures. How do we know this? Here are some informative bits from articles I read (here and here and here).
US women’s soccer now has edged out US men’s soccer in terms of game revenue generated ($50.8M vs. $49.9M)
The US Soccer Federation sells broadcast ad sponsorship rights for the women’s and men’s teams together, so they haven’t provided information to separate out the revenue streams.
Nike’s highest-selling soccer jersey is the USWNT’s home jersey. Here it is:
The USWNT is paid a guaranteed base salary, while the US men’s soccer team is paid in bonuses alone. However, the men are paid when they play (win or lose), so their annual pay depends on how many games they play in a year.
The total prize money for the women’s World Cup is about $30M, whereas the FIFA men’s World Cup prize money is around $400M.
The US men’s and women’s teams have different contracts under different collective bargaining agreements. The US men’s team has publicly stated its support for increased pay equity for US women’s soccer.
The USWNT has sued the US Soccer Federation for changes in their pay structures (read more about it here):
All 28 female players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) — their employer — in U.S. District Court in March, alleging they are paid less than the men and are provided with less support, despite their consistent outstanding performance. The lawsuit also argues the team’s success has “translated into substantial revenue generation and profits” for USSF and “during the period relevant to this case, the WNT earned more in profit and/or revenue than the MNT.”
The soccer federation denied the claims in the women’s lawsuit, arguing in a May court filing that the pay differential between the men and women players is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.”
Are the women players paid less? Sometimes. When the female players have appeared to make about the same or more money, they’ve had to turn in consistently outstanding performances on the world stage. Even with those feats, earning the same amount as the men’s soccer players was near-impossible under the previous collective-bargaining agreement.
The new agreement has provisions that may reduce the difference in bonuses for friendly games and tournaments, but there is — without question and for whatever reasons — still a massive gap between men’s and women’s World Cup bonuses.
2.Question of politics. Is the question of the USWNT’s pay becoming a nasty political fight? That one’s easy.
Prominent Democratic politicians have not just tweeted support, but in fact introduced legislation requiring that US Soccer pay women’s and men’s teams equally. In response, the US Soccer Federation hired two lobbying firms to present a case that the women’s teams are not paid inequitably. Groups are battling over the numbers, which (as I pointed out above) are complicated. So far the lobbyists are working on Capital Hill but haven’t registered yet (they are required to register within 45 days of beginning work). The lobbyists and US Soccer say they are trying to give accurate information, and the USWNT say that the lobbyists and US Soccer are trying to derail legislation and mislead legislators. Politico reported the following interchange:
...one of the lobbyists representing U.S. Soccer — Ray Bucheger, a former Democratic congressional staffer who’s now a partner at FBB — told a Democraticcongressional staffer late last month that one of the bills could jeopardize the country’s chances of hosting future Women’s World Cups, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Bucheger declined to comment.
3.Question of (mis)perception. It is, sadly, true that lots of people hold women’s sports in lower esteem than men’s sports. And there are loads of reports and surveys and studies that show that non-professional-athlete men think they are as good or better athletes as world-class professional women athletes. You have no doubt seen the survey, published here, that 1 in 8 men in the UK surveyed believed they could take a point off tennis titan Serena Williams.
In the comments section of this article (I know, don’t read the comments ever, but I’m doing this for blog research purposes) I saw exactly this same view: some people said that the USWNT were less good soccer players than mediocre men’s professional teams. Some cited a 2017 scrimmage with a US Soccer development program under-15 boys’ team (that the USWNT graciously did to teach the boys some techniques) in which the final score was 5-2 in favor of the boys’ team. You can read the real story here. You also might be interested to hear that in 2017 (maybe encouraged by the USWNT’s participation?) US Soccer added some girls’ development soccer teams (finally).
Other commenters said that this is the way of all women’s sports, that professional women athletes pale in comparison with (most? all?) male athletes in terms of performance. So it’s okay to pay them less and think less of them as athletes (or not to think of them as athletes, period).
Responding to this general claim– that women just aren’t as good/strong/interesting athletes as men– takes a lot of hard work. Scholars and activists and athletes have been and are currently spending their careers responding in a bunch of ways. Some of those ways include:
carefully documenting and framing the comparative histories of sports and athletic development programs for boys and girls, pointing out the myriad disparities girls experience in everything from resources to coaching to goals to opportunities to social support, etc.
framing and revealing the historical and social contexts in which girls and women interested in physical activity/athletics are treated; in short, it’s not good.
providing context for the ways media coverage of women athletes treats and judges their athletic performance, I blogged about the juggernaut UConn women’s basketball team, stuck between a rock and a hard place– media criticized them for being too good and messing up the sport. Really. Read about it here.
What I hope and even expect is that, with increased support and programming, society’s perceptions of girls and boys and men and women as athletes will change. Then we will be able to see and value girls and women as the athletes they are and can be.
Readers– what do you think about our current atmosphere of sports development and outlets for girls and women? Any stories or ideas or suggestions you want to share would be most welcome.