Like millions of other people around the world, I spent part of yesterday afternoon with my eyeballs glued to the television for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. I will admit to being one of those “World-Cup-only” soccer fans, the kind of person who pays no mind to American soccer most of the time but then becomes obsessive during World Cups and the Olympics. There’s something about watching athletes from around the world as they compete in the less-celebrated sports* that thrills me and makes me so proud to be a human being. Considering that I am the kind of person who at least once a day says “I hate everyone,” I cherish anything that can make me feel warm fuzzies toward my fellow humans.
But I digress. So my husband and I are watching the World Cup in the front room of our friend Kat’s house, and as the match continues on, more and more people are gathering around the television. We gasp in unison at the missed goals, groan when Japan scores and leap into the air with joy when our ladies send the ball sailing into the net. We were deeply, deeply involved in the game.
And at some point it occurred to me that no one was saying anything weird about the fact that we were watching women play soccer. One guy said something about “chick soccer,” but two seconds later he was sitting with us and watching. Conversation focused on the awesomeness of Abby Wambach and those beastly headers of hers, on the team’s passing strategies, on the sad way Hope Solo crumbled at the end under the weight of her injury. The team was being respected as athletes first. The fact that they were ladies…well, I’m not sure anyone cared.
It was so beautiful. I would have teared up had I not been so absorbed in the match.
I’ve spent much of my adult life listening to people talk about how the WNBA wasn’t real basketball, how female ball players aren’t interesting to watch because they can’t dunk. I’ve heard sports fans denigrate college hockey players for not checking hard like the male players, listened to them mock softball players for pitching underhanded, laugh at the idea of women who want to play full-tackle football. (And when a professional tackle football league for women was organized, but with the proviso that the women wear little more than underwear while playing, well…you can imagine what I thought about that.)
The message has been loud and clear – when women’s sports are measured against men’s sports, they fail to measure up in every way. They are not exciting enough, not hard enough, not fast enough. To the critics, women’s sports are a joke.
But during the World Cup, I got a glimpse of a world where lady athletes are lauded for their skill and their toughness, where no one is talking about how women’s soccer sucks because the women don’t kick the ball hard enough or don’t run fast enough. I could envision a world in which lady athletes are given the same kind of respect as their male counterparts, and it was so wonderful.
(I think it’s worth noting that, as Ms. Magazine’s Michele Kort points out, the U.S. women’s soccer team has escaped the hypersexualization that befalls many other female athletes, which researchers call the “feminine apologetic,” like the ladies are saying, “Hey, I know I am tough and I could probably beat you at this sport, but I like lipstick and heels and have boobs! Don’t be threatened! *giggle*” Even Hope Solo, with her magazine cover-worthy face and her legions of man fans, has not really gone this route.)
It’s the kind of attitude that I think has been growing organically, ever since the passage of Title IX. Colette Dowling, in her amazing book “The Frailty Myth,” makes the point that dude athletes have often been playing sports in a serious way since they were children, against a lot of other dude athletes who have also been playing in a serious way, and that combination of years of dedication and hardcore competition combines to create elite athletes.
It’s a different situation for lady athletes, who found themselves as girls and teenagers playing against a smaller pool of less dedicated athletes (like, er, me), and hence fewer opportunities to hone their skills. A really good example of this can be seen with collegiate women’s basketball, which has been dominated by UConn since, shoot, since I was a kid.
But that’s all changing now. More and more girls are getting hardcore about their sports, branching out into club play and going to summer camps and working hard, and when they see a Sue Bird or an Abby Wambach, they see possibility and potential, a place where they can excel beyond the high school playing field, a sporting life that exists for them as adults. And as all of those girls continue to become tougher and more skilled in their sports, it will only make them more exciting to watch.
So I am optimistic about the future of women’s sports in this country, even though the U.S. women lost yesterday. (And by the way, if there was any team I’d have been okay with a loss to, it was the Japanese women.) This is just the beginning. One day soon, maybe when my future children are adults, maybe soon we’ll be watching women play all kinds of sports on television, and no one will think a thing of it. It will just be the way it is.
*I know, soccer is only “less celebrated” in the United States.