Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Class, Gender & Going Solo

A while back, the US Women's National Team went through some major convulsions around the comments Hope Solo made after she was benched during the 2007 World Cup match against Brazil. She watched her team not only lose, but get humiliated - this, after having shut out the last teams she'd faced. After the game, she said she thought the coach was wrong to bench her, and that she thought she could have made the saves her (older, more experienced) teammate Scurry missed. She made these comments right after the game.

Solo's brief expression of anger, frustration, and disappointment made big news. Bigger news, in fact, than the loss which was in and of itself far more scandalous. The US looked awful. Slow, no creativity - they seemed to have fallen apart. As tough as Solo's remarks were, as has been said elsewhere, a keeper who has been benched should have this attitude. It's a sign of her confidence and competitiveness. Solo's remarks were impolitic, but they made sense and hardly hold a candle to the self-aggrandizing crap that comes out of Premiership players every day.

Retribution was to be expected. What Solo experienced was of a different order - much more than a simple ego-check. She was benched for the last World Cup match, and, incredibly, was asked to not even attend the game. She flew home on a separate plane, and was placed in social Siberia by, it seems, all but one of her teammates (Carli Lloyd - from my alma mater Rutgers).

Isolating one of the country's very best keepers so dramatically at a moment when your team has just lost a key World Cup match is, well, it's unbelievable. It shows a commitment to the group that exceeds the group's commitment to the team.

Sports Illustrated published a fantastic article on the whole episode (Hard Return), and back in April Kurt Streeter wrote about Solo in his column for the LA Times (Hope's Father). The SI article shines some light on the culture of the USWNT as it undergoes a serious overhaul on and off the pitch with the arrival of their new coach Swede Pia Sundhage. In her article "Feminine Mystique" (Sideline Views), Andrea Canales speculates on the sources for that atmosphere - and suggests the historical roots of the team in UNC Chapel Hill (which has one of the most successful programs in NCAA women's soccer) in both its player roster (going to the Olympics: Heather O'Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley, Lori Chalupny and Tobin Heath - former players include: Lorrie Fair, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck), and coaching staff (Anson Dorrance who coached the team from 1986-1994 has been UNC's head coach since 1979). In that article A.C. suggests that the general philosophy of UNC's program may perhaps still shape the culture of the team, which Sundhage describes in the SI interview as "sorority-style." Ouch.

Now, team psychology is complicated - when that team is winning, it's praised for its unity, when it's losing, that unity is condemned as slavish devotion. Note the eternal Arsène Wenger question. Genius? Or mad professor out of touch with the real world?

Anyway, much has been made in the wake of the "Solo incident" of how girls stick together, how women's teams operate as a complex social organism. There is of course truth to this.

I want to point out, however, that many of the qualities that define that sort of mentality (in which there is little room for dissent or the direct confrontation of difference) look as much like class things as they do gender things.

Think Carol Brady. Then think Roseanne.

I know absolutely nothing about what playing soccer at a Division I NCAA school feels like, and my thoughts here are about the public face of the team, and media representations of US women's soccer - but when I was reading the SI article, I found myself thinking about what AYSO soccer culture looks and feels like in some parts of the country (moms & mini-vans, families with the money to register their kids in traveling clubs, living in neighborhoods with good field access and good athletic programs at area schools). The public face of women's soccer can feel really white (regardless of the diversity of the national team), and really middle class. If this commitment to the group above all else is how women are expected to behave, those expectations have a *lot* to do with class aspiration, with class policing.

That sorority-style thing is not "simply" a girl-thing, in other words. In fact, I'm going to say it might be even *more* about class than gender - if women are expected to have an easier time fitting in and working as a group, if women are expected to prefer to avoid rocking the boat, if women are expected to swallow their anger in favor of communal harmony - well, the community imposing those expectations isn't simply female.

When I've been in groups of women from more working class and immigrant backgrounds, when I've been in groups of people that are more diverse, I've found that we are more likely to express disagreement. I've found more dissent, but also more conversation - more willingness to deal with it.

Not all groups of women are the same. Any weekend soccer team can tell you this - because in a season you play against teams with wildly different personalities - personalities that, in part, reflect the backgrounds, neighborhoods, and sensibilities of the women on the roster.

If male footballers in the UK have a propensity to act like assholes when they are asked to sit on the bench, or if they speak up or act out when they think someone on the team has really fucked up, maybe that's partly because they are somewhat less likely to have spent their formative years sitting at middle class dining room tables making small talk about whatever it is people talk about in such settings. Or, if they did, the culture of the game requires they keep that in the closet (or end up ostracized like the Guardian-reading, gallery-going Graeme Le Saux).

The way male footballers act has as much to do with their own class backgrounds & the class culture of football as it does with gender - if not more.

Regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, top US women soccer players spend four years at a university that basically disciplines you into being a "good girl". But I'll bet university teams have really different personalities, dependent on the student body that it represents. Chapel Hill is a pretty conservative campus - and although it's public, it is one of the most elite schools in the country. (Their sorority scene is intense. ) I wonder what the Rutgers women's soccer team is like? University of Washington (Solo's alma mater)? My own campus, UC Riverside?

I like to think that as grassroots soccer culture expands in the US, the culture of the game will become more open - that as more girls from diverse backgrounds take the field, we'll get to see a game face that is less "perfect", and more bad-ass.


  1. Great column. I can't tell you how much BS I hear in the more corporate side of the University about women as collaborators and "team decision makers." It simply excuses (encourages?) my male colleagues to think of themselves as "mavericks." My (female) boss is all about the hierarchy and chain of command, she loves confidence in her male hires, but finds humble competence a great quality in her female employees. I am the ONLY woman she has promoted in over four years--nice, middle-class, (mostly) white, over-educated, team player.

    So glad to see you taking these kinds of issues on here, wish I could follow more of the soccer lingo.

  2. thank you! it's so true. sometimes this stuff sure does feel like a hall of mirrors (and glass ceilings!). click through to the sports illustrated article if you haven't. it's really interesting. thanks for your comment & i'll watch my soccer jargon. i wrote that post in a frenzy!

  3. Great piece! I completely agree with all of the issues you discussed. I was so pissed with the way the team treated Hope following her comments last year. If that would have happened in men's sports...ugh...the guys would have just used it as motivation and played! Damn girls...anyway, keep up the great work!

  4. thanks kate. you know julie foudy questioned the decision to bench solo before the game was played, and, i believe, on air as she was calling it for ESPN (i think). i put a link to your excellent eclectic blog. i'm a clippers fan, so i too was happy to see the lackers go down!

  5. Thanks for such a terrific resource Jen!

    Being an 'Independent' reader I had completely missed the article on Gender testing from the Gruniad. As you know it's an issue close to my heart and I found the article informative and interesting, if a little tragic for the people concerned. As it happens my status and existance (but not my identity) was brought to the attention of a league meeting I attended last night in my new capacity as Hackney's first team player/manager. I could see a few sneers and looks of scornful amusement among fellow club officials. Sadly, prejudice is never far away.

    I'm also going to get in touch with the knee injury prevention people through the information on your link. My knee has not completely healed from my injury at Clacton and I want to protect it as much as possible. I'd be devastated to have to hang up my boots, especially while I've still got plenty of gas in the tank. I may be 43 but hopefully I'll have many more games in me yet!

    Thanks, Tina

  6. Hey Jen, I've just read your excellent articles on the Super Falcons. I've missed all of the Olympics so far so it's great to read about and get a flavour of some of these games. What a goal by the Brazilian!

    I completely agree with you that politically the use of the word profligacy is ill advised at the very least, given the history but I think you may be splitting hairs in the technical use of the word. Obviously I haven't had the benefit of seeing the game but even by your own account it would seem that Nigeria had many opportunities and failed to score. Of course Angerer is a top class keeper, but even if she was having a 'blinder' you ought to expect to score at least once if you have plenty of good chances. If you give Angerer ALL the credit it's perhaps a little patronising to the Super Falcons which I know you would never have intended. I'm sure they themselves will feel that they wasted their chances. If wasting opportunities isn't (the secondary meaning of) the word 'profligacy' then I'm certainly not going to argue with an English Professor about it!

    Thanks for the articles though, they are always stimulating, informative and a real pleasure to read.


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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