Wednesday, February 13, 2008

FA Apologizes for its Sexism and Homophobia? Really?

This past weekend, fans of the women's game gathered in Regents Park to honor Lily Parr, the first woman inducted to the National Football Museum Hall of Fame. Parr was an amazing character, from an incredible time in the history of women's football in the U.K. Renown for her athleticism and skill, she was a celebrity in the late teens and twenties, and was directly impacted by the 1921 FA ban that barred women from FA pitches and forbid FA members from refereeing or working as linesmen during women's games.

The Guardian reported on an FA statement issued over the weekend in relation to the Parr Trophy match - which was not, as far as I can tell, sponsored by the FA in any way. The newspaper story, "FA Apologies for 1921 Ban", offers no direct quotes from an FA statement, raising the question: Was it really an apology?

The Lily Parr Exhibition Trophy Match
was part of Gay & Lesbian History Month - it was played between the London Lesbian Kickabouts and Arc-En-Ciel, a Parisian lesbian football team - recreating in spirit the first international women's game played between England and France. The fact that this celebration of Parr was a part of Lesbian & Gay History month - and that the two teams which played are lesbian feminist teams was not mentioned in Tony Leighton's telegraphic story (was anyone from The Guardian's staff there?). I suppose we should be grateful there was any mention of that match, of Lily Parr, and of the rest of action in the women's game this week in the four paragraph story. But is it really journalism if it's reporting final scores, and recycling press releases?

The Kickabouts posted the following on their website:

"Lucy Faulkner, Equality Manager at The Football Association said 'In 1921 The FA requested that clubs belonging to the Association should refuse the use of their grounds for matches played by women with the purpose of raising charitable funds. Furthermore, they stated that 'the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged'.

The damage this did to the women's game is hard to calculate but I am confident that with the support and investment of The FA in women's football in 2008, the sport will continue to go from strength to strength.'" There's another statement on the Kickabout site from Trevor Brooking, director of development at the FA about the growing strength of the women's game.

The Kickabouts quite rightly list this not as an "apology", but as a "response". A response from the Equality Manager is not an apology from the FA Board.

Maybe something went down at that game that has yet to surface in the blogs, like:

"FA Board members attend LGBT celebration of legendary athlete Lily Parr, and apologize for the sexism and homophobia that continue to dominate football culture. Vow to change their own attitudes, to give the FA's full support to its women players - and kick homophobia out of the men's game while they are at it."

ps: For more about Parr, see Barbara Jacobs's book, The Dick, Kerr Ladies.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Tree Falls in a Forest: Watching Women's Football

Women's football faces serious challenges - like the commonly held opinion that it's boring.

I've heard this opinion expressed not only by men - by men who love football so much they'll watch the game in any form and can opine about the most minute aspects of the game and all of its institutional intrigue - but by women who are also ardent fans of the game, and even play themselves. Some of my own teammates have said as much.

These nay sayers will tell you the pace is slower, the play less spectacular - that the women's game just isn't exciting to watch because women athletes aren't as explosive as men, and the games aren't that competitive. Now, as is true of most biased thinking, these opinions are grotesque distortions of a few truths (the strongest women aren't as strong as the strongest men, or as fast, and in even those countries with competitive semi-pro leagues, the women's game is unevenly developed - witness Arsenal Ladies' dominance in the UK, Lyon in France, Umea in Sweden).

But the fact of the matter is, if women's football seems boring to these people, it isn't because women aren't men, or because one team is better than the rest. Almost every person who has said this to me has also confessed that they have never seen a game - not even on television.

I come from a country that loves NASCAR. Half my male relatives here in London spend their weekends watching golf, and the rest of the week talking about it. These sports are, in my view, inherently boring. So is the Tour de France. And the New York Marathon. Cricket, anyone? Who wants to watch that? Turns out, lots of people do.

The Chicago Bulls' dominance didn't kill basketball. The fact that Michael Jordan was just plain better than everyone else didn't make the game boring. Everybody either loves the Yankees, or they hate them - and that makes us love baseball even more.

I love going to the Staples Center to watch The Clippers lose - again. Sure it's fun to watch the game - but that fun is amplified a thousand times over by being a part of the crowd. This is why very few people go to these things by themselves - I went solo to a Galaxy game and boy did I feel weird, like the kid who sits by herself at the school cafeteria. Until I was "adopted" by the Chicana lady sitting behind me - the two of us spent half the game on our feet offering - at a very high volume - to play defense.

The pleasure of watching minor league baseball is in the ambiance in the stadium - who cares if the Durham Bulls win or lose, or by how much? I mean, one cares - we route for them, but we show our love by being there - whether they are having a winning season or not. We go to such things because we love listening to our neighbors crunch statistics, scream at the umpire, or work through their philosophical treatise on the confrontation between a particular pitcher and the man at bat.

If these things weren't true, we'd all watch sports on t.v. and teams would play for the camera alone.

Duke students sleep in tents for weeks because they don't want to watch the Chapel Hill game in their dorm room - they want to watch the game in Cameron Stadium, squeezed into the stands with everyone they know. And scream their heads off.

And there is nothing like the euphoria of watching a great goal with a stadium full of people, having your shout both drowned out and absorbed into that of thousands. I can hear the oceanic noise of Arsenal fans from my flat - it's the best music on earth.

The pleasure and importance of being there is arguably most intense for the football fan. I remember arriving to a Galaxy game a few minutes late (I'd driven directly from work - argh, the 91!). I had to park miles away from the stadium, and as I hurried across the gigantic parking lot I could hear the crowd - oohhing, ahhing in waves as the ball advanced, was repelled, as an attack took shape and was dissolved. The noise was continuous, rhythmic - my heart was in my throat just listening to this. I don't know a sport that has this sound. Basketball, baseball, American football, rugby all stop and start. As exciting as it is to see any of those games live, you don't get that rush of holding your breath for 45 minutes, and then doing it again for the second half.

Watching a baseball game has the pleasures of a day out with your friends. Watching a futbol match is like a crazy one night stand with a sex fiend. There's no rest, no pause for reflection - it's like jumping off a very, very tall cliff. Twice. This is why football fans are so nuts. And sometimes dangerous. Think: Fatal Attraction x 40,000.

The women's game has as much capacity for producing this pleasure: the fabled 1999 world cup final more than proved this. That game was played before an audience of 90,000 in the stadium, and 40 million television viewers in the U.S. That's the most watched soccer game in U.S. history.

Women are quick, strong, and explosive on the pitch. Women athletes are arguably *more* competitive than men - we have way more to prove. Women twenty years ago and today play not only for themselves, but for future generations. And as more women from different football cultures play we are seeing all of the things that make the game fun to watch brought onto the pitch: confrontations between sides distinguished by great footwork, flare, and style and sides known for militaristic precision and strength (Brazil/Germany); historical rivalries between teams that hate each other (US/Norway - the image below is from an Olympic semi-final match, and that'd be a Norwegian player here, with a fistful of Mia's shirt).

Marta's mischievous samba before a frustrated American defender is burned into my brain: I've never seen a more flagrant or effective taunt in any sport.

But who cares about all that if there's no one else there watching it? Who do you have to talk to about it after the game? THIS is why people think women's football is boring. Most sports fans want to belong to a mass audience, be a part of the crowd.

The media should be more committed to combating the problem. Aside from the odd blog or two, and the occasional minute story about women's league games, there is very little attention paid to the sport - especially when you consider how very many people play it.

Walk into the sports section of any bookstore and you might be amazed at how many books there are fly fishing. Or sailing. It amazes me. But of course it doesn't surprise fans of those sports.

But walk into a bookstore in the UK, and try to find just one book about women's football - and I don't mean the one book of drills out there (which seems to be a standard drill book, in which some clever publisher just substituted the feminine pronoun & put in illustrations of girl players). In fact, try to find a book about any women's sports or about any women athletes. Out of the six hundred sports titles at your local Borders, I defy you to find 10 about women athletes in any sport. (They'll have Paula Radcliff's autobiography, but usually that's it - not even a book about Billy Jean King or Martina Navratilova.) These books are out there. Mia Hamm's Go For the Goal, for example, was a best seller in the US - and there are autobiographies of other US players, as well as two social histories of women's football written by the UK academic Jean Williams. There's a whole magazine about women's football (Fair Game) - but who carries it?

Want to make money? Tell Nike and Adidas to stock women's football boots, and long pants for playing in cold weather. And shirts for the women's teams while they're at it. Broadcast women's games, and advertise stuff like that, just as is done for the men.

Until the media commits to the story, women's football is the falling tree in the forest no one hears. Until networks broadcast women's games regularly, newspapers cover league play more comprehensively, until the story becomes about something more than how miserably women's football is treated - and becomes instead a story about great upsets, struggling teams who don't play to their potential, and improbable sides that play well above theirs, about lousy managers and magicians - until then nobody aside from the most dedicated will pay any attention.

It's up to us of course to change things: To march up to the newstand and ask for Fair Game, to ask the bookstore manager to carry more titles in sports about women athletes. To write in to newspapers asking them to expand their coverage. And to get ourselves to the games and show our love in person.

The FA doesn't make the last bit easy: nationwide, amateur women's teams in England get the leftover slot when it comes to pitches. We play on Sunday afternoon - on the same day and at the same time as women's Premiership teams.

Well - until that gets straightened out, I'll do my best to make the odd weeknight match. And on Sundays, you'll find me routing for Arsenal ladies, but playing on the Hackney Marshes, and wondering why the fuck no store in England carries a Marta Umea shirt.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Battle Hymn of White Hart Lane

This is that unusual topic which allows me to indulge my passion for football, and, well, the passion that got me my day job teaching 19th century American literature.

If you are lucky enough to visit White Hart Lane on match day, you might hear the Tottenham fans chant "Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur", to the tune of the song popularly known as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

This is a patriotic American song - the sort of thing one hears sing over a loudspeaker at a fireworks display on July 4th, or belted out by a High School marching band around Thanksgiving. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example, does a nice, sober version of this patriotic melody.

It was weird to hear Spurs fans rooting on their team with the music from this popular but staid American anthem. Almost as weird (and weirdly moving) as hearing Liverpool fans sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" - a song from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical Carousel - popularized by singers like Anita Bryant, Doris Day and Judy Garland (whose version is used here to animate a photomontage celebrating the fellowship of the ring!) - and let's not forget Jordan Sparks, who belted it out for American Idol. You have to understand: for those of us raised outside the UK, there's something fundamentally incongruous about the idea of Liverpool fans knowing the words to a song from Carousel.

Inspired by a song she'd heard Union soldiers sing, Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in 1861. Many of you will know at least the first two lines of the opening stanza:

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
Of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

As loaded with images of God's wrath as it is, this is a neutral, 'cleaned' up version of the original song sung by Union soldiers marching into battle during the Civil War. Then it was known as "John Brown's Body" (also known as "John Brown's Song"). (PBS has a great web page with audio clips & text about its origin, and University of Virginia professor Franny Nudelman has written the book about this stuff.)

There are different versions of the song lyrics - but here's a simple one that gives you a sense of its peculiar, and peculiarly moving images:

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.
He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.
John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back,
John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back,
His soul goes marching on.
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
His soul goes marching on.
The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down,
The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down,
His soul goes marching on

Other versions have more complex lyrics - like:

"He captured Harper's Ferry with his nineteen men so true
He frightened old Virginia till she trembled through and through
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew
His soul is marching on."


"Oh, soldiers of freedom, then strike while strike you may
The deathblow of oppression in a better time and way;
For the dawn of old John Brown was brightened into day,
And his truth is marching on."

The song became, as evidenced by the above lyrics, a popular vehicle for celebrating the story John Brown the abolitionist - a white man who was so opposed to slavery that he took up arms and led a raid on Harper's Ferry, a munitions facility - an arsenal, in fact. (No kidding!) His aim was to set an example with a successful raid that would lead to massive internal rebellion against the slave holding governments of the southern states. The raid failed, and John Brown and his comrades were hanged by the US government.

Amazing, then, that only a few years later soldiers fighting "to preserve the union" would honor a man executed by the government for trying to start a civil war. John Brown's story is one of the most fascinating in American history - it is, however, not often taught in schools. One can imagine why - because in telling that story, we find ourselves confronted by ugly truths about how violently the United States committed itself to slavery, and for how long. From this point in history, John Brown's raid looks like the right thing to do: But it raises the question as to why more people didn't throw their lot in with those held in bondage.

Today, he is largely remembered as a religious fanatic.

Anyway - it is without a doubt one of the all time great political songs - right up there with "Strange Fruit". Not in melodic beauty - JBB is mind numbing, relentlessly repetitive - thus a marching song well suited to Spurs fans who (and you know I love you) can't seem to do better than sing "Come On You Spurs" or "If You Hate Arsenal, Stand Up" - over and over again. "John Brown's Body" is up there with "Strange Fruit" as one of those songs that changed the world. It is a song with a crazy history - and it is a song about crazy history. Once you know who John Brown was, why he fought and why he was hanged, when you hear that music you can't but feel a certain crazy determination in your bones to just get out there and make something happen. Audere Est Facere indeed.

So, in the end, "John Brown's Body" has a meaning very similar to "You'll Never Walk Alone" - it means something like: Everyone else in the living world might think you are crazy - but we'll follow you even if it means following you to our graves, knowing that we have righteousness on our side as we do so. Especially if you are taking on Arsenal.

(note: John Steuart Curry's mural celebrating JB's role in the anti-slavery fight is the on the right - that'd be Brown with the Bible in one hand, gun in the other. And left: a more recent riff that gives you some sense of what a knot in Americana we have in Mr. Brown.)
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