Thursday, August 27, 2009

Notes from an alienated fan: Why I want a feminist, anti-homophobic WPS & a more progressive, anti-nationalist/pro-migrant MLS

OK. I know a lot of you read that headline and either rolled your eyes, or muttered "dream on, sister."

I've been involved in a discussion on Big Soccer about Dan Loney's article, "Endless Summer". He opens with a reference to my post about the Galaxy/Barça game. Some Big Soccer readers have been baffled by my overtly political (feminist, Marxist) approach to the game (expressed in comments about Loney's article). Two issues have come up which I thought I should address here: why the politics of sexuality matters to a conversation about the WPS, and what on earth I was suggesting when I wrote:
Is making a corporate success of the MLS - and lining the pockets of the dubious executives who run it - the lone measure of the game's success? Is rooting for the Galaxy, and giving our dollars to the creepy monster that is AEG the only way to express one's loyalty? Aren't there other ways to imagine what the passion of fútbol fans looks like?
Why not imagine that one of the best things about soccer in the U.S. is that it isn't a "national" sport, and that it's most successful here where global capital hasn't quite figured out how to exploit us as either a market or a pool of labor?
And so - in the interest of building on the dialogue with Big Soccer readers (and doing so within the platform of this blog) - below is a riff on why I want an actively anti-homophobic WPS, followed by one hypothesis as to how the MLS managed to alienate a lot of this region's most passionate fans of the game.

Part One: speaking as a fan of women's soccer

Some Big Soccer readers are puzzled as to why I insist on talking about the feminist politics of women's soccer, and they also want to know why I insist that homophobic attitudes ought to have no place in the management or ownership of WPS teams. (AEG owns 50% of the Sol, and itself owned by Philip Anschutz, a notorious backer of the anti-gay amendments that made Colorado infamous as the "hate state.")

One of most empowering moments for me, as a 40 something female sports spectator/casual player, came during the last FIFA Women's World Cup. I was in a bar in France, watching the Brazil/US Women's World Cup match. I didn't have access to a TV, so I went to "Le Bar Sportif" and asked them to put the match on (it was about 2pm in the afternoon). There were a dozen people there - a fair amount of grandpa-aged guys, a couple older women, some young guys. I knew Brazil was good (I was even rooting for them a little, because I thought they were the underdogs). Famously, they ran circles around the US.

It was on a major French cable t.v. channel (something akin to ESPN, I guess). It was being called by good broadcasters (far better than the MLS coverage, I'd say), one of those calling the match was a woman.

There is one moment from that match that stands out in my mind: Suddenly, in a fast, fluid, and masterful sequence of moves, Marta flicked the ball over and around the US defender, sending the ball one way, and going the other to scoop it safely to her feet and dribble it past another defender, and then slotted it past the goalie - the whole bar was on its feet.

The guys started shouting "Maradona! Maradona! Maradona!" And the French broadcasters were screaming - "If she were a man, she would be making millions." and "Ce n'est pas juste!" It was a "crise de guerre" - and everyone in the bar started talking about that, too - that it was wrong - criminal - that we couldn't watch her play every weekend.

Half of us were literally in tears - it took us all by surprise (like the US win over China at the Rosebowl). We were united, as any group of spectators is when a player transcends what we think is possible.

It also revealed how much of women's abilities we don't get to see. Because we don't get to see it, we think it doesn't exist at all. And when some series of accidents gets a woman like Marta out of her village in Brazil (to Sweden, then), and broadcasts her skill to millions of viewers - well, that has a huge effect on us all. Marta and her teammates play a "Latin" style of football that is deeply associated with masculinity (even as it involves lots of hip-swiveling!) It's very entertaining, and explosive. They trash-talk, they dive, they sometimes choose to hold the ball where you think they should pass it - and then weave it through the entire backline and score.

I didn't know women could play like that. And I'm a feminist, and fan of the international women's game.

Another revolutionary moment: In England, the WC final match between Brazil and Germany was THE MATCH OF THE DAY - it was broadcast on network television, in a place of tremendous importance to the rhythm of UK football culture. And England wasn't even playing.

My uncle, who normally occupied the living room during those afternoons, moved upstairs to the bedroom (to watch golf).

I sat down and watched it with my aunt - she is the sort of women who would probably have been an athlete had that opportunity been available to her. The two of us got quite emotional, talking about what it meant to us to see women on television, playing football at that level, at that time of day - normally reserved for the biggest Premiership matches.

I have never suggested we stage kiss-ins at WPS matches (though, now that I think about it, it sounds like fun!).

But I do not think anyone can really market women's sports successfully without being a feminist. I also do not think you can actually love this game if you don't appreciate, admire, and respect the people who play it at the highest levels. You can't appreciate, admire, and respect a person if you think that they are shameful - that who they love, who they build their lives with, is something that should be kept hidden as if it were a crime.

The WPS's biggest challenge is the global sexism and homophobia that shapes people's attitudes. There is always already a sense out there that people don't care about women's sports. You have to ask yourself where that attitude comes from. It doesn't come from nowhere. Women's matches are not boring to watch - unless they are played by athletes who have never had decent training or strong competition. (Those deprivations also don't come from nowhere.)

The spectacle of female athletes playing team sports challenges very basic concepts about women (we can handle individual women competing against each other in games like tennis because that is practically the only we way are supposed to relate to each other). Women were prohibited from playing baseball (they used to! Softball was invented to make "America's Pastime" just for men) - they still are, in fact. At some point, girls have to drop out of baseball and be segregated in softball. This is also why women play less sets in tennis than men. Women used to play the same amount of sets, but the tennis associations demanded they play less, so that people wouldn't think that women were as strong as men - players fighting for equal pay responded to the explanation that they get paid less because they play less by asking that they play the same as men, at which they were told "OK, we'll just give you the money." Better give them the money than blow peoples minds with the idea that women can battle each other for just as long as the men do.

The launch of a professional women's league in any sport must find ways to neutralize these attitudes. I agree, turning matches into Chucky-Cheese style outings is not the answer. Nor is turning a match into a political rally.

But geese - openly embracing gay fans doesn't mean you have to turn a match into a political rally (as many of the Big Soccer commentators have suggested)! But it does mean deciding that one would rather homophobes dealt with their fear, or stayed at home. And you know what, I actually don't think the audience for the WPS is dominated by people with those attitudes anyway. So it's really annoying to feel like the league, teams, and the media acquiesce to those anxieties.

I am perhaps an atypical sports fan. I came to women's soccer as a player through the queer feminist environment of the Hackney Women's Football Club. And through them, I learned that I'd rather in some ways see women's soccer flourish as an anti-homophobic, feminist space off the grid of mainstream culture, than see it whitewashed and constricted in order that it not scare off men.

My favorite attitude is Natasha Kai's - she outed herself very casually in an interview with NBC during the Olympics (!). Like it was no big deal. But of course it's a huge deal. It really matters - to every young queer girl who perhaps was feeling (as many, many gay and lesbian athletes do) that if her teammates found out she was gay then she'd have to quite the team. Maybe now she feels that in Kai she has a powerful ally. She has others potential role models - but she will only learn that when she reads the negatives - like: what player is NEVER pictured with a boyfriend/husband? What player do we know the LEAST about personally?

You just can't underestimate the positive impact of the sport on girls and women. For all sorts of reason. And I don't see why that shouldn't be enough - why any WPS team should turn itself inside out wondering how to make men who don't care about the game come to watch a match. Women make up half the population (slightly more, in fact). They earn money, they spend money. They spend their family's money. Why on earth should the business model for the "success" of the women's game be at all organized by the fear of alienating men?

Lest you think I'm a separatist, I ask: Why don't we have more faith in the men in our lives? (We seem to trust them enough to coach the vast majority of teams.) I see lots of guys at matches, of all sorts of ages. They are often more romantic about the women's game than women are! (e.g. "This is how the men used to play - as a team - before it became all about money and militaristic defense.") I don't think they care either way about the sexuality of the players - and we don't need to keep them in the closet to hold their attention.

Part Two: speaking as a fan of fútbol Angelino

To bring this all finally around the the MLS. I think a lot of soccer fans feel like MLS has an ambivalent relationship to the association of soccer with immigrant communities.

It's part of the romance, the mythology of the sport (e.g. the 1950 NT that upset England in the World Cup, the movie "Goal"). But at the same time, many Latinos/as living in the US (be they Mexican, Mexican American, from El Salvador, born here but from Honduras, etc.) feel ignored, undervalued by the MLS.

This is a very large percentage of the population in this part of the country and it is also a heterogeneous community very actively interested in soccer. These are not people who go to one Barça game and never think about soccer otherwise. These are people who can tell you everything about Barça's last couple seasons, sigh over the disaster of Ronaldinho's last few months there, and then rant about the Mexico NT and its managerial antics, and they also have a lot to say about the USNT, and MLS players. These are the television viewers to whom the region's stations cater with Spanish-speaking operators and cable packages Anglos never hear about. They are the readers keeping La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily newspaper, in the black (La Opinión thrives financially where the LA Times struggles because the former is the only place you can read up on international leagues, as well as get reports on the MLS and even local independent leagues).

This is the community to which I was referring in my article. They are a huge market, and have been hard for big corporations to master. Sure, these fans may go to one Barça match for $25, and they may also check out a Chivas or Galaxy match when they can, but lots are skeptical of the efforts of MLS teams to "support" the community (by, for example, asking you to sell discounted tickets to your friends). They don't identify with the MLS teams in the way many wish they would. They are promiscuous fans - of an MLS side, of a team in Mexico, a team in Italy or Spain. They may root one day for the USNT and another for El Salvador, and another for France. They may spend more time in a year watching friends play in Balboa Park then they do at Carson. They may have both a Chivas and a Galaxy shirt - and those shirts are probably knock-offs.

I know that the MLS has figured out that many of the most ardent fans of the game feel alienated from the MLS (I was just talking with folks at Chivas USA about this issue, and they are well aware of the magnitude of task before them).

Here's my cross - the link between gay fans of women's soccer & Latino/a fans of the men's game: I think fútbol fans feel this way because they have been kept in the closet. Chivas & the Galaxy both are working on finding the players that are left out by the US development systems (namely, the poor and/or first generation kids who go to crap schools with no decent athletic program and can't afford club soccer). And they are trying to figure out how to build links to the independent leagues through which much soccer life is organized in this region as a way to appeal to adult fans of the game. This is new to them - and it shouldn't be. This fact - that soccer is more popular, on average, with immigrant communities than with communities that don't identify as such - has nearly ALWAYS been true of the sport.

In the conflicted, paradoxical place of Latino/a soccer fans in the US we get a glimpse of the very powerful contradictions that structure not just soccer culture, but indeed, American cultural identity itself. And guess what, it isn't such a pleasant place to find yourself. Both hyper-visible (as the source of nearly all romance about the sport) and invisible (your community doesn't have enough wealth to be worth the trouble). You are welcome as an idea, unwelcome as a reality.

To suggest that folks are "casual" and not "real" fans of the American game because they don't consistently support the MLS or because they might root for Mexico against the USNT is not only unfair, it unintentionally comes awfully close to suggesting that the largely Latino/a audience of which we are speaking isn't really "American."

Now - again, for the Big Soccer fans - this was the context for my article. My ongoing writing about soccer in this region - and the uneasy relations between the Latin/local scene and the Anglo/national/global-corporation circuit - was left out because Loney's discussion is about something else (the relationship between fans culture of the MLS, and US fans of European clubs who want nothing to do with the MLS).

If the MLS wanted the fans about whom I am writing, perhaps it would have fought a lot harder for a stadium in downtown LA. Some die-hard, long-lived Galaxy fans still bemoan the move from the Rose Bowl to Carson, and speculate that the Galaxy's exile was to appease folks in Pasadena who didn't like having their neighborhood taken over weekend after weekend by the folks that mow their lawns and take care of their kids on the weekdays. That theory for the move was offered to me by a middle-class professional Latina, who is as passionate a fan as I've ever met. And it is pretty representative of the level of trust between some Latino/a fans and the MLS.

With her, I root for something better.


  1. Thank you.

    I think that most of the people at Big Soccer (and fans in general) can't comprehend being a supporter of soccer without being a fan of a particular team. And, somewhat related to that, is the evangelical desire to see MLS "grow." Some people seem to have an inferiority complex at being a soccer fan in the US, so that if MLS or soccer were more popular, talked about on ESPN and sports talk radio, that somehow they would be personally validated.

    Interestingly, I never really notice these people putting the same energy into seeing the WPS or women's soccer in general grow. As you say, there's the sense that women's sports aren't "real," like men's sports are, that women athletes are "not equal" to men. To bring this back to me bashing on nameless Big Soccer posters (sorry, it's a pastime of mine), on that messageboard you can list what teams you support under your posting name. Very often you see American fans that specify "USMNT"--U.S. Men's National Team. Not "USA," or "USNT," but specifically the men's national if they're going out of their way to make sure that people don't get the impression that they care about how the women's team does.

  2. As a fan of WPS, I've noticed that we have a decent amount of LGBT fans, which is cool. To me, guesing who is gay in WPS is sort of lame (but admittedly, I do it anyway) - I don't like certain players because of their attitude, not because of who they sleep with. Conversely, Being a fan of the Red Stars means to me, they're "our girls" - I want to see them win, do well off the field and feel that they're part of "the family" without having to romanticize them.

  3. Hi Even & Nick - For me, the crucial thing is to imagine what it feels like to be a gay fan - or a queer kid, and what a difference it makes to see LGBT players. You can't of course see them if they are kept in the closet by the media & the WPS.

    Nick - I think your attitude is really probably representative of a lot of men who follow WPS. I don't think most guys care one way or another - and so wouldn't be put off at all if the most famous players promoted their team by attending, for example, a gay pride march.

    Thanks for your comments - and for reading that abornormally long post.

  4. Isn't it funny how we discuss homosexuality with regard to WPS, but not MLS? That we "guess who is gay" in the women's league, but not in the men's?

    Surely young gay men also "feel that if their teammates found out ... they'd have to quit the team", and need a Natasha Kai-esque role model?

    Why is the players' sexuality of such import when the players are women? I guess it's just a good old fashioned (er, bad old fashioned) double standard. In a patriarchy, question #1 about any woman in public view is whether or not she can be lusted after.

    In any case, hear-hear to your assertions, Jennifer. The sooner the leagues pull their heads out about these issues, the better for all of soccer, fans & players.

  5. Chris, this is a great question!

    I've been writing about this, in the academic sense.

    Basically, there is something fundamentally "queer" about the spectacle of women athletes playing together on a team sport - both in terms of what it means to see strong, muscled women doing physically aggressive things like tackling, and what it means to see women working together as men do (women are normally represented as in direct competition with each other, not as banding together unless it is as housewives talking about husbands and kids). Anytime women athletes become visible, there is a need to "straighten" their image out - and this just isn't something men have to deal with. A female athlete is pressured to reassure people that she isn't gay - to reassure people that she is "really" a woman.

    With men, it's the opposite. The assumption is that they are straight. And that assumption is so seemingly sacred that men who aren't are threatened with radical isolation, public humiliation, and violence should they be anything other than a "real" (straight, macho, etc) guy.

    There is a link to my article for X-TRA in the section "Hors Jeu" - it's about art, but it's also about lesbian visibility and sports. There are a few LGBT & sports links in my blog roll, too. I recommend "It Takes a Team".

    The life of a gay male athlete playing a high profile team sport is hard to imagine. And yet so much sport imagery is incredibly homoerotic - plus, in Europe especially we seem to have some spectacular examples of footballers who really, really "read" as gay - C. Ronaldo, in gold lame hot pants? And there's amazing stories like Ronaldo (sr.) caught out with transexual prostitutes!

    If you want to see a campy treatment of these issues, I really recommend (the very un-p.c.) "Footballer's Wives" - esp. the season where the Beckham-character in essence turns out a black player on the team (reference to Sol Campbell & the rumors & vile chants?). If you want something a bit more in the line of melodrama, there's the L Word & it's storylines around tennis player Dana.

    Photographer Jeff Sheng has a wonderful ongoing project - "Fearless" - portraits of out gay and lesbian high school athletes. Sheng was a competitive tennis player who took up photography when he came out & felt he had to quit playing tennis.

    Oh, and of course I want an anti-homophobic feminist MLS too!

  6. What if it isn't just WPS and the media keeping players in the closet, but their sponsors as well?

    Players like Marta (Puma), Wambach (Nike, Gatorade), and others have endorsement deals and may keep their private life private due to fears that it will hurt their earning potential.

  7. Good point James. In fact, it's very much all about the sponsorship deals, etc. Intriguing for me is how companies seem to weather all sorts of antics on behalf of famous footballers in their personal lives, but women are expected to be squeaky-clean, spotless examples of female virtue - sort of like athletic nuns.

  8. Nice. You have officially won yourself a new fan.

  9. I admit having been infected by the soccer/football bug thanks to the WC 2010, having avoided it for years. My parents are Korean immigrants to the US, so naturally, they are obsessed with football. I also tend to avoid sports precisely because of the sexism, homophobia and classism that run rampant through sports in the US.

    But being sucked into el futbol, always good to know that there are still thoughtful people crying for change. Cos I just read this whole entry going "Duh, doesn't everyone think this?" Preach! Even though I do get some shallow pleasure from gawking/objectifying the very fit footballers.

    Definitely excited to check out the recs of books and DVDs, although I am more likely to read the books first.


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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