Sunday, December 25, 2011

Soccer by Searchlight: looking for the future in the past


It's a little known fact that the earliest night matches were women's games. Amazing how far we've moved in the wrong direction. In 1920 enough people were excited by the idea of watching women play that they packed the terraces. The media thought the match was important enough to cover it in print and as a cinematic news reel. Even if press from this period approached the women's game as a novelty, it broadcast information about teams and events and made celebrities of its amateur players.

Today, fans of the women's game are so sick and tired of having to cajole, beg, whine, yell and snipe about the lack of coverage - we've become bored with the whole situation. When it comes to the media blackout on coverage of women's sports, most of us have just thrown up our hands with a "whatever."

Of course we need the media to support nascent leagues. We need media to pay enough attention to league organization and team management so that those running the women's game are celebrated for their successes and held accountable for their failures. We need coverage of actual matches, week in, week out. It's ludicrous that people in the US have only ever heard of Abby Wambach and Hope Solo - and most who know these names haven't actually watched them play and and they certainly don't follow their club careers.

We need a media from another era - a media that takes an interest in new things, in things that aren't guaranteed successes. We need a media interested in a sport that is professional in the ways that working people are professional. Why not take an interest in a sport that is not making a few people rich, but that is just trying to sustain itself?

What happened to make media interest so synonymous with "profitable" that we can't imagine wanting to watch something unless there is an abstract sum of money in play between a handful of people - none of whom are on the field?

We have one clue in the 1920 ban on the women's game - The English Football Association only killed the women's game when its success in modeling a sustainable game played for the benefit of all began to suggest a different future for the game than the one we've been stuck with. Barbara Jacobs writes:
From their formation until the FA announcement [of the ban against the women's game], Dick, Kerr's Ladies [the most celebrated club] had raised over £60,000 for charity, and the same amount had been raised by all the other women's clubs combined. That's, in a total for the years 1918 to 1921, £120,000, or, in today's reckoning, 24 million pounds. And the FA? I think we can safely call the scoreline 24 million to nil. [Jacobs, The Dick, Kerr's Ladies, p. 164]
Jacobs quite reasonably points out that given the identification of women's football with highly successful community support, it was inevitable that working people filling the stands for men's matches would begin to ask where their hard-earned money was going.

The FA's 1920 decision to kill interest in the women's game left us with the "common sense" dished out as an explanation for why the women's game isn't worth watching: "There's no money in it." If working people living in the desolation of post WWI Europe could raise £120,000 from women's matches, then surely the problem has never been money itself, but rather where the money in the women's game went.

People complain all the time that you can't market the women's game as a "charity" - that there is nothing that will kill a sports-buzz quicker than the spirit of "good works." I've felt this myself.

Meanwhile corporate speculation has sucked the soul from the men's game. Who believes that the season championship is something that a team earns? What honor is there in a trophy that's been bought? Or in watching a play-off between two or three teams that have sold their economic souls in order to have the right to be in the running?

Sure, as a spectator I won't turn my back on a big match - but the pleasures of the game feel no more and no less thrilling than the pleasures of a great product, designed for easy consumption. If it feels good, this is because it asks so very little of me.

Most of us actually want more than this. Few of us, however, are old enough to remember what that "more" might actually be. We live with a vague sense that our desire for something different is impractical, unrealizable. "There's no money in that."

And so we turn to history not out of nostalgia but out of curiosity: the past doesn't teach us that "yes, there is money in that." It shows us an entirely different relationship to money. The women's game allowed those with a little to give to those with even less. The team's management and players took only what they needed to keep playing. No one was set to get rich off of it. And this made the fans love the enterprise even more. Imagine!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Slava Mogutin, from "Brosephines" for Vice (October 2011)

I might as well just say it: I've been busy with work. I've been avoiding watching soccer matches on TV and following sports media - because these things provoke me. Plus - and this the biggie - I'm injured and alienated from the local scene which is my muse. I'll be back soon.

Until the black helicopter rants return, however, I'll share images and video like a normal blogger. 

The above photo by the artist Slava Mogutin - he has a deep appreciation for the athlete in all his (per)version. This image is one of the more demure of his work in this genre.
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