Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sex of the MLS

Masculinity is a complicated thing. This is what we learn from listening to "Losing Proposition," the April 30th installment of Extratime, the MLS's podcast. At the program's conclusion, one of its hosts (Simon Borg) launched into a bizarre rant about how serious female fans are a real turn-off. This is quite rightly causing a stir - and not just because it's offensive.

[The MLS has responded to complaints by replacing the podcast file with an edited version, lopping off the offending segment, described below.]

It's newsworthy because the guys who host this program (Jason Saghini, Nick Firchau, Greg Lalas and Borg) work for the MLS and represent the league. Jezebel's story hits the right note, so I'm going to skip the obvious (it's sexist and diminishing) in order to describe the broader context of the conversation which facilitated Borg's comments. Those remarks didn't come out of nowhere - it was actually the second week that the program featured a conversation about soccer and the bedroom.

At the end of  "Losing Proposition," the hosts respond to emails from listeners. These emails take up the previous week's discussion of a question from a fan who confesses to watching soccer in bed using a Kindle Fire that he bought for his wife as a gift. "Am I a bad husband for this? How much time do you spend watching soccer with your wives, partners, etc.?" It's a question and an answer. Clearly, if he wants sex it's probably a good idea to stop watching soccer in bed. But maybe he doesn't want sex, at least not every night. Maybe he's happy watching soccer, and it's nice to have his wife in bed next to him while he does so. Is that OK? Does that make him less of a man? That's at least one way (my way) of reading the question.

Anyway, at that point the hosts invite listeners to email advice about soccer and love, because clearly the two are at war.

The controversial April 30th discussion revolves around this set of emails from fans. The hosts mostly rehash platitudes about sports bachelors and soccer widows. They talk over one email from a fan whose wife found him asleep in bed, clutching his iPhone, on which was playing a Union/Chivas match. As his wife tried to pry the phone from his fingers, he popped awake and said "Hold on, this game is about to get chippy."

They read an email from a fan who observes that a lot of women go to games - that, in fact, you see a fair number of straight couples at MLS matches, on dates. They all seem taken by this "development."

People should not be surprised by the fact that there are women in the stands, and that people go to soccer matches on dates. Romantic comedies, for example, routinely stage date scenes at sport events - not because it's exotic but because it's typically American. That instrument of social coercion known as 'the kissing cam' exists because sports has been fully integrated into the rituals of heterosexual courtship. One viral video, for example, features kissing couples at an LA Kings game.

Anyway - rather than talk about the fact that a lot of women watch soccer, that women are a part of the MLS fan base, that the whole soccer-or-women choice is a ruse - the Extratime conversation turns back to the guy in bed with his iPhone.

Why, Simon Borg wonders, was this man watching the game in bed? He then describes this guy as forced into the bed not by fatigue, but by his wife. "There's a problem with the relationship already, if you feel forced, or compelled to be in bed." Borg doesn't let this idea go - that men are being forced into bed. "The thing about the guys with the thing in bed...How does it work? Are you ordered 'come to bed'? And so are you trying to sneak a Kindle or an iPhone to watch the game?  [Almost screaming now] Why don't you just get up and go to your TV or go sit at the kitchen table?"

At this point one of the guys tries to turn the table on Borg, and suggests that he seems pretty invested in this notion that these listeners don't want to be in bed with their wives. It's intense.

This takes us into the program's finale. They read an email from a passionate, committed female fan ("Elizabeth from Portland") which affirms that yes, soccer can actually be a part of a person's relationship - and that, yes, there are women out there who are superfans who participate in fan culture. The other participants in this discussion narrate how their soccer-watching fits into their personal lives. It all sounds really normal. They discuss how it can be nice to have a relationship with someone who "gets" your sport. Then Borg says the following:
It's fine if you're a female and you want to be a super-fan. Clearly go for it, that's your choice. But there is something to be said for how appealing that might be to the other sex. Having a woman that's such a fan, like painting your face, tuning in to every podcast. I don't know how many males would be into that.
It's cool for women to be into it. It's great that in Kansas City there are a lot of women in the stands, it's great, but for the guy who wants maybe a serious relationship... If you are following just casually, but if you're such a die-hard, I don't know, it comes a point that it is a bit of a turn-off.
To their credit, his interlocutors try to argue with him - one sounds incredulous. Borg pushes his point and tries to make the other guys confess that, yes, secretly they are turned off by passionate women fans.

They settle into a little talk about whether or not they "have a problem with it" (a woman's passion for the game). One of the hosts confesses he's "never dated a sports girl. Ever, ever, ever." (TMI!)

I'd say Borg should be fired, except I think they all bear some responsibility for that conversation - I'm not sure such scapegoating accomplishes much in the long run. Better to have a feminist on the panel, forever - someone sharp enough to call him out properly and shift the discussion. 

Sure, Borg's a problem: but so is the architecture of that whole conversation in which Borg performs the role of saying what none of the other guys have the "guts" to say. That's his job, and pretty much every sports program seems obliged to have one person play that role.

Extratime is featuring female fans of the MLS on next week's show, which is great. But given the  stupidity of that entire discussion of sex and soccer, I wouldn't be surprised if the MLS apology went something like: "No, really - we think you're pretty!"

My take-away from this story: The men who run MLS harbor a wish. They wish that the MLS was like English soccer was in its heyday. Guys like this long for a time when men were men, and the game was (somewhat) more honest and when fans were hard core. But they also know that's silly. They grew up with the culture of the game as it is here - they grew up fending off the bullshit, xenophobic weirdness of mainstream sports hostility to the beautiful game. Official MLS masculinity is embattled, conflicted.

If Borg felt he needed to assert that a man can't love a woman who loves soccer as much as he does, it was perhaps because he doesn't think the American soccer fan is man enough to love her back.

So the insult here is not only to women soccer fans. It actually an insult to the entire soccer-loving community - as if somehow loving the game means that you aren't actually up for loving itself.


  1. First, I'm not trying to apologize for Simon Borg (who I don't know) and, like you said, part of the reason he said it is probably to generate links/page views/and water cooler talk.

    Frankly, I'm surprised and disappointed that they left this in the podcast. Surely, someone when they edited this paused for a moment, but maybe the powers that be didn't see the harm in it or secretly hoped it would blow up.

    The digital media team at MLS should really respond. I know they have a number of women on staff, and to work their you kind of have to be a super fan. On twitter, I'd reach out to @vandey01, who is their social media director. Or, reach out to the boss @SchlosserChris

  2. His conversation partners did ask people to send in their complaints - so they all seemed aware that the discussion was problematic.

    The weird thing is that on this blog I've made points that nearly support Borg's: there are times when, as a woman who loves to talk sports, I've felt like I was either invisible or some sort of gender freak. So when he asked his co-hosts if they agreed with him, I found myself thinking: on some level, they probably do. Even if they feel repulsed by the idea.

    The fact that there are no women participating in that conversation actually proves the point. These dudes do not want to talk sports with a woman who can hold their own in the conversation. If they did, they might find it kindof weird, in fact, that they rarely engage women as fans, as sports professionals, as experts. That should strike them as a real problem.

  3. Sad. To whom should I complain on this? I am a guy soccer fan, and I love meeting women who follow soccer. I really enjoy following commentary by women who get the sport, the politics, and the stories. Two days ago, I was really happy to spot a Real Madrid logo on a friend of a friend, leading to a great conversation about Spain, Ozil, Men's and Women's World Cup.

  4. You can complain by emailing: extratime@mlssoccer.com or you can call the media/communications office: Major League Soccer - Main: 212-450-1200

  5. I guess what baffles me about this is that the flip side is the sort of "men's group" whinge about how women don't think/talk like men and how haaaaard it is to talk with my wife/girlfriend/female friends about the sport I love.

    As a supporter and a het guy I'd think it'd be awesome to have an inamorata who was as passionate and informed about the game as I hope and try to be. As it is my bride tolerates my enthusiasm and is polite about it but it's not something we can bond over; we have other shared interests, but soccer isn't one.

    This whole thing comes across to me like my son complaining that "girls are yucky!" His opinion on sport are about at that level, too; I love him because he';s my son, but listen to him discuss footy - why the hell would I want to do that? ISTM that I'd have to wonder about the maturity of any man who held the same opinion of women ultras as my third grader...

  6. The artist Andrea Fraser recently re-enacted a conversation from a 70s radio broadcast, of men talking about their relationships with women who were also feminists. (http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/finer-things/2012-01-25/andrea-fraser-men-on-the-line-pst/) It was really moving: because underneath it all were quite serious and personal questions about intimacy not only between men and women - but between men and men.

    I think you actually hear some of that in the Extratime broadcast. It's a shame they lopped off the worst bit, because it's interesting to listen to the other guys try to wrangle Borg. And themselves. (Ever, ever, ever.)

  7. Thank you for this. I've been rather unsatisfied by most of the response to this focusing on the content of what he said and not the culture that produced it, and so I'm happy to read something that actually addresses the underlying issues.

    I think the point you bring up about English soccer in its heyday is an interesting one, and I think it also relates to a lot of the more depressing responses we've seen to the many racism incidents in the EPL this year. It's a time when "men were men" but also when there were no women, no people of colour, no representation of any kind of marginalized group on the terraces. I think there are a lot of people who would agree this is hardly a glory period but for those who benefited from those systemic privileges, you can see how they'd be resentful of those who "forced" their way in. Alas.


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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