Thursday, May 29, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion

Frieze just published a short essay I wrote on some recent art about football - you can see it on their site and of course in the print issue on stands throughout the summer. I think it might possibly be a first for the magazine - I'm thrilled to be leading the charge into the world of contemporary football art criticism (right, 'ecstasy' by Yrsa Roca Fannberg, one of my favorite artworks 'about' soccer). Note: I discuss a Hellmuth Costard experimental film from 1970, Football As Never Before (due for a DVD rerelease in Europe this month). There are clips of this crazy/beautiful study of George Best at work in a match against Coventry on You Tube - totally worth checking out. I'm taking a breather from the blog until I get back from Clacton - expect a full report on the sweaty glory mid June.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Feeling It: Sentimentality, Football, & Eamon Dunphy's 'Only A Game?'

News flash: women don't have a monopoly on melodrama and sentimentality. Witness Lampard's emergence as a national icon via his admirable performances for Chelsea while mourning his mother - his eyes turn to the sky as the back of the net bulges and the crowd cheers. You can feel the whole country choke on its tears. Or, John Terry's collapse on missing his penalty - an unlucky slip of the foot unraveling a night of superhuman work on the back line.

Whose heart didn't break at the injustice, the bad luck? At the grim irony that the man so easy to love would take the burden of his team's defeat when the man so easy to hate (C. Ronaldo) would wear a crown of glory - after he had nearly cost his team the championship with his approach to the ball - an arrogant cha cha cha that itself nearly wiped out the authority of his earlier goal. If you've ever stood in goal, you know Cech felt a malicious thrill watching C.R.'s smug little dance, knowing the wave of schadenfreude he would soon unleash as he scooped up the ball. I know I lept out of my seat and shouted with joy.

We like to think that sentimentality & melodrama belong to soap operas & chick flicks like Stella Dallas or Terms of Endearment: to those of us who organize our days around General Hospital, Neighbors, or Maria La del Barrio.

Fact is, though, the emotional intensity of those programs pales in comparison with that of a big match. You will see men wrap their arms around each other in drunken tenderness, sing together as their teams go up, weep together as their teams go down. Their eyes will mist over as they remember the glory of Baggio or Garrincha or Best, and indulge a nostalgia for the days when the game seemed more honest, more real.

So when Nick Hornsby writes "what sets [Eamon Dunphy's Only a Game?] apart is its honesty and lack of sentimentality" I must ask why anyone would need to disavow this aspect of Dunphy's writing - or indeed of the game itself? The only book about football I've read that is devoid of sentimentality is the comparative economics study, National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer.

Only A Game? is a memoir of Dunphy's last months playing for Millwall in the 1973-4 season. It is a classic in sports writing - by far the most compelling book I've read about the game. Dunphy writes with tremendous honesty about how it feels to be a part of a team, how it feels to play (his writing on being a sub is ruthless and 100% spot on). He's also shameless in avowing his ideas about how the game should, and should not, be played.

He is particularly frank about the emotional, personal, and even sentimental aspects of football culture.

Take the following passage:
When you share a job with somebody in football, a relationship develops between you, an understanding that you do not have with players doing a totally different job. If you are just knocking a ball between you, on a training ground, a relationship develops between you. It's a form of expression - you are communicating as much s if yo are making love to somebody. If you take two players who work together in midfield, say, they will know each other through football as intimately as two lovers. That would apply to Giels and Bremner, for example. It's a very closer relationship you build up when you are resolving problems together, trying to create situations together. It's an unspoken relationship, but your movements speak, your game speaks. the kind of ball you give each other, the kind of passes you give each other, the kind of situations you set up together, speak for you. You don't necessarily become closer in a social sense, but you develop a close unspoken understanding. (Dunphy, 30)

I nearly dropped the book when I read this. I couldn't agree more: One the real pleasures of the game is that feeling of total communication with your teammates, with especially those playing with you on the field (the connection between left back to left wing, between the back four, midfielders to strikers, goalie to the back four, forwards to each other, etc.). It's wonderful to have that kind of intimacy with people without having to talk, really. Dunphy is writing honestly and with a shocking absence of homo-panic about a nearly unspoken truth about the game: When things are going really well, it feels like romantic intimacy. And because of this, you can "fall in love" with players via the game.

There are a hundred other reasons to read Only A Game? It is written from within the game - and is really eloquent about what makes a game feel like a great game from the player's perspective. About how certain kinds of defeats feel OK, others are soul crushing - and that in fact victories aren't always sweet.

He is most romantic about the good pro - the self-effacing, hard working, totally dedicated teammate. The person who never tires - or who pushes him/herself past the limits of tiredness, who looks after their position, but also that of their neighbors - the person who 'has your back':

If you are in the shit, having given your man that crucial extra yard or two, have lost your concentration for a minute, the good pro will often rescue you, leaving his man to get in a saving tackle or making what looks to the crowd like a simple interception. He is woven into the fabric of every good side and every great side too. (Dunphy, 13)

Now - here's my cross. That kind of person - the person who knows that their glory is only enhanced by your glory - that playing the game well involves a heavy element of self-sacrifice - that kind of person is the heart of every good tear-jerker, every classic melodrama: it's Stella Dallas, the mother who makes a terrible sacrifice so that her daughter might have a chance at a better life; it's Annie Johnson, the maid/mother who sacrifices herself for not only her daughter, but her employer too. These women make the lives of other people possible at great expense to themselves. It's why these are such problematic genres for feminists, who worry that these stories only serve to make women complacent about the myriad of forms of self-sacrifice foisted on them in their daily lives.

The stories played out for us in stadiums and on Sky Sports perform a parallel version of this: men giving themselves over to something larger - but at the expense of so much - like: it's ok to love one another just as long as you never, ever speak it. It's ok to cry, as long as it never, ever makes you womanly. It's OK to try, as long as you never, ever fail.

So we arrive at the evil flipside of masculine sentimentality: sure, men cry in these arenas - but they often turn around and "correct" that display with a punch, with a kick, with a head-butt. Worse, players and fans carry that conflicted relationship to feeling, to sentiment, off the pitch, and work it out on the women in their lives (e.g. Paul Gascoigne) or anyone who offers themselves up as a suitable target.

Dunphy's memoir is a miraculous document - most footballers who enter the public arena do so under the heavy supervision of an army of publicists all massaging their egos and their images into a Nike-worthy version of manhood, cemented, frozen expressions of rage and phallic glory.

But most footballers who take the pitch every weekend do so not because they are inspired by those kinds of images, but because they want the thing they saw their fathers enjoy with their friends: that simple pleasure of the good pass, the game well played, and that feeling of being "in it together". I don't know a single player who isn't deeply sentimental about *that*.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sexism Hurts: ACL Injuries & Women Athletes

Sexism can be simple and obvious (e.g. the FA ban on the women's game, or Man U's Christmas 'Rape' party). More often, it's subtle, complex, and really hard to tackle. Take, for example, the impact of poor medical understanding of women in general on women athletes in particular.

We see this in the alarming frequency with which women athletes who play especially soccer and basketball suffer ACL tears. The ACL tear is a very serious knee injury, requiring complex surgery and a lot of recovery time. (Pictured, right: Danielle Fotopolous, USNWT retired in 2007 after tearing her ACL for the third time in 2006.)

The New York Times Sunday magazine just published a long, in-depth story about young women soccer players, the injuries they sustain, and the difficulty we have in dealing with them (The Uneven Playing Field). The article is adapted from Michael Sokolove's forthcoming book Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports. (Can I just say: I hate that title. It's so paternalistic! And aimed at the parent-reader, not at the female athlete. How about - Match Fit: Injury Prevention for Young Women Athletes?)

This interesting article is unfortunately wrapped in a sensationalist package. Problematically, Sokolove makes news of the fact that more women are injured as more women play (really?!). The following rhetoric, for example, makes it seem like Title IX is the cause for the increase in 17 year olds needing knee surgery - and as if this were in itself the problem:
This casualty rate [JD: no statistic here, the author just means the number of injuries suffered by a couple of high school teams] was not due to some random spike in South Florida. It is part of a national trend in the wake of Title IX and the explosion of sports participation among girls and young women [No soccer teams = No ACL tears]. From travel teams [these are the club teams not based in the school system] up through some of the signature programs in women’s college sports, women are suffering injuries that take them off the field for weeks or seasons at a time, or sometimes forever. [Unlike men? I mean, of course women suffer career-ending injuries! At least they don't break each other's legs!]

The author then goes on the explain how girls develop differently - e.g. boys get more muscle, but less flexible; girls get more fat but more flexibility. The author's language flirts dangerously close to naturalizing girls and women as weaker, more delicate etc. I'm not the only one to spot this slant.

The main issue in this article, however, is women athletes' specific vulnerability to the ACL tear and the lack of understanding of the specific needs of female athletes - a failure caused not by Title IX, but by the ingrained sexism of medicine and sports culture.

Towards the end of the article, the author interviews Holly Silver, a physical therapist who has developed a knee injury prevention program that should be adopted by all footballers and their trainers.

Silver touches on some possible reasons for the high rate of ACL tears in women athletes: Girls are taught to walk and stand and move through the world differently. We curl around our chests - our bodies become shells, in a way, protecting/hiding everything 'feminine' - those bits are sources of shame, abuse, negative attention. [Ed: Found this note on Kickster, about the reception of the first women's game in 1894: "The British Medical Journal offered its professional opinion that 'we can in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence, of organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect'."]

One of the beautiful things about playing football is that it forces women to free their bodies from this shell: You can't trap the ball with your chest if you are hiding it from the world. You can't make a good play if your eyes are trained on your feet. You won't have much touch or footwork if your hips are locked.

Pointing to a player with good form, Silver explains

'She moves like a boy....Believe me, that's a good thing.'

In other words, that girl carries herself like an athlete. Girls are not encouraged to adopt this stance (knees bent, butt low to the ground). And so that posture has become synonymous with 'boy'. Boys of course aren't born moving this way - and lots of boys don't carry themselves that way (and are therefore terrorized for 'walking/throwing like a girl'). The point here is that the social inscription of gender is deep: it may be culturally produced, but it is carved into our spines, and worked into our joints. Girls need to unlearn that stuff - as athletes, they sometimes literally need to learn to walk, and run. (FYI: Philosopher Iris Marion Young writes about these issues in her collection of essays, On Female Body Experience: 'Throwing Like a Girl' and Other Essays.)

Silver describes the extraordinary consequence of the way that girls inhabit their bodies as they play sports - if you run with poor posture, your running is not only inefficient, it harms your back, hips, all your joints in fact. As any yoga practitioner will tell you, holding tension in your joints not only makes you less flexible and responsive (slowing your reflexes), it makes you more prone to aches and pains.

My sister coaches girls cross-country and track at Voorhees High School in New Jersey. Her teams have been very succesfull. Injury prevention is a big part of her program. They work on building up their strength in the gym, on minimizing strain to their muscles, on overall health and well-being. For example, she has the girls keep an eye on their iron levels - anemia is a big problem for teenage girls and young women, and can have a big impact on your development as an athlete. She's always looking for the latest information on issues like these, and keys these insights to the specifics of her sport and the people she coaches (teenage girls). Not all coaches approach their work this way.

One must recognize gender differences in order to coach/train/treat athletes well. Those differences may be physiological, metabolic, social and psychological.

For example, athletes in general are loathe to report injuries. Reporting injury or medical problems can be even harder for some girls and women. Here are some reasons why:

*We don't want to seem weak. In a world that reads all physical signs of womanliness as symptoms of the weakness of your sex, getting an injury makes you feel like your body has betrayed you, again.

*Women athletes can be reluctant to own up to the differences gender makes, because admitting to those differences has meant admitting to belonging to the 'weaker sex.' Remember: every girl - even today - will be told at some point that girls can't or shouldn't play or compete. Every girl hears that girls are weak, that they aren't tough. Or that playing a sport makes them mannish - i.e. repugnant. To all of this, players say: Fuck That, and get on with it. So, not only do we not want to seem weak - sometimes we don't want to seem like 'girls'.

*Doctors treat us differently. They don't listen to what we say about our bodies. They read everything through their ideas about our reproductive system. Our experiences with doctors tend to start off bad, and get worse. We have little reason to trust them.

*We are taught to accept certain physical symptoms as 'natural': tiredness (symptom no. 1 of anemia), especially.

*We are reluctant to talk about our bodies - sport is often the only avenue through which we get to talk about our bodies in a way that is neutral, matter-of-fact and empowering. I'll never forget listening to my sisters talk about pre-race bowel-clearing nerves and the humiliating but often hilarious situations that puts you in. As much as their stories made me laugh, I didn't really 'get' it until I started playing football and found myself at Hackney Marshes trying to act cool as we waited for the mens' teams to clear out of the damn bathrooms. Never, ever, go to Hackney, ladies, without a roll. Somehow, I associate that kind of frank and humorous talk about the body with 'jock'-culture. Some of us need encouragement to adopt this kind of attitude.

*Girls aren't always used to thinking of their bodies as something they can control. Except by starving themselves.

Add onto the above the following:
*Many girls and women play team sports on bad fields/in poor facilities.

*98% of sports stores don't carry football boots made for women - and that 2 % will carry maybe two kinds. The overwhelming majority of women wear men's boots, in other words.

*Because women were prevented from playing for so long, coaching/training is modeled after the boys/mens game, and a lot of coaches are not aware of things like the frequency of ACL tears in young women footballers and the conditioning programs which might prevent those injuries.

*We accept the differences in the way that men and women move as 'natural', and so do nothing to raise girl athlete's awareness of poor posture on the field, poor running technique, the importance of being relaxed and having a good stance.

*And, most problematic of all: we don't listen to girls. We don't take their complaints seriously. We dismiss their complaints as teenage melodrama or psychosomatic weakness.

That's a lot of crap to deal with. It's why teaching/coaching/advising girls and women can be harder - but it's also why it's so absolutely rewarding. The things we learn in such settings not only change how we play - they in fact change how we live.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pitching Women's Football

David James just wrote another good column ("Next Time Just Ask the Women") about sexist attitudes about women and football (see also his earlier "Keeping Up With Part Time Rachel"). It's worth a look. It made me think perhaps I should share the following:

I just pitched a story to Observer Sports Monthly (the guardian's monthly magazine) about Clacton-on-Sea's 7s tournament. It is the longest continuously running women's football tournament in the UK. (I'll be playing with the Hackney ladies!) I of course think it's a great story - how the tournament came into being, who plays, the tournament dramas, etc. - and who better than yours truly to write a story about the women & girls who play for fun on the weekends, just like their fathers, brothers, etc? This is the response I got:

"Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for your pitch. We have just done a big piece on women's football in general and Arsenal Ladies in particular for our next issue ("The Invincibles"), and so I don't think we will be returning to the subject for a little while.

Best, Tim"

I can accept that my story idea might not have been right for the magazine . OSM's a monthly and space is limited. My argument is with this reasoning - that women's football shouldn't be a regular feature - and with the fact that they have no embarrassment about saying this in as many words! If mainstream outlets don't report on the game in all its variety - if we don't in fact regularly write about women athletes - we tell readers that these stories don't matter. We let reader assumptions stand unchallenged. (Pictured, Ludlow knocking in one for the lady Gunners in Monday's game.)

In that one article about "women's football in general and Arsenal ladies in particular", you'll find passing mention of a dozen really juicy, hair-raising stories: e.g. Charlton & Leeds divorce from the men's teams with which they'd been affiliated, and Man U's treatment of its women's team (see my early blog entry "Red Card" for a very polemical take on the latter).

Have we had real investigative journalism in mainstream media on the relationship of men's clubs to the women's teams they've adopted? Why ARE Arsenal so dominant even though their manager and players aren't being paid? How do clubs respond to women's involvement in the game? Which clubs are the most sexist? Which are the least? How much does it cost to support one of these teams anyway?

What little reporting we have in this neighborhood takes the hardships faced by these women and turns it all into a feel-good story about underdogs who win championships in spite of it all. But we still come away totally ignorant of how things got this way.

The story I pitched was more of a feel-good thing: A story focused on the grassroots game, about the culture of women's football here in the UK - which is, IMHO, way rock-and-roll. Partly because you have to be pretty bad-ass to put up with the crap people dish out here (e.g., the comments to James's column!).

Anyway, at the very least, I'll report on Clacton here - and cheers to David James for his ongoing work as feminist secret agent. Surely karma has something to do with the fact that the star of yesterday's match was Carly Telford - who used everything from the tips of her fingers to the tips of her toes to keep a clean sheet during the first half of the match, in spite of Arsenal's relentless attack. You Go Girl!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Little Racism with that Champagne?: Gallas Tackles Covert Racism of Everyday France

Remember that old Saturday Night Live skit in which Eddie Murphy goes about in white face, and gets free coffee & newspapers? ("Slowly I began to realize that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free!") It's absolute genius - when the one black man on a bus gets off, the white folks play a little Lawrence Welk, sing and clap their hands, and start sipping champagne. He goes to a bank for a loan - with no collateral, no credit. The black bank manager is about to turn him down when a white colleague takes over - "Silly Negro!" he says of his colleague, handing the money over to Murphy. Sad thing is this sort of thing isn't so far from the truth (witness: CEO's raking in millions of dollars off of their own bad loans).

The French national team player and Arsenal captain William Gallas just got a nasty taste of it. Not the overt racism of people in the stands unfurling their biggotry in hateful fan chants, but the subtle, insidious, covert racism of everyday interaction in which one's presence is greeted with the cold breeze suspicion.

The story: Gallas set out with his driver to buy eight bottles of Dom Perignon for a dinner party with his family and friends. He went to a store in the 16th arrondissement (the richest part of Paris) that specializes in champagne. When he asked for eight bottles of Dom, the store clerk looked at him askance and said he could only buy two - that it was against store policy to sell so many bottles to one client (!). He bought two of Dom, and two of another brand - and then sent in his white chauffeur to see if he could buy four bottles of Dom Perignon. Pas de problème.

When Gallas went back into the store to confront the clerk about his racist behavior, the clerk said "But you should have told me you were William Gallas!"

I am eager to see where this goes. I can't imagine a person more up to the challenge of defending of one's right to be treated with dignity and respect. Allez Les Bleus!
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