Thursday, June 26, 2008

Futbolus Interuptus

My worlds collide! It's the first night of a symposium on feminist art, and the speakers are all having dinner. I'm in my hotel room, in the thrall of the electric battle between Turkey and Germany. Adrenylyn has every sense heightened - I feel like I am actually on the pitch - my heart is racing nearly as fast as the Spanish commentators are calling the game. The Turkish players are teaching me the full meaning of extending one's self. They are reaching into passes to scoop the ball up with the very tip of a toe. They just barely gain control of the ball before moving it forward, forward, forward. When their first goal comes, it feels inevitable, even as it is scrapped into the net after bouncing off the top bar. And then...well, let's just say I hate it when Germany scores - it's so clean, it's so, well, efficient.

The Germans then have me experiencing defensive flashbacks: Remembering how terrifying it is to be on the back line (in spite of this blog's name, and my fantasy position on the pitch, I usually play left back). You have to think faster, be faster than the opposition. You can't make one mistake, you can't pause or hesitate for even a shadow of a second. Keeping that level of concentration for 90 minutes is well and truly hard. I'm exhausted by the end of the first half, but excited: Turkey feels like the better team.

And so, I did something totally scandalous. I joined my colleagues at the restaurant. True, there was a t.v. on in the front bar, and I could catch the score at polite intervals. But, basically, I couldn't take it. I wanted Turkey to win so much that I couldn't bear to watch them lose - especially given the way they were playing. Nothing could convince me that they deserved less than the history making upset. I think it was their style - the scrappy, throw yourself totally into it sort of game that I think every player loves. They were playing like we do in our parks on the weekends. Or, like how we play in our minds - how we play in the stories we tell when we head off to the pub, or the local taco stand, and elaborately work over the games high and lowlights.

I mean, definitive endings are over-rated, right? Wouldn't you have liked to have gone to bed with Turkey giving Germany the scare of their lives - as if the first half was a never ending story.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back Talk: Does Sex Really Sell Women's Sports (A: NO!)

Way back in December, I posted an article about Hollywood United's "sister" team, Hollywood United Girls Soccer. My read on them was pretty strong, and recently some members of the team have written in with their perspectives. The result has been a really interesting conversation about the use of "sexy" images of women to sell women's football (e.g. their promotional video) and women's sports. They have a lot more support than the great majority of teams playing at their level: But that support comes at what cost? Does the use of the sexual attractiveness of a team to gain publicity & sponsorship deals help the sport?

I hope to do a follow up story about how the women on that team have changed & evolved in relation to their image as a team. Meanwhile, Dave Zirin at The Edge of Sports has posted a spot-on critique of this practice, and brings to our attention the work of gender & sports academic Mary Kane - who has proven through research that the sexualization of women athletes does far more harm to women's sports than good - by profoundly alienating both women and men (who care about the women athletes in their lives) from sports culture. See this interview with her about her work on this topic. (I mention Kane in my rant about the Guardian article below.) Dave Zirin, Mary Kane: Left Wing sends you her best cross!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lame Journalism: Observer Story on Injury and "'Warrior' Girls"

Because newspapers are lazy, Observer readers this weekend are being served recycled slop originally dished out a few weeks ago in the New York Times ("'Warrior' Girls Run the Risk of Injury"). Like the NYT story ("The Uneven Playing Field") the Observer spins a scary - and condescending - headline from the most regressive aspects of Michael Sokolove’s book on the “injury epidemic” in women athletes.

This story is short, and so doesn’t even have the complexity of the NYT Sunday Magazine piece – its whole attitude stinks with the totally unexamined sexism of UK culture when it comes to women athletes.

For example, the story makes news of the fact that when women athletes ignore their injuries, it has a drastic effect on their health. RRRReally?! Anyone tell Wayne Rooney – hey, with all those metatarsal fractures, think you should keep playing? He's hardly alone - it's a very common injury for footballers. Man, Thierry Henry’s back wouldn’t hurt so much if he just stopped playing. Think Eduardo de Silva plans to retire from football just because Taylor broke his leg? And: Let’s remember that Ronaldo’s most recent knee injury wasn’t his first. Any stories in the sports section in which journalists breath the slightest suggestion that football is too rough to play because men get hurt??? And what's with the scare quotes around 'Warrior', and what's with the word "girl"? The Observer article doesn't focus on girls, but on adult women playing at the highest levels.

I’ve covered the ground regarding ACL/cruciate injuries and women athletes before ("Sexism Hurts"). And I agree – there is a story in the subject. Just not the story people want to tell.

But here I will just say this: Things are worse in England than in the U.S. Sure, there are people out there who support women’s sports, but the generic cultural attitude is still in the dark ages. Just look at the amount of space The Guardian/Observer gives to women’s sports, for example. Next to nothing. There shouldn’t be a single day in which their sports section excludes coverage of women’s sports. And we should not have to wait for people like David James to use his column for perspectives on women’s football (he’s the only one who does so with any intelligence). Why doesn’t the Guardian or Observer (or any other paper) have a woman columnist (and I mean a serious writer) invested in the women’s game??? (Please tell me I'm wrong and give me a link to a monthly column on women's football written by a woman in a national paper.) Is it only acceptable to write as a feminist when it comes from a Premiership and national men's team player?

An alternative view of sorts concludes the article:

Others, however, are concerned that drawing attention to the issue will backfire. 'Sex differences can easily be perceived as weakness,' said Mary Kane, director of the Tucker Centre for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. 'We need to do everything we can to prevent injuries. But it does seem that there is a disproportionate emphasis on things that are presented as signs of women's biological difference or inferiority.'

But this isn't, in my view, enough of a portrait of the concern many of us have about the presentation of the issue. Why doesn't Kane's concern lead the article? Why present it as an afterthought? Again, see "Sexism Hurts". It isn't that we don't want to discuss the issue - far from it. We want it presented in the same way that we present issues regarding male athletes. Taylor's tackle on Eduardo de Silva, for example, sparked an important conversation about the complexity of the physical side of the game. Let's allow ourselves to have that kind of conversation about women athletes, injury, injury prevention, and recovery.

That story about women athletes and injuries should be a big story in the sports section.

Why don’t journalists track down the members of the English women’s national team who’ve suffered from these injuries and talk to the doctors and physiotherapists who treat them? How about stories about how hard these women have fought to come back from these injuries? OR – perhaps more compelling: what happens to them when they can’t play? Where do they go with all that passion for and knowledge of the game?

Ask top athletes who’ve suffered career ending injuries if they regret it (who among them would say they’d rather never have played??). (The only athlete they interview is Katharine Merry - a sprinter – and runners don’t suffer the kind of knee injury that is the subject of discussion! The injuries sustained by Merry are absolutely identical to all athletes of any gender who train and compete at very high intensity from a young age.)

Cover the advances in training – I think people would be interested in learning exactly what the differences are between men & women athletes. I mean, we get stories about differences in how men and women talk, how they think about sex, how they approach raising kids and managing colleagues in the workplace. How about how men and women play the game? Like: Do women dive as much as men? Do they give referees attitude like the men do? Do women play dirty? What kind of reputation do the women’s teams have?

But jeese. Don’t give us stories about how fragile women are! I’m sorry – but I took some hard, clean tackles that sent me ass over tea-kettle in the mud last week, and it felt GREAT! There’s nothing like knowing your opponent feels you as a threat. There’s nothing quite like getting up and playing on, not just because you want to show that you can’t be scared off the field, but because they’ve just upped the ante, and you plan to take that ball back come hell or high water.

Don’t pander to the sexist attitudes of the lowest common denominator. Some people here in England have their heads really far up their asses. Many would rather their women drink until they are falling over, fatten up, and breed than get in their kit and take the field. And no one is going to change those attitudes by pandering to them! So OBSERVER: SHAME ON YOU! You made me so mad I blew off my Sunday kickabout so I could rant!!!

Personal Reflections from a Left Back (Clacton 7s)

I’ve been quiet on the blog in part because I played for Hackney in the Clacton 7s tournament last weekend: What a blast! The level of play was fantastic. It was really hard. You couldn’t lose your focus for a second, you gave ground with every mistake. It was unforgiving. I can’t get enough of that sort of game – a real challenge, mentally and physically.

This was the first time I’d tried visualizing before a game. I think it gave me confidence, and maybe improved my reaction time.

I had one or two seconds of glory playing left back. There were a few moments when I could see myself clearing the ball, when I knew I was going to get my foot on it – and then I did. In one game, I could see one woman’s determination to get a shot off, and tracked her back and forth across the box until she lost the ball and it was cleared. She turned around and pushed me by the shoulders in frustration – I’d played 100% clean, hadn’t even touched her, so I take that as a major compliment.

It goes to show you – don’t show defenders your cards. In my limited experience, the best strikers are really hard to read: they have a poker face. If you can see someone really wants to get that shot off, you know they are unlikely to pass the ball. You can corner them, frustrate them, wind them up by limiting their movement. The cool headed ones won’t let you get close enough to know what’s on their mind. They’ll slide the ball into space where a teammate will pick it up, and poof, they are gone and you are looking at the back of their shirt.

Weak moments for me abounded last weekend – from being too scared to run forward and offer support to our attackers, to being so happy to block a shot that I really didn’t think I could catch that lost my focus and didn’t track the rebound – which the gal caught, and spun right into the goal. ARGH. It was a fantastic goal though, shot from nearly behind the goal’s mouth, and spun just right: it hit the ground about a foot in front of the goal line and bounced right into its target. There’s a Nike ad in which Thierry Henry does the same. At first I thought: Well, it’s an Henry-like goal, and I’m not good enough to stop a trick like that. Then I thought: I’ve seen that ad a dozen times, and I should know better – I know it’s possible, and I knew that that girl (no. 10/London Colney) had some moves. So: My bad. She's the tiny one pictured standing out of bounds.

The incident just goes to show how much attitude impacts play: If I’d approached her with more confidence, I might have attacked the ball with more force. She was stone cold ruthless, and knew she had me.

Overall our team did really well – making it into the top end of the tournament for the second day’s games. We held our own against some really tough opponents. I suspect we may have had one of the best records defensively. Alfie, our goalie was a superstar – absolutely awe-inspiring – she won keeper of the tournament in fact. Hooray!

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