Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kick It Out?: What do we mean by "It" when we talk about homophobia & football?

England's Football Association is apparently developing a campaign targeting football's homophobic culture. This isn't the first time the FA has made gestures in this direction, so pardon my cynicism about the depth of this organization's commitment to the topic. That said, the current campaign is being generated by Kick It Out, the FA's anti-racist program, which seems fairly successful in its consciousness-raising efforts.

Interest in the prevalence of homophobia in the English football world (something that hardly makes Brits unique) has peaked due to an October incident. Tottenham fans, who obviously had nothing good to say about their own team at the time, sang vile homophobic and racist chants at the Portsmouth player and English international Sol Campbell (long the target of such abuse, partly animated by resentment about his move from Tottenham to Arsenal).

I obviously have a lot to say about this subject: homophobia is a defining element of sports culture. It is deeply ingrained, and is a form of hate to which many leading figures in the sport feel perfectly entitled (like Chelsea's Scolari, who has said he'd kick any gay player off his side). Homophobia animates hostility towards the women's game - so much so, it is indeed hard to tell the difference between it and simple sexism. (For women in many parts of the world - including England - just playing soccer is enough to make you a "dyke" and target of homophobic abuse.)

The homophobia of English football is a reflection of its homosociality and - dare I say it? - we will have homophobia in the game as long as we have sexism in the game. The two are absolutely linked.

The term "homosocial" comes from sexuality studies, and describes single-sex spaces in patriarchal culture (like the military, the US Senate, fraternities, and sports teams) - these are environments defined by the exclusion of women. Defined, too, by the exclusion of all things feminine, effeminate, womanly, gay, or queer.

Clubs have made some interesting gestures towards gay and lesbian fans (see this story). This is a huge step in the right direction. But I'm going to say that just as important to changing things is the active support of women's involvement in the game, the elimination of baldly sexist advertising, and general consciousness raising among the people who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera about how to show respect for all of the people involved in football culture.

I am not saying the only way to get rid of homophobia is to have co-ed football. But we may not really get rid of homophobia in the game until we get rid of hostility towards women. Flip-side, too, is that we won't see an honest embrace of the women's game until we see a celebration of the lesbians who play it.

I just find it really hard to imagine how sports culture is going to make homophobia unacceptable without changing attitudes about not just sexuality, but gender too. The two go hand-in-hand.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Brunswick, NJ - A Secret Center of the Women's Soccer World?: Left Wing Meets Charlie Naimo [And Indugles Herself in NJ Fantasies]

Yesterday I got to meet Charlie Naimo, who is currently the coach of the W-League league champions The Pali Blues and is also the manager to the WPS Los Angeles team (whose name will be unveiled this weekend at Sunday's Galaxy game).

Walking into the Pali Blues office in Santa Monica, my eyes went first to the Formiga jersey on the wall (framed by shirts from Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon). If you read my blog, you know that I am a huge fan of the Brazilian international. Turns out that during his years coaching the New Jersey Wildcats to the top of the W-League tables, Naimo successfully recruited Formiga to play for his team - using a guy he met at local gas station who spoke Portuguese to facilitate their first discussions over the phone. (Naimo is standing second from the right in this picture of the 2005 championship side.)

This ignited my imagination - the Wildcats are based in Mercer County, NJ. [Note: I originally wrote this assuming they were based in New Brunswick, NJ - home to Rutgers, alma mater for me and my sisters -see comment below.] Naimo was at Rutgers from 92-94, and it was there that he met Denise Reddy, who worked with him on the coaching staff for NJ Sky Blue. She also played and coached with the Wildcats - and is now Assistant Coach for the Chicago Red Stars. Rutgers, as fans of the women's game know, proudly claims Carli Lloyd among its recent graduates. And we also know Alexi Lalas, too, as Rutgers guy (though he left one course shy of graduation - which is a very, very Rutgers thing to do). As we talked, I began to glimpse something of a New Jersey network...

We used to think of UNC Chapel Hill as the nexus of the women's soccer world, but as others have noted, times have changed and the women's soccer circuit has become more complex - New Brunswick (the setting for Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) is clearly one of several sites from which movers and shakers emerge.

Thinking about what playing for this Wildcats team must have been like, I found myself wondering [mistakenly] where Formiga lived in the urban/suburban wilds of "New Brumfus." Did she ever eat at Szechuan Gourmet (the Chinese restaurant for which I worked as a hostess in the 1980s)? Did she ever hit the dance floor at The Melody? (Is that place, pictured here, still there?) What did (and do) the Wildcats do when they aren't playing soccer? What do their day jobs look like? What did French international, WUSA star, and Wildcats player Marinette Pichon think of New Jersey?

[Of course, I wrote the above willfully projecting the Wildcats in New Brunswick, which is about a 30-40 minute drive east of Mercer County - not all that far from Walt Whitman's stomping grounds, and closer to my family's home. I had strangely projecting the team along the line of my own commuting route between home and school!]

I digress. My point is that I was thrilled to learn that Formiga (who will probably be playing for the Bay Area WPS team) is practically a Jersey girl.

And Naimo, a North Brunswick native, is a Jersey guy. He definitely has a very NJ combo: matter-of-fact-friendliness balanced with a "don't fuck with me" vibe. (Think: Tony Soprano, or, even better, "Bruce" or Patti Smith.) You can see that balance making for a very competitive coach - soliciting a level of commitment from players with that approachability, but using that DFwM face to push players to match his level of commitment to the team.

And, well, his record speaks for itself. Every team for which he has worked is a well organized, well-funded group that ruthlessly slaughters its competition. I am not sure if I am reading this right, but it looks like in the past four or five years, his teams have had a combined 67-3 record.

Naimo was totally unapologetic about that dominance. He has little sympathy for other organizations that don't fund their teams adequately, and don't support them with professional training. What are you supposed to do? Play less aggressively? Of course not.

He is not much of a bullshitter, either. I especially enjoyed what he had to say about the challenges of soccer culture here in the U.S. But I'm saving that part of our conversation for another post.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Falling Down

If I ask myself how playing soccer has changed me, I'd have to say that I fall a lot more than I used to.

Coaches say "stay on your feet" before a game. They need to say this because falling is such a big part of soccer. Who says "stay on your feet" before a baseball game? Nigerian Faith Ikidi is pictured here surprising North Korea's Ri Kum Suk with a reverse kick. I have no idea if she stayed on her feet as she did so - but clearly she's not playing like that's her only aim.

Falling was not a part of my life until I started playing about five years ago. Tripping, sure. But falling? Flying through the air falling? These were bodily events to be avoided at all costs.

Falling was not a part of my life until I tried tackling Sojin.

This was at the start of my new formation as a soccer nut. I was one of those dangerous new adult players with no sense of her own physicality or how playing the game actually works. I was running full-on at Sojin, who had the ball. I had no plan, and I wasn't wearing cleats.

I don't remember what happened, but I ended up launched into the air like Superman, except of course I can't fly. I landed flat on my stomach - a very weird crash landing that knocked the breath out of me.

The experience was extremely bizarre for me. Totally mystifying. What had happened? Why did I fly through the air like that? What had I done? Was it my fault? Was it Sojin's? (I had a terrible tendency to want to blame whoever else was near me for whatever happened to me on the field.) Being a congenital theorist, I made everybody stop playing to process the experience with me. (I am amazed these folks put up with me during that first year!)

Sojin, a far more experienced athlete and certainly a better soccer player, was bemused by my confusion, and patiently explained that if you run full speed at someone - if you charge at someone like that - you are very likely to go flying. "Plus," she said very sensibly, "you need cleats." (That was the last time I played in anything but the proper shoes.)

Nearly a year later I had another memorable fall. In the intervening months I'd started playing pick-up games and had learned a lot. I'd learned to think less - or, more nearly, I'd learned to let my body do more of the thinking. This time I was tackled by a pretty big guy who meant me no harm, but physics dictated that I go ass-over-teakettle forward through the air - I'd been running, and somehow he got me from behind. I tumbled right over myself, and came up on my feet - ball still at my toes. I tried to play on, but my friends were all so stunned that they'd stopped to stare. They were rightly wondering if I was OK - as every other time I'd fallen, I'd been rattled to my physical and psychic core.

This time, however, I was relaxed when I went down, and so the fall didn't really take me down. It was, in fact, fun. I remember that fall in great detail - and a few others, too. A player nicknamed Barca slide tackled me in a training session last spring - she mistimed the tackle just a bit and clipped my feet. Everyone was mad at her, but I was thrilled that'd she'd considered me enough of a threat. Sure, I was sent a few feet in the air, but I was fine. And I'd won my team a free kick. In June, I played in a tournament staged over a rainy weekend, and the slide tackles were fast and furious - I know I took at least two hard tackles that had me kissing the grass. I found both bracing - like a splash of cold water. They were clean, fluid tackles, too - something I admire, even if they are directed at me. And I honestly think I played better that day for them.

As a defender, you often go flying because you are giving, not receiving the tackle. I am still to green to be working on anything but instinct, and so when I go flying it's out of a reflex. I don't usually know what has happened until I'm wiping the dirt off of myself. Still, I'm thrilled by the experience.

I am not yet at the level I most admire - the player who throws herself in the air to win the ball or score. My falls are reactive - and they are usually caused by something I am doing with my feet. I'm not the player who will dive to head the ball into the net - but I would very much like to be her.

I used to think that falling was synonymous with getting hurt. But I know now that that isn't exactly true. Falling awkardly, falling when you are tense - this will hurt. But play relaxed and fluid, and you'll be surprised by what your body can do. Somehow you fall, but you don't fall down.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Modern Minstrels: Sexist Jokes about Women Athletes

A popular youtube video poking fun at women playing basketball is in my view little more than a modern day incarnation of old-fashioned minstrelsy. Those lightly "comic" routines were once found funny by racist audiences who enjoyed having their attitudes confirmed in entertaining spectacles that should turn the stomach.These images and performances provided the gearwork by which a white supremacist culture rationalized its most violent and abusive practices. (Spike Lee addresses the love affair between American culture and minstrel performance is his brilliant satire Bamboozled.)

It may seem extreme to some to compare the "spoof" on the idea of a WNBA Live game with things like that, but....

Below we have a man in lesbian-drag (the straight guy's acceptable form of black-face), playing at being a WNBA star, introducing his bored friends to the new game - an abject out-dated and comically slow moving "virtual" basketball game, in which a lone female stick figure limps across the scene and makes a bad shot. The player then falls over, "injured" when she gets a "yeast infection."

There is, it turns out, a whole subgenre of youtube videos mocking the WNBA - not because the authors of these videos have a problem with the organization, but because they can't get over the idea that women play basketball, and that there are people who want to watch them. This came as a total shock to me. And not just because I love watching the LA Sparks in action (and think they were robbed in the playoffs). I just spent a year in England getting acquainted with Old World sexist attitudes there about women playing soccer. Silly me - I'd felt a certain national pride in the way that Americans seemed to at least not hate the idea of women athletes.

That was a really naive fantasy. Apparently, most (not all) guys here can handle women playing soccer (sport of girls and immigrants). But basketball? Professionally? Youtube hosts a range of these just plain offensive diatribes. These are made by guys who are so full of hate for this idea, they produce homophobic and just plain moronic pieces about how boring women's basketball is, how badly women play, how ludicrous it is that anyone should try to get anyone to watch WNBA games.

A few months ago I posted a comment to neXib's youtube video, which features goal keeping "errors" in the 2007 Women's World Cup. I expressed my outrage and pointed to Nadine Angerer's amazing record and highlights. He responded "that's because she's a shemale." And closed the comments.

The comments to neXib's "Female Goalkeepers" (which is often the first youtube video to come up under the search "female goalkeepers") do include a lot of angry fans of the women's game. Some highlights from NeXib and his cohort, as they field that outrage:

To another user (who wrote in agreement with the spirit of his video), neXib wrote:
"Well it has been like that for a long time. Maybe they are afraid of getting some balls in their face :P "
One of his fans:
"women shud take care of kids..these gals luk like half males due to heavy football play"
Other comments:
"Why are these women attempting to do something that they clearly do not have the physical or mental capabilities for? They are only embarrassing themselves."
"ha ha girls suck at football lol " and, from another: "soccer is for men.sorry."
"honestly... I think they should just get rid of women's keepers, and just let guys from the under 15 national teams play GK instead."
The video, which presents itself as evidence of how women keepers "are rubbish", features footage of the three keepers in one tournament (one loses out to Marta - FIFA's Female World Footballer of the Year twice over), and presents itself as a statement of both the women's game and women's abilities.

NeXib disabled the comments not because his video solicited the above sexist remarks from youtube users, but because, in his view, the women and men writing in to point out the sexism of the video had "no sense of humor".

I'm proud to have been the one to have sent him over the edge.

There's a line between videos showing "lowlights" of a sport, and videos which show such things in the service of a statement motivated by prejudice. You would not see youtube hosting videos that singled out errors made by black or latino male players (of any sport), in a manifesto about how no one wants to see them play professionally, because "they can't." And believe me, there was once a moment when people held those ideas and made those arguments - and they would have found criticism of their position humorless, too.

Why is it acceptable to post youtube videos like this about women? Why is that OK? (There is good writing about women & goal keeping see, for example, David James's "Keeping Up with Part-Time Rachel").

In any case, here is youtube's community guideline regarding hate-motivated material:
"But we don't permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity)."
How is a video which clearly singles out a few errors made by women goalies in early rounds of the 2007 FIFA world cup in the explicit service of an argument that women are physically incapable of playing soccer not an "attack" that "demeans" "a group based on...gender"?

Sports Illustrated links to the WNBA spoof with no comment. The comments on youtube largely react to its humor, with only a few tentative voices pointing to the offensiveness of the content of the joke and the comments it invites, like:
LOFL you dumb twat, its also about ball handling, jump shooting, defense, a post game, and alot of other things (none of which those dykes do well).

LOL@ even trying to compare the WNBA to the NBA. I bet the team I played on back in JR High could beat the womens olympic team.
Why aren't those videos censored for violating the standards of hate speech defined above? This kind of "humor" supports world-wide active and often violent suppression of women's interest in athletics - in no small part because it's a fast route to empowerment. If guys HATE the idea that women play basketball, soccer, whatever, it's because they HATE the idea that women might be strong, competitive, fearless, and aggressive. The video I've posted here (reluctantly) is, in my view, a clever and socially acceptable act of hate speech.

And I wish a joyless future of ineffectial layups on all the dudes involved with its production.

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