Thursday, October 23, 2014

Queer Obsession: Why I Love Women's Soccer

Earlier this week, the U.S. women’s soccer team was in Washington, DC to play Haiti in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament. My partner and I and several friends were there - with our two collective babies in tow. Next summer, my wife and I hope to fulfill a several years-long dream of attending a women’s World Cup in person. Since Canada is the 2015 host, we’re planning a soccer-crazed road trip to Montreal. 

If you cared, I could probably name for you every player in the U.S. women’s national team pool right now. I could tell you where most of them played in college, where all of them play professionally, and I could probably ballpark their individual stats (national team appearances, international goals, yellow cards, goalkeeper shutouts, height, typical cleat color… you get the picture…). My wife and I have season tickets to the Washington Spirit, DC’s pro women’s soccer team, which plays in the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League). During the spring and summer, going to the Spirit home games is one of the highlights of our week. When they play an away game, we watch them streamed live on Youtube - grainy, jumpy, unreliable feeds with terrible announcing (this past season, among other things, we suffered through one announcer going on for what felt like days about the weather in Nebraska. There’s no NWSL team in Nebraska, just FYI.). Still, we watch every game. We took our then three-week-old baby to the Spirit’s last home game in August. When they made the semifinals, the game was played in Seattle and didn’t begin on the east coast until 11:00pm. Due to newborn-induced sleep deprivation, I fell asleep before kick-off and couldn’t be roused to watch (my wife tried twice), but loyal fan that she is, my spouse stayed up for the whole game (they lost to the regular season champs), watching on our computer in bed. All summer, I took part in an online NWSL fantasy league and finished 182nd out of some 1,500-plus other soccer-crazed folks. The fantasy league ran a special playoffs challenge at the end of the season in which I tied for 18th place out of 445 participants.

I wasn’t always this kind of sports fan. I’ve always been involved in athletics and have always enjoyed watching pro sports, but I’ve never been the kind of fan who buys season tickets, amasses encyclopedic knowledge of favorite players, or drives hours out of the way to see a game. With most other sports teams I follow, owning a t-shirt or a baseball hat with the team logo on it and catching a couple of live games per year more than satisfies me. 

So what makes this so different? One thing is that it’s not just the sport itself. I love watching soccer in general, but I really love being at NWSL games. Player stereotypes aside (though there are several out queer female pro players in addition to a handful of others who are not explicitly out, but still readily recognizable to those of us looking for them), women’s soccer has a tremendous queer - and specifically, queer female - following, that really shapes the fan environment at games. The atmosphere at NWSL games and U.S. women’s games is different from other pro sporting events. Where else do you go to a pro game and see giant rainbow flags draped over the bleachers? Where in pro men's sports do you see a critical mass of visibly queer folks all around you - on the field, on the team staffs, and in the stands? The games feel celebratory and inclusive in ways that men's sports do not - often for both players and fans.

Professional sporting events are not always the most welcoming environments for female people and/or queer and trans people. Any of us could probably come up with dozens of examples of sexist, homophobic, and transphobic men's sports experiences, but one case in point - I play on a women’s recreational ice hockey team and a few years back, we sold programs at a Washington Capitals NHL game to raise some money for our club. My teammate sold a program to one lady who upon hearing that the funds were supporting our team said, “Women’s hockey? You have got to be kidding me.” She asked for her five dollars back and huffed off. Here we were at a hockey game, working our tails off and hopefully raising a little bit of money in large part to grow the sport of hockey, and this person not only didn’t like that idea, but was so offended by the thought of a women’s hockey team that she decided not to buy a program she otherwise would have. I was pretty taken aback by it, but I think that episode says a lot about the attitudes towards gender that folks commonly encounter at men’s sporting events. Being a male athlete in our culture so frequently becomes about embodying the quintessential elements of conventional masculinity - mental toughness, bravery, aggression, and showing physical strength. Being a female in the male sports environment revolves largely around being a spectator (or “eye candy”). 

The dynamics at women’s sporting events offer a refreshing change from the toxicity that can accompany men’s sports. It’s not that female athletes are all actively challenging the gender binary, proclaiming themselves feminists, and coming out as queer (most are not), but being a pro female athlete in our culture is still subversive by its very nature because it turns the traditional relationship between sports and notions of masculinity and femininity on its head. This is exciting, and also important work, especially as teams deal with the prospect of next year's women's World Cup being played on artificial turf rather than natural grass (no men's World Cup game has ever been - nor, I suspect, ever will be - played on turf. A number of high-profile international female players are suing FIFA for sex discrimination over this issue - read here for more). I also think this dynamic, in addition to a love of soccer, is what has fueled my addiction to the women’s game over the past many years, and my excitement for the future of the sport. 

The world cup qualifying tournament for North and Central America and the Caribbean continues with two semifinal matches this Friday, October 24 (Fox Sports 1). The final, in which the U.S. is likely to play will be Sunday, October 26 at 6pm (also Fox Sports 1). And just FYI, 2015 season tickets for most NWSL teams are already available… 

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