Friday, November 17, 2017
November 17, 2017: AthleteStudying: Women’s Soccer Stories
[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to a weekend post on Trump and sports!]
Two individual and one collective way to AmericanStudy our recent crop of soccer superstars.
1) Megan Rapinoe: For complicated reasons related to narratives and images of masculinity and femininity, among many other things too extended and nuanced to delve into in a sentence or two, women’s sports have consistently featured openly gay athletes and connections to the LGBTQ community in a way that men’s sports have only recently (and still hesitantly) begun to. In relation to that longstanding and ongoing trend, the 2012 coming out of US Women’s Soccer star forward Megan Rapinoe was an important but representative event, one in a series of such pivotal LGBT women’s sports moments. But this past September, Rapinoe became part of the news for a different and more singular reason: she knelt during the national anthem before a match for her team the Seattle Reign, connecting to and honoring (as she did even more fully in her postgame comments) Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protest. In many ways Rapinoe’s personal sexuality and her political solidarity with Kaepernick seem radically distinct, but I would argue the case differently: that, as Rapinoe herself noted in her comments, the two are connected through experiences of oppression and resistance, and through the complicated but crucial intersections of identity and sports.
2) Hope Solo: Solo is one of Rapinoe’s teammates on the Seattle Reign, as well as perhaps the most talented goalkeeper in women’s soccer history (she’s certainly in the conversation). But on the personal and identity side, Solo’s story is far darker and less inspiring than Rapinoe’s. There are, for example, her multiple arrests and ongoing charges for domestic violence, complicated family situations and dynamics that I won’t pretend to have all figured out but that certainly seem to have involved aggressive and hostile behavior from Solo toward numerous figures (not limited to those family members). And along those latter lines, there are Solo’s controversial and troubling comments after a 2016 Olympic match against Sweden, comments that led to a six-month suspension from the US Women’s National Team. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that the problems of either aggression in general or (especially) domestic violence in particular are parallel (much less identical) in women’s sports to what they are in men’s—but at the same time, Solo’s cases and story make clear that such problems are a significant part of the sports world on every level, and working to understand and address them for women as well as men can only help us engage with these social and political issues more fully as a result.
3) The Pay Gap: As important and inspiring as individual activisms like Rapinoe’s can be, I’m even more inspired by collective action, and this past March the US Women’s National Team took precisely such collective action in response to a substantial gap in what US Soccer pays its male and female athletes. Such gendered pay gaps have been part of our sports debates for many years, dating back at least to similar (and eventually effective) protests raised by women’s tennis players over the prizes awarded by tournaments such as Wimbledon. But the US WNT players moved the needle on the debate significantly, not only by making it a more collective action (rather than those prior, more individual protests) but also and especially by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for redress. Too often, we dismiss sports as purely entertainment or distraction—while in reality (as I hope all of my Sports posts here have illustrated) sports can not only mirror and extend, but even influence and change, broader conversations and issues in our society and culture. As we continue to debate the gendered wage gap in 2017 America, the USWNT have once again proven that vital role for sports.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other athletes or related histories you’d highlight?