It is unfortunate that a game inspired by artistry is still plagued by sexism. By now, the English tabloids have been baying on about the rather indelicate comments put forth by Sky Sports TV commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys, captured of course on tape for all when the two popular veteran sportscasters thought the mike was turned off.
The tape caught the men making sexist and lewd comments about women, how in so-many-words, this female influence on the world’s game was having a corrosive, unbearable influence. The sexist remarks rightly cost them their jobs and re-opened the debate over how deeply sexism exists in the world of soccer. Sadly, the question wasn’t whether sexism still existed, whether it was now just a mere trifle of a problem — a throwback to a less enlightened time.
Alas, no. That’s not the case. Nobody disputes that, in some quarters, sexism runs deep, runs silent, runs under the surface (and openly, too). Then, it takes an unguarded moment such as the ones committed by our now hapless English friends to inspire the re-examination of sexism in the sport and to conclude (in a nano second) that we still have a long ways to go.
It takes no Einstein. Nor Wenger. No Sunil Gulati. Nor even Beckham, to know some parts of the soccer world still hold those women in low regard who are professionally involved in the game. In fact, tacit approval of such beliefs comes directly from the top of the soccer pinnacle. None other than the sage himself (still seeking a Nobel Peace nomination) the world’s very own FIFA-president-for-life, Sepp Blatter.
A couple years ago, Blatter had expressed that the popularity of the women’s game, while making great strides, could be stimulated to grow faster. His solution — and I’m not making this up — urging professional female soccer players to wear skimpier uniforms in an effort to boost the popularity of the women’s game. Said the sage himself: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” Blatter said. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”
But rather than scold these tired old buffoons, let’s take a different stance. Let’s argue for why women matter in the world’s game. I’d like to think we’re beyond those Cro-Magnum men. For I do believe women matter — they already have influenced the beautiful game way beyond most people’s imaginations.
The female influence in U.S. soccer runs deeper than anywhere else in the world. We should celebrate it. We are a stronger and better soccer nation for it. Women have made U.S. soccer more sophisticated, more diverse, more thoughtful, more creative, certainly more interesting.
But we do have a long ways to go in this country, let alone around the globe. Still, the U.S. should lead the effort to eliminate sexism from soccer. It’s our advantage, and blessing, over the rest of the world. We want women on our team because we know they’re good.
Women matter because without their fundamental nurturing, their fundamental selflessness, their fundamental decency, their fundamental affirmation for life, uh, there would be no species. Just imagine FIFA’s executive committee, where there are no women serving and perhaps that should give you a chilling picture of a world without a female influence. I would argue that partly explains the pervasive, underlying ethical challenges that have come to plague the halls of the world’s soccer organizing body.
Behind every great player stands a soccer mom. Where would U.S. National team players and U.S. stars Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey be without their strong, hard-working and independent mothers sacrificing hours of endless carpools and uneventful soccer matches to support them? What’s more. What did they do to inspire them? To instill discipline in them, to insist on decency and civility? Where would tens of thousands of youth soccer players, boys and girls, be without the unconditional support and guidance of their moms?
Who would coach? Who would referee youth matches, let alone college and professional matches? Who would make sure club funds were spent wisely? Who would ensure schedules were sent out? That fields were booked? That every kid had a ride to practice? Sure. It’s not all about the women. But you get the point.
Second, women matter because they represent a significant growth market, an entire gender that first took up the game in the 1970s. Look how it has grown rapidly in the U.S. and how it has reshaped the world’s opinion that girls and women can and should play athletic games like soccer. Look how their participation has evolved the game.
They’ve spawned new business markets. Specific channels have emerged for sneaker companies, women’s professional and semi-professional leagues, athletic and casual fashion wear, equipment makers, for professional coaching, for small-business opportunities running soccer clubs, leagues and tournaments. In developing countries, such markets remain virtually untapped.
Finally, women matter for what they bring to the game. They are smart. They have opinions. They are inspired observers. They see stuff we often don’t (all too often). Imagine a soccer world without the wisdom and grace of Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Hope Solo and, of course, the greatest female soccer player in the world — Marta, from Brazil.
Imagine a world without girls and women’s soccer– imagine a world less hopeful, less dynamic, less interesting and less diverse. Imagine a world without Julie Foudy’s insights and thoughtful opinions. I’ve never met Ms. Foudy, now a ESPN TV commentator, but I try to listen to her thoughts on the state of soccer, her analysis of a U.S. national team’s performance —women’s or men’s — because she’s simply one of the smartest soccer minds in the game.
Then there’s Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, who keenly captures the clash in English society between football and culture and celebrity. She writes with wit, humor and razor sharp insight into this goofy world of sport we all say we hold dear.
Here in the United States, we recognize our best female soccer minds. But we can do better. Major League Soccer has put females into top executive positions. We have the Women’s Professional league led by Anne-Marie Eileraas, chief executive. The NCAA and federal law have helped to promote the vast expansion of collegiate soccer for women, offering top athletes the opportunity to play at a high level and receive a college education.
It has inspired such innovators of the women’s game as Anson Dorrance, the head coach of North Carolina women’s soccer team — a college dynasty; Tony DiCicco, former women’s head coach and current coach of the U.S. U-20 Women’s and the Boston Breakers of the WPS; and April Heinrichs, one of a handful of true female soccer stars who has gone on to influence the women’s game as a national team head coach, trainer and adviser.
Marta’s influence on the game is the only way we really know how creative, how artistic, how clever, how fluent and how sweet Brazilian soccer can be played. No male Brazilian player today carries the torch of ginga like Marta, no Brazilian player today really represents the flair of Brazil’s enduring Samba style of fluid movement and breathtaking skill. Only Marta.
She embodies the skill of two men — Ronaldhino for his cleverness and technical skills and Ronaldo for his power and pace. The world would be missing the best of Brazilian soccer if Marta were not around, the world would be missing the best of soccer, if Marta simply did not play.
So, yes, it comes as no surprise that two of the most popular soccer TV commentators remind us of how far we’ve come, but also they remind us of how far we still have to go to eradicate sexism from the game.
Daily Mirror columnist Oliver Holt captured the moment well, when he wrote: “Even in the context of football’s male-dominated environment there was something shocking and actually rather sad about two middle-aged men expressing such seething bitterness towards women. The two men looked more like blokes who had just stumbled out of a cave than the presenters of a 21st century sports show.”