Editor’s Note: Popaganda is on hiatus until 2018. This episode originally aired on September 25, 2015.
Being a feminist sports fan is complicated. Athletes are talented artists and teams can build community and confidence. But sports culture has many dark sides: violence, homophobia, greed. On this episode, we talk with feminist fans of football, tennis, soccer, and basketball about what keeps them watching and how they’re working to change sports for the better.
The great Jessica Luther joins us to discuss how she remains a football fan while working on a book about sexual assault in college football programs. Steph Yang talks about how women’s soccer has become a positive place for LGBTQ players and fans, despite the rampant homophobia seen in other sports. Amy Lam expounds on NBA players taking stands for social justice issues—while owners who would prefer they remain silent. Veronica Arreola encourages us all to attend at least one women’s sporting event this year. Plus: Applause for Serena Williams, superstition about the Cubs, and a tale of a high school football player who became a cheerleader.
JESSICA LUTHER ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL:
HOW DID WOMEN’S SOCCER BECOME SO QUEER-FRIENDLY?
Photo credits: Serena Williams photo is by Beth Wilson, pro-gay football fan banner is from the Timbers’ Facebook page, and photo of the women’s world cup ticker tape parade is by the New York Department of Transportation.
Cheryl Green of StoryMinders transcribed this episode. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
Who is the greatest athlete in the world right now? You could answer that question a dozen ways but, personally, I’m going to go ahead and argue that it is Serena Williams.
[applause and cheers at tennis match]
Here are the facts: Serena Williams is the #1 tennis player in the world and has been for 259 weeks. She is the reigning champion of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and WTA Tour Championships. She has won four Olympic gold medals. And she’s dang nice about it. Here’s the interview that Serena gave on the court at Wimbledon this summer mere minutes after demolishing rival Gabine Mugarootha. In this interview, Serena is holding the giant silver trophy plate and is still breathing hard from the hour-long match. Still, when she’s asked how she’s feeling, here’s what Serena graciously says:
SERENA: Gabine, she played so well. I didn’t even know it was over cuz she was fighting so hard in the end. I was like OK, I’m going to have to serve again. So congratulations. Don’t be sad. You’ll be holding this trophy very, very soon. Believe me.
You’re a great champ, so!
SARAH: Earlier in the week, Williams had played the #3 women’s tennis player in the world, Maria Sharapova. As usual, Serena won.
[tennis match, applause and cheers]
ANNOUNCER: That is once more in this rivalry, Sharapova has to bend the knee to this great champion.
SARAH: Serena winning the match against Maria Sharapova is no surprise. Serena has won matches against Sharapova 16 times in a row. In case the gap between the #1 tennis player in the world and the #3 tennis player isn’t clear, consider how the last time Sharapova won against Serena was in 2004. That was more than 10 years ago. Serena has been trouncing her ever since.
So it’s weird then, that it’s Maria Sharapova, not Serena Williams, is the one who brings in the biggest endorsement deals. Endorsements from companies like Nike and Adidas are where athletes make their big money. So let’s break down the numbers. In 2014, Serena Williams earned $11 million in endorsements. Sharapova earned $22 million. Double Serena’s endorsements. The reality of this is not lost on Serena. In a New York Times interview this summer, she noted the clear difference between her body—Serena Williams, of course, is Black and ripped, with big, beautiful muscles—and Sharapova, who’s white and blond and smaller. Asked about how she feels being the number one tennis player bringing in fewer endorsements than the number three ranked player, Serena said:
“If they want to market somebody who is white and blond, that’s their choice. I have a lot of partners who are very happy to work with me. I can’t sit here and say I should be higher on the list because I have won more. I’m happy for her because she worked hard, too. There is enough at the table for everyone.”
Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the brilliance of that line. How often do you hear a world-class athlete—someone whose life is competition, ambition to be the very best—speak with such compassion: “there is enough at the table for everyone.”
While Serena Williams is the number one tennis player in the world, her relationship to the sport of tennis has always been complicated. There’s the endorsement money thing, but there’s a lot more than that. During her whole career, tennis fans and commentators have policed Serena for being who she is. They’ve criticized her body, her style, even her “commitment to the sport.” Officials seem to be harder on Serena than on other players: Last year, Serena called out a Russian tennis official who made a nasty comment about Serena and her sister Venus actually being “brothers.” The sisters’ biggest statement came after a particularly vicious incident. In 2001, at the Southern Californian Indian Wells tournament, the crowd lobbed racial insults at Serena and her dad after Venus dropped out of a match against her due to an injury. In response, the sisters boycotted Indian Wells for 14 years straight, finally returning this spring. The boycott was a powerful statement to the overwhelmingly white world of tennis. Instead of looking the other way when somebody hurled racial epithets, Serena refused to return to a tournament that didn’t deserve her.
Poet Claudia Rankine described Serena this way in a New York Times cover story this summer. She said: “The word ‘’win’’ finds its roots in both joy and grace. Serena’s grace comes because she won’t be forced into stillness; she won’t accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back; she won’t go gently into the white light of victory. Her excellence doesn’t mask the struggle it takes to achieve each win.”
Serena Williams is a shining example of the contradictions in sports. As a feminist, watching sports is complicated. There are these heroic, talented, artistic players, like Serena, but the culture of sports has many dark sides: racism, violence, greed. There’s a real tendency among feminists to dismiss sports altogether. You know what I mean? To say, “Oh, I don’t like sports. Sports are dumb.” There are many, many criticisms to be made of sports, and we’ll explore a lot of them on today’s show. But dismissing all sports off-hand as “dumb” is just silly. It harkens back to high school, you know, when you felt like you had to choose a clique between jocks and the nerds. But those stark divisions don’t help anyone; that’s not how real life works. I’m a book nerd who likes running. When I jog a 5K, my headphones are playing NPR, okay? Sports can be healthy and positive and community-building. Talented athletes are up there with the brilliant artists of the world. But that doesn’t mean we should turn away from the ugliness and greed and violence that’s wrapped up in the cultures of sports. Football fans can’t overlook the way the NFL and NCAA deal with sexual assault. Soccer fans can’t ignore the way FIFA engages in corruption and wantonly discriminates against women. Today’s episode explores those conflicts, the emotional, tumultuous experience of being a feminist sports fan. Let’s go.
The biggest sport in the United States is football. Hockey, soccer, basketball, ultimate Frisbee: they all pale in comparison to the ol’ pigskin. Actually, American football has the highest average game attendance of any sport in the entire world, with 17.6 million people attending an NFL game every year. And there’s no bigger football state than Texas.
[Marching band plays Longhorns fight song]
The University of Texas at Austin college football team—that would be the Longhorns—are worth more than any other team in the league: that college football cash cow is worth $131 million. Feminist writer Jessica Luther lives right in the heart of Texas football country, and she’s a big football fan herself.
JESSICA: Hi, this is Jessica Luther. I’m a freelance journalist living in Austin, Texas, and I write on sports.
SARAH: When she’s not organizing pro-choice protests at the state Capitol or busily blogging for VICE sports, Jessica Luther is likely watching a football game. She’s hard at work right now on a book about violence in sports culture, an especially critical topic given the pattern of domestic abuse and sexual abuse seen among college and pro football teams. Here’s our conversation.
Well Jessica, I know you’re working on a book that has something to do with violence and sports culture, but that’s basically all I know about it. Can you tell us a little bit more about what it is you’re researching and what you’re interested in exploring that relates to violence in sports?
JESSICA: Sure, the book is actually pretty specific: it’s college football and sexual assault and that intersection. I’m writing it at Akashic Books with Dave Zirin. He has a new sports and culture imprint, and he originally just sort of asked me to write a general book about the intersection of sports and sexual violence or violence against women. I was like, there’s too much to say. So I narrowed it down to college football and sexual assault. And it’s a thematic look. So I am looking at cases across time–the earliest one that I was able to find was 1974, I think at Notre Dame–and all the cases that I was able to find across time and what patterns I pulled out of that, but also the way schools respond, the way the media responds, the total lack of response from the NCAA. Stuff like that to try to look at the patterns that come out of this in order to start a conversation about how we change that pattern.
SARAH: So you spend, I assume, all day long knee-deep in really terrible research about the worst thing that could happen. And so I’m interested what you’re exploring there. What sort of patterns have you seen emerge when you look at the history of violence related to college football?
JESSICA: Yeah, I do spend a lot of time. Actually, one of the biggest struggles for me on the book is the editing process; it’s hard to go back into it and revisit the topic once you feel like you’ve said something. Because there a lot of sort of emotional work that goes along with reading hundreds of cases. So I’ve located over 110 cases since 1974, which is not a huge number across time. But this kind of crime in particular is massively underreported.
SARAH: These are cases of sexual assault?
JESSICA: By college football players. And so it ranges from accusations all the way to people who’ve been convicted. Most of it, of course, is just accusations cuz very few accusations make it to charges or even, especially, to conviction. And one of the things that I found that I–and there’s nothing really scientific about my work. So it’s hard to say. There’s probably a lot of cases I haven’t been able to find just cuz of the way that my limits to research on my own, but one of the things that’s kind of alarming is most of the cases involved multiple football players, most of them as perpetrators, multiple perpetrators in an incident. But also, you get witnesses to the crime or maybe even accessories, I guess. So one of the things that’s kind of scary about it is the idea that this is taking place, that there are multiple players from the same team who are engaging in acts of violence together, which is a particular thing I’m interested in because of team culture. And this is something I think a lot about with fraternities and sort of that kind of all very masculine space, right? Some of the other stuff that I’ve looked at is the way that universities don’t really do much about it or actively try to not talk about it. This is one thing that I really am interested in, the fact that the NCAA, which is the governing body of all collegiate sports, just doesn’t seem to care at all about this. So like when you read the recruiting manual for a college football player, when he’s being recruited, it is so–what coaches can and cannot do is so specific. We’re talking like time limits of how long they can talk to them on the phone, you know, very specific stuff. And then, when it comes to whether or not sex can be used in recruitment, there’s kind of just a nothing in the book. And you think, well, you could do something. And so I look at those sort of points in time that just repeat over and over and over again in so many cases.
SARAH: And so one thing that’s interesting, I think, about your perspective is that while you’re looking at really the worst side of sports, you’re also a sports fan. You’re a big football fan. So can you tell me about being a football fan and how you counter those two different realities: the fact that these horrible crimes are able to be done in part because of the culture that football creates, and being a part of that culture and loving the game?
JESSICA: Yeah, I think a lot about my own consumption of sport, especially college football. I have this sort of really sad encyclopedia in my head of coaches and teams and specific players, and I know all of them, and I’m sort of the Debbie Downer of the group.
JESSICA: If I’m with people, and we’re watching, I’m like, “Well, oh. That’s the guy that did this thing.” And so it’s something I’m actively aware of all the time while I’m consuming sports. At this point in time, I can’t shut that off. At the same time, I still really love watching. Part of it is that it’s just something I’ve done my entire life, and sort of changing that kind of pattern in your own life can just be a difficult thing to do. At the same time, I feel like we all could relate to the way that we compromise as women moving through the world, where are limits are, right? And at this point, I’m not sure exactly where my limit is with football. I definitely watch it much less than I used to, but I still watch it. I love athleticism, I love competition, I love watching what these people can do and how they do it, and how they do it as a team. Like all the sort of good things about sports, I still really care about, but there is sort of a constant nagging in my head. But at the same time, I go to movies all the time that have people in them that I have issues with, and I just put that to the side while I’m consuming it and then go back to tweeting about it later, something to that affect. So it’s not as if I don’t already have the skills to consume problematic material and still enjoy it. So I think it’s just getting harder to do it, but I still like to watch sports.
SARAH: What brings you back to watching football still? What do you love about football, specifically?
JESSICA: Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, I do, there is just this straight-up athleticism. I mean, oh, I’m trying to remember who it was. There was a guy last weekend who did the most amazing route. He was running, and he did this kind of weird flip thing in the air and kept going. And I watched the Vine of it 100 times. I am so interested in people’s abilities to move. I’m really interested in the human body and how people can do sort of what look like superhuman feats to us.
SARAH: Yeah, and I think a lot of the problems that we’re discussing here: so the ability to sexually assault somebody, get away with it, and even have that behavior be praised, like guys sharing photos and saying like, “that’s sweet, that’s cool.” That’s created by the culture around sports, and that culture is something that we need to change. Do you think that that ties in to the sport itself? Is this a football problem because of the way football is? Or is it just that football has this place in American society where it has the infrastructure built around it that allows these things to happen?
JESSICA: I think it’s more the second. I’m sort of a structuralist generally on stuff like this. So I do think that it happens to be that that’s our most popular sport, and for all those reasons the system works in their favor when it comes to these kind of crimes. I think sport in general, in the same way that a fraternity space or the military–that’s also heavily men and very masculine– creates a sort of specific space that that violence can happen and be covered up and minimized. You know, I don’t think that’s special to football as a sport outside of the fact that football is incredibly powerful as a cultural institution. I sort of don’t know what to think about the brutality on the field versus the brutality off the field. We don’t really have any statistics. We have such bad statistics just with sexual assault generally. It’s not hard to imagine that the messages are incredibly mixed, especially I mean I work on college ball. And so I’ll look at recruits who are 17 year old kids, and they have teams that recruit them by Photoshopping their picture onto the magazine, like a fake People magazine cover of them arm in arm with like Beyoncé. And the implication is like if you come here and play football for us, your reward will be fame and women, right? And then, I’m gonna put you on the field and tell you that your job is to go beat up people, and we’re gonna cheer you for it. You know, there’s a lot going on there in this particular sport, especially when we’re talking about young men. That could be very specific to it, but I do think there is something bigger about the fact that football is so powerful as a cultural institution that goes above and beyond it as a particular sport.
SARAH: So as a football fan and somebody who’s critical of the culture around the sport that leads to violence, what do you think you can do as a fan, and we as the collective fan base, can do to help change the culture of the sport? Or is the culture not something that fans can change; it’s got to be something that comes from the top, from NCAA officials and people who actually have the money here?
JESSICA: I mean, this is the hardest thing, is that there’s a lot of push for coaches should teach players. And I’m not a real advocate of that. I worry about people who were raised in the exact culture we’re trying to change as being the leaders in changing that culture. I think that that is just naive in a lot of ways. We see too many instances where coaches are happy to look away. I think a lot about there was a case last year Outside the Lines at ESPN did two major profiles of the Missouri Athletic Department involving multiple football player cases. And after the second one came out, there was a press conference, and they asked the head coach, Gary Pinkel, “what are you guys doing to maybe stop this or do something?” And he was like, “Oh, there’s a coach who talks to the guys sometimes.” And it was like, could you be less specific about what that even means and why this guy, and what is he saying, and how often does he say it? Oh, what can fans do? I don’t know, man. I think….[sighs] I’m a writer and a tweeter, and so part of it is just to continue to yell about it. I think teams in this age of social media have no choice but to respond in some way when it becomes a thing. And I see the power in that. I recently had a piece that I wrote at Texas Monthly with my friend, Dan Solomon about a specific case at Baylor. And it blew up really fast into national news, and within days of us breaking this–It involved a player who had transferred from Boise to Baylor and then committed sexual assault at Baylor. And the directors of the Big 12 Conference that Baylor is a part of met the next week and changed the transfer rule. What that will look like practically on the ground is another thing. There’s lots of ways for teams to get around rules. We know that too well. But you know, people made noise, and they told Baylor that they cared, and they told the Big 12 that they weren’t happy. And there was enough of it that within less than a week, the transfer rule had changed from this story breaking. So that’s my silver lining.
SARAH: I think it can be frustrating to feel like you had this big story, and it changed one rule, and hopefully that prevents future tragedy. But that is a big deal. Changing one rule by writing a story about it is a really big deal. And so I’m wondering how, as a fan of football, you feel about being critical of football. Is there ever a time when you feel like it’s being unsupportive of the sport that you love to call it out?
JESSICA: No, but I don’t think that ever about this kind of cultural criticism, right?
JESSICA: I guess what am I doing with my life if I felt otherwise? I would rather just be better. I would rather not have a list of victims that I think about every single day. I have this, I mean I’ve worked with certain survivors, and I’ve told certain survivors’ stories. And I think about them a lot. And I wish that that wasn’t part of my sports viewing experience. And on some level that sounds kind of selfish like poor me, but I just mean just generally I want the sport to be better. I want. One of the reasons that I like to watch tennis, which is my favorite thing to watch, is that that aspect isn’t there. But then I watch, and I am acutely aware of the racism that Serena Williams faces every time she gets on the court. You know? It’s like none of it’s perfect. It’s just sort of what you can manage. And in all of those cases, I want them all to be better. I want to have a fan-viewing experience that isn’t tainted by these things that seem fixable to me, like seem like they could be better if people cared enough to do anything about it.
SARAH: That was writer Jessica Luther. Keep an eye out for her book on sports and violence next year. In the meantime, you can join her 18,000 followers on Twitter @scatx.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Just a brief pause here to note that this show is made by the team here at Bitch Media. We’re an independent, feminist media nonprofit. We’re reader and listener supported. So if you like this show, help us grow. Head over to bitchmedia.org and make a donation. Did you know that if you make a donation of $25 or more, your name is published in the next print issue of Bitch magazine? Right there, on the page of donors. It’s like an honor roll of fabulous feminists. The current print issue lists someone who donated “in honor of the podcasts, which I love.” Way to warm my heart and make me cry. So Bitchmedia.org. Donate. Help us make feminist media. Oh, also! A big way to support this show is to rate us in iTunes. We have 95 reviews right now in iTunes. Can we take it to 100? If even five listeners go and open up iTunes and rate us, we’ll have 100 reviews! Whoo! That feels like a big deal. Maybe I just like round numbers. Maybe I’m secretly competitive. Okay, back to the show.
All right. Today’s show is called Why We Love Sports. Bitch Media associate editor Amy Lam has this story on activist athletes.
AMY: I love the NBA. Mostly, I love the NBA because I love the players. Obviously, right? What I mean is that I don’t watch professional basketball to obsess over stats, or rankings, or the particular art of a beautiful play. Those parts of the games are fun to think about, but what I love most is getting to know the players, who they are off the court.
I follow NBA players on Instagram, I read stories about where they grew up, I watch all the cheesy interview segments about their childhoods. If I’m lucky, if I’m really lucky, my favorite players like Damian Lillard, Patty Mills, or Russell Westbrook participate in one of those corny shows where we get to take a tour of their home, and we get to see the insides of their closets and the inevitable wall of sneakers.
MAN: These are my favorite shoes, favorite to play in. You know, they so light, like a running shoe.
AMY: On these “behind-the-scenes” “day in the life” segments, all the players—honestly—seem kind of boring. That’s by design. Team owners want athletes to just do their work. They don’t want players to be overly opinionated about anything, especially anything controversial. They want players to make money, not talk politics.
But there is strong a history of athletes who are also activists, like with Mohammed Ali and Billie Jean King. These days, professional athletes tend to stay mum about important issues. There’s a lot at stake for these players, potentially millions of dollars on the line if they were to speak out about something controversial. They could lose endorsement deals, be fined by their league for speaking out of turn, or worse, get cut from their teams for being a “distraction.” The dreaded “distraction!”
Take the case of linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo, who was with the Baltimore Ravens. Ayanbadejo is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ equality. In 2012, a member of the Maryland legislature sent a letter to the Ravens demanding that they rein him and to “concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.” Sure, the Ravens didn’t heed the request to silence Ayanbedejo, but he was released from the team at the end of the season.
Not all players who take a stand face repercussions. After the murder of Trayvon Martin, it was a big news item when Miami Heat’s franchise star player Dwayne Wade appeared on the cover of Ebony with his two young sons, all of them in grey hoodies with “We Are Trayvon” splashed across them.
And six months after the homicide of Eric Garner, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who choked him to death. While people marched through the streets demanding justice after a lack of indictment, some NBA players staged their own simple protest. During warm-ups before games, prominent players wore t-shirts that said “I can’t breathe” across them. Those were the last words spoken by Garner as he died.
After those t-shirts appeared on national TV, some critics questioned whether the players should be fined for wearing non-warm-up gear. But the NBA commissioner decided not to punish the players. Though he said that he would prefer for the players to stick with their regular gear, he respected that they wanted to express themselves on an important issue.
Often times, we think of professional athletes as people who are jocks: people with brawny bodies who get paid lots of money for their physical talents. There isn’t an expectation that they may have smart, incisive opinions and ideas. But when I saw Dwayne Wade and his sons in those hoodies or LeBron James in a “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt, it was a stark reminder that their money and their celebrity status may not protect them in a country where white supremacy is part of our institutions. They’re untouchable on the court, but there are ranks of law enforcement who have no qualms about violence against people of color, particularly unarmed Black and brown folks.
REPORTER: The New York Police Department has launched an internal affairs investigation into the arrest of NBA player Thabo Sefolosha, who claims police used excessive force during a violent incident last week.
AMY: At the end of the last NBA season, Thabo Sefolosha of the Atlanta Hawks missed the play-offs, the PLAY-OFFS, where his team advanced to the eastern conference finals. Why did he miss the play-offs? Well, Sefolosha had to sit out these games because during a trip to New York City, he and a couple other athletes had an altercation with the NYPD that resulted in his leg getting fractured at the hands of police officers. But there was barely a peep about it in the sports news world. In a piece for the Nation, writer Dave Zirin concluded that the sports news world can be self-censoring when it comes to possibly controversial topics.
Many people are clearly not comfortable with athletes making a stand: team owners, Maryland legislators, and reporters alike. But these are the moments where we see who athletes really are. These moments of political action are not the cheesy, canned segments–though I love them–about their inspirational childhoods and mammoth mansions. In these actions, our star athletes show us what they really believe. And they show me a person to root for.
SARAH: Last month I went to a soccer game. No big deal, right? Very. Big. Deal.
[crowds cheering, chanting, and clapping]
The National Women’s Soccer League game that I attended between the Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign happened right after the World Cup. The place was packed. Or in the words of National Women’s Soccer League commentator Ann Schatz:
ANN: History will be made tonight in Portland, Oregon. Over 21,000 fans will jam Providence Park for the latest edition of the Cascadia rivalry between the Thorns and Seattle Reign. This sell-out will be a new NWSL attendance record.
SARAH: That’s right! 21,000 people came to see the game, the biggest crowd ever to turn out for an American National Women’s Soccer League match. And the fans were pumped!
Some of them were waving flags for the Seattle Reign. Many of them were waving Portland Thorns flags, but also in the crowd were flags that you don’t often see at a pro-sports event: rainbow pride flags. While sports are often rife with homophobia, women’s soccer is filled with out queer players, and in the bleachers are many, many queer fans. Portland Thorns midfielder Sarah Huffman—who is now retired from the team but whose World Cup smooch with her wife, Abby Wambach, went viral over the summer—talked about the importance of seeing those rainbow flags in the crowd during a 2014 interview with The Oregonian:
SARAH HUFFMAN: But it’s nice. I mean, I think every day whether it’s in the Timber games or in our games, there’s flags up in support. And it’s just those little things just to know the community’s behind you, the fans are behind you, and they support you. It’s really, it’s a kind of indescribable feeling.
SARAH MIRKRISTIN: So why is women’s soccer such a welcoming place for queer fans and athletes? There’s no one better to talk to about this question than Steph Yang, a hardcore soccer fan who has written about LGBT identity and the National Women’s Soccer League for Bitch. I called up Steph at her home in Boston.
All right, Steph, let’s start out with you giving a shout out to any of your favorite teams. What teams are you a big fan of that you want everyone to know about?
STEPH: Right now, I guess it’s just the one: it’s the Boston Breakers who play in NWSL. They’re going through a really interesting time. They just, their last coach just resigned, and they just hired a new one from England, coming from Liverpool Ladies. So yeah, who knows. He’s probably gonna fire half the roster. So we’re all kind of on pins and needles waiting for the hammer to drop.
SARAH: [chuckles] Maybe a hard time to be a Boston Breakers fan.
STEPH: Yeah. An interesting time, anyway.
SARAH: All right, Steph. Well today, we’re gonna talk specifically about sort of homophobia in sports and how women’s soccer has a real different approach to queer fans and queer players than you see in a lot of sports. So sports across the board have a reputation for being a breeding ground of homophobia, and the first international study of gay athletes ever came out this summer. It surveyed 9,500 people in English-speaking countries. And the results were not good. 78% of athletes said that youth sports are unsafe for lesbian, gay, and bi people. 83% said that fans are likely to be targeted if they’re gay, lesbian, or bi. So I wanted to talk to you about your ideas about how women’s soccer is approaching this differently. What is it like for queer fans and queer players in women’s soccer?
STEPH: It’s changing. It’s changed really rapidly, I’d say, in the last five or so years. I think kind of the jumping off point might have been when Megan Rapinoe came out as openly gay. Before that, there had been queer women in women’s soccer. Natasha Kai came out, I think, in 2008. She just kind of off-handedly mentioned, “Yeah, my girlfriend so-and-so.” But there wasn’t as much of a big to-do about it, and I think part of it was, at the time US soccer wasn’t super ready to deal with an out gay athlete. And American society wasn’t either. But fast forward to 2012, and then Megan Rapinoe’s getting recognized, getting awards, stuff like that.
SARAH: So is women’s soccer doing something different to be encouraging of queer players and queer fans? Why are women more able and safe to come out as players in national women’s soccer than in other sports?
STEPH: Firstly, I think just by the act of being a women’s sport, it’s kind of subversive, a popular women’s sport at that, because ever since the national team started winning and winning big, it started getting momentum and money. And it’s kind of hard to argue with money in America. So by just being a women’s sport, you’re already intruding on an area where men have established a ton of dominance. But with women’s sport, especially in America, women’s soccer has grown by such leaps and bounds, and they’ve traditionally always done better than the men have in international competitions because of a bunch of factors, which I won’t get into here. So it’s women’s sport, but it’s popular. So it creates this space where women who are fans of something, something subversive, suddenly find themselves a fan of something that’s big, and it gives them a voice. So I think it attracts people who aren’t necessarily invited into majority spaces. So if you could go to this thing, and it was safe for you to like, and you could find other people like you who enjoyed it, it’s not like going to an NFL game where there’s probably gonna be a lot of cis, straight guys who have some gross opinions about women because they’re in a very macho, masculine-catering atmosphere.
SARAH: Well, so that’s interesting. So the fact that women’s soccer started out with a smaller fan base in some ways let it be sort of an open ground for new fans to establish themselves and feel safe there, because it wasn’t something that was already dominated by a specific tradition, a specific culture that’s a bunch of dudes.
STEPH: Yeah, it was a new place. It was kind of unexplored. It’s like when you find this beautiful new island, you get to plant your flag and kind of make it your own. So they were able to shape it from the beginning, and as it grew, I don’t think they were forced out. They just kind of more and more queer women came to the game instead of the original queer fans being forced out by growing popularity, which is great.
SARAH: So one thing I’ve been really struck by whenever I go to women’s soccer games is not only that there’s a large queer fan base in the audience, but there’s really very out messaging. Do you feel like the National Women’s Soccer League has been encouraging of its queer fan base and queer players, or is this happening without any kind of institutional support at all from the National Women’s Soccer League and from the people who buy ads there?
STEPH: I think league-wide there’s kind of a tacit sanctioning because the NWSL’s essentially an arm of US Soccer, and it would be really crappy of US Soccer not to at least be okay with this when they’re touting out athletes like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe as their heroes. They structure so much of their advertising around Abby Wambach that it would be so hypocritical of them not to acknowledge her as a human being who happens to be queer. So on that broad level, there’s at the very least, tacit acceptance of this. There’s not going to be any top-down mandate that’s like get those rainbow flags out of there.
SARAH: Well, it’s interesting because the number of out male athletes in any professional sport in the United States can be counted on one hand, and there’s one gay male athlete in men’s soccer. That’s Robbie Rogers of the LA Galaxy. But typically, male athletes don’t come out, or they come out in their last season, right before they’re about to retire, or when they do retire. So you’re really drawing a distinction between those sports and women’s soccer, where some of the biggest stars on the field, the women who are the faces of the World Cup like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, are out players.
STEPH: Yeah, I think anybody who is familiar with the world would, if they think about that for a minute, go yeah, that makes sense to me. Because in men’s sports, which is considered to be the ultimate pinnacle of manliness, if you’re a pro athlete, that manliness is so incompatible with being queer, to the majority of the world. To be a queer man means to not actually be a “man.” You’ve given up your masculinity because you might not be attracted to cis women. But for women, for one reason or another, women’s sexuality has never been as rigidly constrained. Obviously, women have been, their bodies and their interests are often the target of legislation. But just in the general consciousness, like the zeitgeist of a population, I think women’s sexuality is allowed to have a little more leeway.
SARAH: Well, it’s interesting how this plays out in reports of homophobia in sports. I want to hearken back to that survey I was talking about: the first international study of gay athletes, which came out earlier this year. It’s called Out In the Field. And it asked thousands of athletes if they’d ever received harassment, slurs about their sexuality. And the stats are pretty interesting. It’s that among gay, lesbian, and bi men and women, 84% of men and 82% of women have received verbal slurs about their sexuality. So people throwing really nasty words at them. But male players were far more likely to be physically threatened and assaulted for their sexuality, whereas female players were far less likely to be. So there’s this threat of physical violence facing gay male players that is still very real but less of a looming danger for female players, the stats show.
STEPH: Yeah, and I think that kinda tracks with how men and women are raised socially. Men are encouraged far more to go into confrontations and be physical, whereas women’s confrontations are kinda channeled more towards being emotional or verbal. I mean, just as nasty, if you’ve ever had a bully in school, the right female bully can just pick you apart with a couple of sentences. But yeah, I think that’s due to more of an overarching socialization problem than anything super related to sports. And I think for men, it’s exacerbated by being in that sports atmosphere where they’re encouraged to use physical expression as their outlet.
SARAH: You just mentioned: so you’re a visibly queer person. How does it feel different for you being in the stands of a women’s soccer game versus the stands of another sports game where you’re maybe cheering just as hard?
STEPH: I think it’s not even on the level of being queer, just being female-presenting, where there’s just so many more women in the audience, so many more.
SARAH: So one thing that really gets to me about the homophobia in sports is that it seems like it should be a top priority for people who wanna sell tickets to make sports a safe place for all people to go to. Queer fans are some of the most hardcore fans of women’s soccer. They buy the tickets, they buy the shirts. I wonder what other leagues can learn from the NWSL about encouraging a queer fan base for their own interests. I mean, they’re missing out on a fan base here, on people who love sports, who wanna go buy tickets.
STEPH: I think what makes so many of them hesitant is they don’t wanna rely on this because they think queer fan bases are niche. And to some extent, and just in terms of percentage of population, they kind of are. Teams want to appeal to that 18-50 year old male demographic because they’re kinda stuck in the past, and they don’t respect the power of women’s dollars. I don’t necessarily know that NWSL was super capitalizing on this either. Right now, they’re at the level of they’re actively okay with it, but I’m not super sure that they’re pursuing this as aggressively as they could. I think a great example to look at is actually the WNBA. The WNBA is now actively marketing to LGBT audiences, and when it came out that this was what they were going to be doing as an active marketing strategy, they released a statement saying just because we advertise to LGBT fans doesn’t mean we’re going to lose other fans. They don’t displace parts of our audience. They’re just a good addition to our audience.
SARAH: Well, let’s finish up with you telling us some sort of beautiful sports moment [chuckles]. Can you recall a favorite moment from the Boston Breakers to regal us with?
STEPH: This is gonna be really depressing, but the team has had two losing seasons in a row. So I think last season they had a home game to close things out, and even though they had no chance of making playoffs–cuz they were second to last in the league–they still fought really hard at home, knowing it was their last game of the season. And they managed to pull out a win for us, the fans. And I think there was nothing on the line. It was just pride and doing it for the fans, and they did it. And it’s kind of a sad story when I think about it, but it’s all we’ve had in the past two years.
SARAH: That was writer Steph Yang. Steph co-hosts a podcast all about women’s soccer. It’s called Two Drunk Fans. Go look it up.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today’s show is all about why we love sports.
At its most basic level, our feelings about sports are personal. Sports tie into our identities, the way we grew up, and our families. I wanted to wind down today’s show with thoughts on family fandom: people’s personal relationship to sports within their families. We have four very short stories for you about how our families shape our ideas of sports.
KIRSTIN: So my name is Kirstin Kelly. I’m an editorial intern at Bitch, and I grew up in a very small town in California, which actually happens to be the same small town as my dad. When my dad was in high school, he was the captain of the basketball team. And my mom was the captain of Letter Girls, which was her high school’s version of cheerleaders, which she was only involved with because at that time they wouldn’t let her play more aggressive sports. She seriously loves football. It’s a little crazy. I actually remember one time when the Kings were playing the Lakers, and they lost the championships. My dad laid down on the floor and had a full-blown temper tantrum. Yeah, I don’t do sports. At all. I like to go outside, and I like to ride horses, and I like to ski. And those are all athletic, but they’re not sports in the classic sense of the term. So when I was growing up, that was actually a little bit of a challenge for my family because my mom, especially, couldn’t understand why I didn’t wanna compete and why I didn’t like to play with balls made out of rubber. And she was really encouraging me to try all of these different things. So I tried out for volleyball, and I tried out for basketball. And I never made it past the first cut because, at 24 years old, I still actually trip over my feet, cuz I’m not sure how big they are. And that’s pretty much been the story of my life. And honestly, when I did play in some of the local league sports and stuff, it wasn’t something I really enjoyed. It really felt like–and still feels like–a chore. But most of the time, when we’re watching games, I actually don’t know what the rules are. So people start yelling, and I go, “Yay!” along with them. But I actually have no idea. I think they’re learning that I don’t–and just because I don’t do sports doesn’t mean I’m not competitive or assertive or willing to stand up for myself. So as a writer, I get a lot of hate online, and I haven’t let that stop me. And I’ve gotten a lot of rejection, because when you’re a writer, that’s how things go. And I just keep going. I think that they’re really proud that I’ve been able to just keep going on and that I haven’t really–I think they’re relieved to see that I didn’t need sports to teach me how to stand up for myself, how to get into the game.
KRISTIN: Hi, I’m Kristin Rogers Brown, a celebrity art director of Bitch, and I feel like I’m making a confession. I am a Chicago Cubs fan [chuckles]. And I was born into it. I grew up outside of Chicago in the South suburbs of Chicago. My mom passed away about 10 years ago, and one of my like sort of fondest, I guess, memories of my mom is I remember finding out she had cancer and passed away about 10 years ago. And when she really found out that it was kind of the last stretch of it, one of her rants and complaints that she had was that: oh my god, I’m never gonna see the Cubs win in my lifetime. It was sort of like [sighs], dude, these guys better get it together. And she actually said, cuz her dad used to take her to games when she was growing up, she was like, “Man, my dad didn’t even see them win. Now I’m not gonna see them win. I hope maybe you’ll get to see them win.” It was very long-suffering. And we all rolled our eyes, but we were all kinda like, oh shit. That really sucks [chuckles].
SARAH: Like hoping that the Cubs can win a World Series before she dies?
KRISTIN: Yeah. But I mean, it’s the Cubs. They’re kinda cursed. We were all kinda like, yeah, it’s probably not gonna happen. I mean, it could’ve been. This was not like you’re gonna die in a minute. This was like, oh, you have cancer. It could be years. They’re probably not gonna win. So all these years later, I am still a Cubs fan. And again, I feel like I’m confessing something here. I’ve lived outside of Chicago since I was about 18. So it’s been sort of hidden in various cities. And I think my sister and I carry on her superstitions. My sister lives in New York. She promised my mom that she would never set foot in the Mets stadium in New York. I don’t know if she’s carried that on or not. But one thing that I’m embarrassed and a little afraid to say out loud–maybe not embarrassed, but I’m afraid to say out loud–is that I’ve actually never been to a game where the Cubs lost in person. And by saying that out loud, I hope that maybe the Cubs would offer me season tickets so that they would win. But that might not happen. I’ve been to a lot of games.
SARAH: Chicago resident Veronica Arreola hosts a really interesting Facebook page. It’s called I Pledge to Attend One Women’s Sports Event This Year. I talked to Veronica and her 12 year old daughter about their relationship to sports and their love of sports as a family.
So can you tell me about your guys’ project to encourage people to see at least one women’s sporting event in a year and how it got started?
VERONICA: It got started, oh gosh. I totally forgot. I think it was like 2008, 2010. It was during one of the winter Olympics, and I was noticing how, again, during the Olympics, women’s sporting events and women athletes got a lot of attention and were praised in the media about being strong and that their feats were amazing, and people should watch, etc. etc. But I knew that as soon as the Olympics faded and the torch would be extinguished, that people would go back to ignoring women’s sports. So I decided to create this Facebook page, cuz that’s where you can do things like this, and just challenge people to attend one women’s sporting event a year.
SARAH: How do you feel about your mom’s project? Do you think it’s pretty cool, or do you feel like what’s the point? I go see tons of women’s sports.
ELIZABETH: I think it’s pretty cool because while I know that we go to a lot of women’s sports, I do realize that there aren’t as many people in the audience as there are as when we go to men’s sports. And I think that’s a problem because they’re just as good and sometimes, even better cuz they win more. And it’s just, it’s really good what she’s doing cuz I think they deserve a much better audience.
SARAH: So both of you, what’s your all-time favorite team to go watch play.
ELIZABETH: Well, my favorite all-time team is the National Women’s Soccer Team. I look up to them so much. So it’s really cool whenever I get to see them play, which is why I absolutely loved the experience of going to the World Cup this past summer. It’s probably one of the best games I’ve ever seen, but I really liked seeing them as well as the Chicago Red Stars, which is the soccer team for our city.
VERONICA: I don’t know. You know, I really, one of my favorite experiences was a few years ago we took Elizabeth’s Girl Scout troupe to a Chicago Sky game, which is our WNBA team. And it was a family event, and watching all these new families experience the Sky for the first time is always great for me to watch. But especially watching all the little brothers getting really into the game, because I think in some of the conversation about the lack of support for women’s sports, people talk about boys and men not wanting to watch women compete. But once you get men or women into a stadium watching athletes, whether they’re men or women, they totally love it.
SARAH: Do you want to play in the World Cup some day?
ELIZABETH: Oh, it’s my dream.
SARAH: For the final story, we’re going to hear from someone who’s a big part of this show but who we never have on the air: Our producer Alex Ward. Hi Alex.
SARAH: You are usually behind the scenes on the show. You’re the person who helps record interviews and get all our audio levels right. You’re the one who makes me sound good.
ALEX: It’s not that hard. You sound great, Sarah.
SARAH: Aw geez. That’s way too nice [chuckles]. But okay, when I talked to you about this week’s show theme and the family sports stories, you said, “Oh man, I have to talk to my dad.” Can you tell us a little bit about your dad?
ALEX: Yeah, I wanted to talk to my dad because he, like me, he grew up playing sports from a very young age, starting with baseball and then football and basketball. So he kind of was a three-sport athlete into high school. But then, I never really heard about that a lot. What I did hear a lot about was him being a cheerleader his senior year in high school. When he quit the football team, and he joined the rally squad, and I remember talking to him about that as a kid and thinking I wanted to know a) why that transition happened.
SARAH: From football start to cheerleader.
ALEX: I doubt he was a star.
SARAH: [laughs] I was trying to be nice. I was trying to be nice.
ALEX: Yes. No, that’s fine. But going from on the field to off the field and then sort of what butterfly effect that had in his life.
SARAH: Great. Well, let’s listen to your interview.
DAD: I played baseball for many years on a little league team, and then when I got into middle school, I played football, basketball, and track. Pretty much whenever there was a try-out, I was going to it, yeah.
ALEX: So then, what happened in your senior year?
DAD: So I was playing football. I enjoyed it. In my senior year, we had summer, we started summer training, summer practices, and what went on there changed my attitude about football. I guess you could call it old-school coaching where there was a lot of coaching, motivation by degradation. And a lot of it was they would call you a pussy, they’d say, “Oh, you’re hitting like a girl,” and they’d chew you out. I don’t know. Maybe that goes on today. But I was helping the coaches in the summer work with some 9th graders, and I saw a coach who I didn’t like, he was paramilitary, and he chewed this kid out and called him a pussy and kicked him and made him do pushups and put his foot on the guy’s back. Basically, this guy was taking out his own internal aggression and his demons on this kid, and this kid was crying. And it affected me so much, I said, “I don’t wanna be a part of this.” And I remember walking away from football practice. I took off my football spikes, I set them on the bench, and I said, “I’m outta here.” And I left. I left organized sports that time. It was just mean-spirited cruelty. As if you can have loving cruelty [chuckles]. But that was it.
ALEX: And then you transitioned from on the field to off the field. So talk me through that transition.
DAD: So all the sudden, I’d taken away my identity as an athlete, and I didn’t realize that was gonna leave such a hole in my life. And so, a friend of mine, right when school started, he had said, “Hey, I’m thinking about trying out for the rally squad. Do you want to do it? I don’t want to do it alone. Would you be interested?” This was a good friend of mine. And I said, “Gawd, what a great idea.” His motive was because he had a terrible crush or a fantastic crush on a cute girl who was gonna try out for rally squad. He thought if he got elected, which of course he would because man on the rally squad was not cool. He was cool, I was cool, we thought, “Let’s do it.”
ALEX: You thought you were cool [laughs].
DAD: Yeah. I thought I was cool. But it was hard to be cool when you’re on the rally squad just because when you go from being an athlete. So I said what could it hurt? And of course, we got elected, and I had friends who were on the football team. So our first game, I was getting tremendous–My friend and I, who both knew a lot of people on the football team, we got really, really great acceptance, and we were out there, and it was so super-charged. And I found that that was so much more invigorating. I was just onstage, and I got to go to all the away games. Ironically, that year that I was on the rally squad, the football team took the State championship, the best team in the state. So I was able to be a part of that, and I didn’t have to worry about sitting on the bench, which I probably would have. I was right on the field with them, and it was so much fun.
ALEX: You were very outgoing. You are very outgoing. I know this about you. I inherited this from you. And you felt like you were onstage. So what effect did that have on your career [chuckling] going forward?
DAD: [laughs] If you are an extrovert like I am–and you are–there’s something satisfying about being able to have an effect on a crowd in a positive way. And I was having a lot more success than that, I’m doing that on the sidelines as rally squad than I did if I was playing football. And it led to a shift in my lifestyle. My senior year, in the spring, I also auditioned for a theater production, which I never would have done. Athletes and drama kids were way, way on each end of the spectrum. I got involved with theater. I ended up becoming a theater major in college, and I find my tribe.
DAD: You know, I love sports. I love watching it, I love playing it, but maybe you can agree with me or not that when it really becomes, when sports become so serious that winning and losing is everything, and your performance on the field or in the gym becomes so serious, and there’s so many consequences of it, that wasn’t fun to me. You make a mistake, and it could be just as simple as missing a block or missing a tackle or somebody in the secondary getting by you, or in basketball, if you had a turnover, you’re taken out of the game, shame and humiliation, the rest of the team and the crowd is resentful the game could’ve gone a different way if you didn’t screw up. I didn’t like that. Too much pressure, and I never felt that–I mean when I was in a play, the most I had to worry about was remembering my entrances and remembering my lines. But it wasn’t like they were gonna pull me off the stage and chew me out.
ALEX: What a weird theater program that would be [laughing]!
DAD: We’re putting in your understudy. Get outta here, Ward [laughs]
SARAH: Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent nonprofit feminist media organization. We’re entirely funded by our beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today’s episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at Bitchmedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.