The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game – Sexism and Soccer

On Saturday, Hope Solo became the first goalkeeper (male or female) to appear in 200 international matches. But the crowd’s persistent taunts of “Zika” at the U.S. player overshadowed this historic moment.

Back in July, Solo tweeted a photograph of herself wearing a mosquito net and holding a massive bottle of insect repellant. The internet – of course – exploded, mostly with criticisms that Solo was overreacting, ignorant, and prejudiced. In the opening match against New Zealand, Solo also experienced heckling from the crowd.

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Earlier this year, Solo announced she was debating whether to attend the Olympics due to concerns about the virus. But after doing research on the disease and its prevention, she decided to compete.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Solo defended her tweet, explaining that she and her husband plan on having a family. The Zika virus causes birth defects in unborn children. According to the CDC, both men and women can transmit the disease.

Of course, heckling in soccer is probably as old as soccer itself. However, too often it highlights another epidemic – soccer’s persistent problems of prejudice. Taunting Solo for voicing her concerns as an aspiring mother is emblematic of the game’s underlying chauvinism.

Despite the growing popularity of women’s soccer in the US and Europe, demeaning female players for their sex, sexual orientation, and sexuality remains a common theme. For example in 2004, FIFA President Sepp Blatter suggested that women wear sexier uniforms to increase interest in the game:

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

Meanwhile, FIFA continues to employ a grotesque policy of “gender verification” that apparently only applies to female players. According to the federation’s 2011 policy, this includes testing hormone levels and a medical history, but the specific requirements for being deemed female are not outlined. In contrast, the Olympics base their verification on specific hormone levels.

Either way, medical evidence argues against the determination of “sex” based on arbitrary hormone cutoffs, particularly among athletes. One endocrinology expert calls it “idiotic.”

So, female athletes are publicly humiliated by unscientific tests, especially if their results indicate some form of secondary sex abnormality. They must lower their testosterone levels using invasive surgical or pharmaceutical methods prior to competing again.

By only requiring sex verification for female players, FIFA also emphasizes the assumed male advantage in athletics, which is scientifically controversial. The new Olympics policy setting separate standards for female-to-male and male-to-female transgender athletes further demonstrates the assumed relationship between sex and athleticism.

The sexual orientation of female soccer players is also often under public scrutiny. Nigerian women’s soccer officials have recently come under fire for blaming lost revenue on lesbianism and forcing openly gay women off the team. During the Australia-Canada match on 03 August, fans reportedly shouted homophobic slurs at the Australian goalkeeper, Lydia Williams.

Homophobia abounds among soccer fans and is also frequently targeted at male players. For example, during the Copa America 2016, homophobic heckles by Mexican fans got so bad that FIFA threatened sanctions against the team. And earlier this year, Spain’s first openly gay soccer referee resigned, citing abusive comments from fans.

To question the sexual orientation of female players who exhibit incredible strength and athleticism, however, is somewhat different from everyday homophobia. It not only demonstrates negative attitudes toward the LGBT community, but also the persistence of antiquated notions about femininity and masculinity.

Women have also faced unsafe playing conditions, suggesting that leagues prioritize short term monetary gain over the health of female players. For example, when USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in a training session in December 2015, public outcry over the conditions of the pitch finally forced the US Soccer Federation to cancel the scheduled friendly.

The incident echoed the “grass ceiling” lawsuit. Leading up to the Women’s World Cup 2015, 84 players from 13 countries sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association over the discriminatory use of artificial turf, citing that

“elite men’s teams would never be forced to play on an artificial surface instead of natural grass.”

The attorney who represented the players argued,

“The synthetic pitches bake in the sun, with surface temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. Clouds of rubber pebbles fly into players’ eyes, and the turf makes it difficult for the women to gauge the way the ball will bounce.”

But instead of taking the players’ complaints seriously, FIFA threatened suspension, suggested that the tournament would continue with turf regardless of the ruling, and intentionally delayed the court so that players would remain in the dark about how to train for the tournament.

FIFA further degraded female players during the Women’s World Cup 2015 when it forced opposing teams to share hotels, a practice that would never occur in the men’s tournament. As Matt Bonesteel of the Washington Post aptly (hopefully not presciently) scoffed,

“No word on if FIFA will make the teams share locker rooms and uniforms at France 2019.”

Recently, the wage gap in soccer has also garnered media attention. In March, five players on the USWNT filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the U.S. Soccer Federation, claiming that on average the USWNT receives about 25% less than the US Men’s National Soccer Team.

U.S. Senators became involved in the case, passing a non-binding resolution in May that urges the federation to

“immediately end gender pay inequity and to treat all athletes with the respect and dignity those athletes deserve.”

Those same Senators are hoping to revive a piece of legislation on equal pay.

In a June article, Fortune Magazine speculated that the pay-gap in sports could be the primary reason why more men than women have decided to skip Rio 2016. Women simply can’t afford to miss an international tournament.

Meanwhile, like other sports, media coverage of women’s soccer is laced with sexism. For example, below are some excerpts from the Guardian’s Tom Lutz’s live updates during the Saturday match.

And it’s a big day for Hope Solo as she looks forward to being mocked by the crowd her 200th cap for the US team.

The last time these teams met at the Olympics in 2012 it got a little spicy.

6 min: They’re sometimes slow starters in tournaments anyway and it wasn’t until late in the 2015 World Cup that they blossomed.

24 min: The US are looking as stretched as a bad facelift at the moment though.

27 min: They’re lucky Delie’s shot is as venomous as a butterfly (unless butterflies are venomous, I’ve never eaten one. I know you can get venomous caterpillars so …)

Note, I was going to compare Lutz’s reporting to commentary on the US Men’s National Team, but unfortunately they did not qualify. No worries. I mean, it is only the Olympics

So, in eager anticipation for the next USWNT match of the Olympics, I cannot help but feel a tinge of bitterness for the beautiful game. It reflects a constrained empowerment expected of all modern women. Our success is celebrated, so long as it conforms to the status-quo feminine persona. Yet at the same time we remain diminished and under-appreciated for our womanhood.



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