I grew up in the 90s as the older brother to two younger sisters. We were a soccer household to the point that when my mom thought my dad was putting in a swimming pool, he instead had the field by our house professionally leveled to make a regulation soccer pitch. My sisters teams practiced there for years. I had the honor of mowing the grass, which my dad and I kept smooth as a carpet. Through a series of coincidences and connections that would take several tack boards and half a dozen spools of red thread to explain, the Washington Freedom, the women’s professional soccer team of DC from 2001–2011, also used to practice on our field. I have helped put on barbecues on several occasions for these amazing professional athletes. Truth be told, my ability to cook large quantities of food quickly and to mow the grass have been my only contributions to the world of soccer. I can tell you I have never felt like more of a failure than when I had to tell two-time gold medalist and world champion goal keeper Briana Scurry that the burgers wouldn’t be ready for another 15 minutes because the grill was cold. (I’m still sorry, Briana.)
My childhood was admittedly bizarre. When my family met Mia Hamm, she looked at my mom and said, “Wow, you really popped ’em out, huh?” in reference to me and my sisters. My sisters had signed, framed photos of Brandi Chastain waving her jersey triumphantly over her head after scoring the game-winning PK of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Championship. Homare Sawa, star of the Japanese Women’s National Team, left tire tracks on our field when I forgot to clearly mark the parking lot. My favorite player will always be Julie Foudy, primarily because of her pre-game ritual of eating a jelly donut, which I personally have always found inspiring, and I still have an autograph book with her signature. We were a soccer family, but more specifically, we were a women’s soccer family.
I was never a particularly promising player, but my sisters were stars. I remember looking out the window when I was 12 to see my sister juggling a ball on her knees. I started counting, and when she finally bobbled the ball at 86, I said, “well, that’s that. She’s better than I am.” I didn’t resent her, and I wasn’t ashamed. I was just proud. In our house there was no distinction between men’s and women’s sports. We regularly watched A League of Their Own, The Big Green, Little Giants, and of course — Bend It Like Beckham and She’s the Man. I grew up surrounded by incredibly talented female athletes. Growing up in such a family, it never occurred to my sisters and I that women couldn’t be just as talented and successful as men in any field of competition.
As we grew older, my sister’s teams achieved incredible success in national and international tournaments. Our home was filled with trophies. I contributed two — one for being on a second-tier, third division local division championship team, and another for winning a tournament in rural Pennsylvania that went out of business the following year. I continued to play in pick-up games with my sisters and our friends and to play on co-ed indoor leagues in the off-season. Sometimes the best players were boys. More often they were girls. I mention this because the only people to ever take issue with the gender of players were fathers on the side-lines.
Boys are not born with internalized biases against girls. That is inculcated behavior reinforced by role models, most commonly older men, and especially fathers.
I remember playing in a game in middle school: there was a girl on the other team, and she was phenomenally fast. When she blew by our fullback for third time, I heard his dad yell out, “You’re getting beat by a girl!” I hated the unfairness of that.
I will admit that for years I envied what I perceived to be a “win-win” situation that girls enjoyed in sports. Because no one expected them to win, I didn’t see there being any cost to losing and could see only the benefit of winning. If you lost, well, you were a girl. If you won, you had a double victory, because you won but you also won as a girl. For boys, I felt it was lose-lose. A win over a girl was a hollow victory, and a loss to a girl was compounded humiliation.
Watching the US Women dominate the field of international competition for two decades, I see now how misguided I was. We still value the US Men, who are perennial losers, more than our championship women’s team, simply because they are men, and America, as a patriarchal nation, has a long, proud history of valuing mediocre men more than exceptional women. (Just look at any board of directors or at the halls of Congress.) Girls are raised to pursue success and perfection in every field of competition, but not every arena is open to them. I think that needs to change.
Men’s and women’s sports are clearly not “separate but equal,” and they never will be.
Professional sports should be co-ed, and the first sport to integrate should be soccer. The Women’s World Cup is approaching the finals, and once again the United States tunes in to briefly take pride in the accomplishments of women we habitually neglect and fail to support. Megan Rapinoe has made headlines because in addition to being a superstar athlete, she is also an activist and advocate of conscience using her platform to raise awareness about LGTBQIA oppression and police brutality in the US. The US is often an outlier on the world stage.
In men’s sports, we either can’t compete or simply don’t. While the rest of the world watches cricket and football (which we insist on calling “soccer” because, of course, American Football is the only football that matters), we have the NFL, the MLB, the NHL, and the NBA. We draw the best players from the rest of the world for the NBA and the NHL, and our lack of home-grown talent is clear whenever the Olympics come around. Football and baseball, contrary to the claims of crowning world champions each year, are primarily domestic products that bemuse and amuse the rest of the world.
Not so with women’s sports. With women’s professional sports, we lead the world, and it is one of the few points of unadulterated pride I still feel in being a US citizen
Currently the US Women are fighting for equal pay to their male counterparts (“peers” would give the US Men too much credit, considering their historical inability to achieve even middling success, despite having far greater funding and support than the teams of developing nations against whom they regularly lose.) The arguments in favor of equal pay cite the fact that the women’s team actually generates more revenue than the men’s team while being paid a fraction of the salary. The US Women’s World Cup final in 2015 actually had more viewers than the Men’s World Cup. Yet women still have to play on artificial turf and get paid a pittance. Facts like these seem to be useless in the face of sexism and ignorance, and that should come as no surprise.
If soccer were to become a co-ed sport in the US, I believe we would see a cultural shift within 10 years. Boys are already wearing US Women’s jerseys as they watch the World Cup this summer. In 2015, I searched the internet for hours and couldn’t find a jersey that wasn’t tailored for women (meanwhile, men’s professional sports have a dozen options for female fans). I finally found a cotton t-shirt with Abby Wambach’s name and number, which I did happily buy. Now, I can buy a jersey that will fit my less-than athletic form so I can support my favorite team more fully from my couch, which is the dream of every sports fan.
I think as a nation and a culture, we’re ready. Millennial men and Gen-Xers certainly are, and the Boomers have a closing window of opportunity to grow and evolve before time more permanently resolves their power of influence.
It could start with schools. In a series of phases, have elementary, then middle, and finally high schools make soccer co-ed. Most elementary schools already have co-ed soccer teams. Boys and girls begin their soccer careers playing as peers, and it wouldn’t be difficult to explain to children that they will simply continue to play as they always have. Soccer games could replace football games for homecoming, which would be a perfect way to begin changing the intrinsic sexism of that celebration. No longer would alumni and school communities turn out to watch boys play (American*) football as girls cheer before going to a dance to be crowned heteronormative king and queen. Who knows — maybe the court might be able to evolve with the game. Internationally, the world might follow our lead. Even if other counties changed a bit more slowly, I see no reason why we couldn’t field a mixed team in the men’s world cup until the world catches on. Meanwhile, back home girls would have access to the same level of funding and sport.
I spent my entire childhood surrounded by incredible athletes. They happened to be girls. I never really had a chance to internalize any of the sexist expectations of what “ladylike” behavior was. Let me tell you: they eat. All the time. They belch. They fart. Constantly. They make crude jokes. They make dirty fouls and they fight hard. They play through injuries and obsess over mistakes. They train. Constantly. Essentially, they never seemed any different than the boys I played sports with. They could also more than hold their own.
There are other reasons why going coed would be a great change. One of the reasons I prefer watching women’s soccer to men’s is that women don’t dive nearly as often. I think perhaps they fear being accused of weakness. I promise you, if women were on the pitch, we would see far fewer Oscar-worthy performances of male players rolling around and wailing. Moreover, there are now concerns about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in soccer players, too. American football, hockey, rugby and other contact sports will have a hard time adapting rules and gameplay to keep players safe. Soccer does make use of headers, particularly for offensive plays and especially on corner kicks, but as we learn more about CTE, I could see soccer banning heading. If heading goes, then the height advantage men have (on average) would be eliminated, too. It would be a level playing field.
Obviously, this would be a radical change, and it would come at a cost. Whenever spaces are integrated, the less-privileged group suffers. I don’t know if the benefits would outweigh the cost of losing the cohesion a team of women have. My sister still sees her teammates from childhood regularly. More than any school or sorority, that team is family. I’d like to think they would still have the same bonds if they had been on a coed team. Ensuring that girls had the same chances to tryout and were supported by coaches as much as boys will be difficult to encourage and hard to enforce. I think it’s worth trying. Having listened to Alexi Lalas (a sportscaster more famous for once having had a big head of red hair and for taking a shot to the groin than for his prowess as a soccer player) pontificate about Megan Rapinoe and the character of the US Women’s Team has me at least convinced that no women’s victory will ever be enough to change the opinions of close-minded men. So let’s tear down barriers instead and see what happens when women and men play together and for each other for once. I’ll be here on my couch waiting to cheer them on.