On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics

“People want excellence in sports, and the quality of women’s soccer is not there.”

“Nobody wants to watch women’s sports.”

“The top women can’t take on the top men.”

These three things were said by attendees at a recent congress of leading scholars and journalists working on soccer.

The organizers of Soccer as the Beautiful Game deserve a lot of credit for bringing scholars and sports writers together. What follows is not a criticism of that conference, or of its organizers – quite the opposite. At this moment, it is not possible to organize a conference at which the above statements would not be made, unless one either excluded women and women’s football from all discussion, or invited only feminists to the table. The conference’s organizers worked to make sure that feminist scholars like myself were in the room because they are committed to changing the field.

As long as people writing about the men’s game write only about men, they can maintain the delusion that their work isn’t sexist in its very foundation. But the world does not line up with their writing. It isn’t composed entirely of men – not even where the men’s game is concerned (one scholar’s presentation on the recollections of English women football fans of the 1966 World Cup was illuminating not only in its content, but also in its rarity – even scholarship on fans tends to assume that they are all and always only men). With even just a few women in the room (men outnumbered women at this conference by what felt like 7 to 3) – with a just a handful of experts on the women’s game among the audience – overt and inferential expressions of sexism were inevitable. You can’t put us – feminists, women, women’s football fans – in a room with them – sexists (men who only care about men’s sports) – and not provoke some awfulness from a few of the sexists. (Most sexist sports scholars and critics are benevolent in their approach to women’s sports: they want to see the field developed – by women.)

From left to right: Simon Kuper, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Grant Wahl, Peter Alegi and Charles Korr.

From left to right: Simon Kuper, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Grant Wahl, Peter Alegi and Charles Korr.

To wit: A plenary panel composed of leading scholars and journalists addressed their experiences writing about the sport. Each panelists spoke briefly about the way the sport’s history, politics and economy impacts their practice as scholars and as journalists. Featured on the panel*: Grant Wahl – [until recently] the lone full-time journalist covering soccer for Sports Illustrated; Brenda Elsey – one of the conference organizers and author of Citizens and Sportsmen (a study of the amateur men’s fútbol clubs in Chile; she is writing about the history of women’s fútbol in that country); and Simon Kuper – author of Football Against the Enemy and a journalist for The Financial Times. Kuper, in particular, is a darling of the academic world, frequently invited to speak about the politics of the men’s game – his book is something of a sports-writing/academic cross-over.

In their opening remarks all of the panelists spoke about their writing about the men’s game. That the context for the conversation was the men’s game was taken as a given. During the Q&A, I raised my hand to ask Elsey and Wahl (who have both written about the women’s game as well as the men’s) to address how the situation changes when their writing turns to women. (For example, with the men’s game journalists and scholars both wrestle with economic and political pressures unique to the scale of its economy.) Elsey made a provocative point when she asked how dangerous must the women’s game be to have been banned for so long in so many countries – especially as the men’s game has been the site of so much important social organization. Wahl pointed out that if he wrote about another sport, he might never get a chance to report on women athletes – he considered himself lucky on that front.

Some hands went up in the audience, and the moderator – Charles Korr (a distinguished sports historian at the University of Missouri, St Louis) – picked a man I don’t know (I think this man was a member of the public, neither a scholar nor a journalist). That man said something like the following:

The thing is, people don’t want to watch women’s soccer: they want excellence, and the women’s game is not as developed as the men’s game. It’s slower, not as powerful.

I can’t quite remember what happened. I made a noise of some kind and some sort of gesture; a whole bunch of hands went up. Another man was picked to speak. He sounded relieved. Finally someone expressed something that everyone knew but didn’t feel like they could say in front of people like myself – although they were clearly dying to.

This man, Kevin McCrudden – a local journalist – invoked the WNBA as a evidence that “no one” wants to watch women’s sports: they need to be subsidized by the NBA, right? Unlike men’s teams, women’s teams lose money. (McCrudden seemed unaware of the fact that the television audience for MLS is smaller than that of the WNBA.) Other men jumped in to argue with these statements.

None of the senior feminists in the room raised their hands that I can remember. We did some combination of the following.

We locked eyes with each other.

We thought “what do we do?”

We debated in our minds if we could walk out. (As a keynote speaker at the conference, I did not feel I could.)

We tweeted.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 2.11.12 PMThe conversation seemed to go on, no one seemed able to stop the flow of sexist statements.

Finally, a young woman in the audience stood up and called out the sexists on their language: their imperial “we” and presumed “no one” left no room for her, as an ardent fan of women’s soccer who sought out every opportunity to watch it. I think she had to stand up because the moderator hadn’t called on her. I think, too, that she was a student.

If I didn’t say anything it was because I’d given a keynote address earlier in the conference; I had called out the segregated structure of sports scholarship as part and parcel of the sexist, homophobic and transphobic segregationist logics that underpin administration of the sport. I had also asked the question drew out the sexists – a question not aimed at the sexists, but at the people who make women’s soccer a part of their work.

I didn’t want to get into a shouting match with idiots. The other women in the room were far more seasoned that I am and even less likely to take the bait. I’ve spent most of my career writing about queer performance art, after all. Jean Williams literally wrote the book on feminist sports history where soccer is concerned. (Actually, she’s written three.) The fact that none of us spoke up at this point was evidence of our collective experience – these “conversations” go absolutely nowhere. They are not conversations. They are symptoms.

And I was particularly tired, because I got caught in a similar “discussion” the night before, in a sports bar, with at least one of the men on the panel.

In any case, the moderator stepped in to kill the discussion – it needed to happen but it felt like the wrong kind of intervention. Had I been moderating I might have just called out those remarks as sexist, and asked Wahl and Elsey, for example, how such attitudes shaped their experience writing about the women’s game. That isn’t what happened however. The moderator just wanted to put the whole mess back in the box – which makes sense, as I don’t think he’s ever written about women’s sports or sexism and perhaps he couldn’t handle it. Because if you don’t write about women’s sports or sexism in women’s sports – well, you have no expertise in the expert non-defensive communication skills required of such a situation.

Brenda Elsey, however, does. The lone woman on the panel leaned forward at that point and asserted her prerogative, as the conference co-organizer, to have the last word. She said something like:

“This whole conversation – the fact that it is even happening – is sexist.”

The mere introduction of women’s soccer as a subject of conversation provokes “common sense” observations from sexists about how “no one wants to watch women’s soccer” because women are weaker, slower etc. That is sexist. That the people who work on women’s soccer have to defend women’s athletic ability in order to participate in any conversation about women’s soccer – that is sexist.

And as it happens, I had spent the previous night arguing this point with Simon Kuper.

Earlier that evening, I’d been hanging out with Jean Williams and Stacey Pope, swapping notes on the talks we’d seen. We talked about Pelé, who was honored at a banquet that night, and gossiped about NY Cosmos goalie Shep Messing, who seemed to be flirting with everyone – me, but also David Goldblatt, for example.

I was feeling really high on the whole experience: Joshua Nadel, a scholar at North Carolina Central University, shared television footage of the 1971 Mexico City women’s world championship tournament – an event I’ve been obsessed with because it is the largest known audience for a women’s sporting event: over 100,000 filled Estadio Azteca to watch Mexico lose to Sweden. I’d only seen references to the event, I’d never seen actual footage of it until Nadel shared it with me. Stacey’s presentation on English women’s recollections of the 1966 World Cup was really moving and inspiring. I wanted to hang out with these folks, kick back and relax as all of us had given our papers by then.

We got separated, though, as we caught different shuttle busses back to the hotel. I went to the bar with fellow blogger Andrew Guest, Simon Kuper and a bunch of other attendees.

Within minutes of sitting down, Kuper and I became embroiled in an argument. Kuper returned to my keynote address – I had come out as hating the World Cup, not only because it’s a completely corrupt boondoggle, but because it replicates segregationist logics and broadcasts a fantasy world from which women have been banished. I posited another kind of football culture – one that fought segregationist logics rather than reproduced them. So, Kuper baited me:

The top women can’t take on the top men.

He continued by making assertions like: women are slower than men; women are weaker than men. And he kept returning to the following:

Marta could not take on Neymar.

I replied with something like:

They would not take on each other; they are both attacking players. They’d likely be on the same team, or on opposite ends of the field. You mean ‘Marta could not take on Puyol.’ And I want to see that. Maybe she couldn’t, but what if she could? People don’t always ‘take on’ other players by, say, outrunning them. And if she’s slower than Puyol (I don’t know that she is), she’s also a lot smaller. He’d have a hard time tackling her.

Kuper didn’t find this satisfying: he kept returning to the statements about women’s physical weakness, and he seemed to need me to agree with him on those points – that I refused to do so seemed to rattle him, but in a way that I think he enjoyed. I think he thought I was enjoying the conversation too.

I was rattled, however, in a way that I do not enjoy: because there I was in a sports bar, wrangling with the most primary expression of sexism. Those attitudes were being expressed by a man that people in the field think of as an important intellectual where this sport is concerned. (I, for the record, do not.) Everything Kuper said in that conversation was sexist, and what was particularly shitty was that he seemed not to know this.

As he pressed on, I thought to myself: This is why Simon Kuper has never examined the situation of the women’s game in any of the stories that he has written about football and international politics. Why SAFA or the Nigerian or the Spanish FA’s behavior towards their women’s sides (each its own scandal) isn’t newsworthy to him – or to most people who write about football, be they scholars or journalists. Such stories, in the mind of the sexist journalist and scholar, cannot be connected to Politics or Economics because the abject status of women’s football is a product of Nature.

They find talking about women’s sports a drag because they know nothing about it. They only thing they “know” is that women are weaker. And so that’s the conversation they insist on having, over and over again.

Oh, how I wish that I’d been having drinks with Grant Wahl instead. So that we might process the recent dismissal of the USWNT coach, so that we might talk about the upcoming women’s world cup being played on artificial turf, or the uneven development of the women’s game, and what is going on with Brazil – with the women’s team, that is. So that we might cast our “dream” mixed team. Oh, that I’d been sitting at a table with Jean and Stacey – so that they might chime in with their perspective on the Super League, and continue our conversations about their work as public historians.

But no. I was in a sports bar having an argument with an “intellectual” who wanted me to agree to his premise – that women are weaker – an argument that I also had with boys on the school bus when I was 8 years old. This perspective does not mature as boys turn into men; men either shed that attitude or it cements into their brain structure, like some kind of thought-killing plaque.

I refuse to have ANY conversation about sports that naturalizes women as the weaker sex as a precondition for entering into the discussion. So, in our discussion I kept returning to Kuper’s desire to force me to “admit” that Marta was somehow less of a player than Neymar, as if the aim of my own scholarship could be boiled down to this point. (People like Kuper do not read the work of people like myself.)

Thankfully, Andrew Guest partnered up with me in this discussion. So I wasn’t alone. But we were in a minority.

If you are woman forced into having that conversation over and over again, at some point you really just want to leave the room. At some point you might decide that life is too short to waste your time talking to these people. So the next morning, when a conversation about the material difference in the experience of writing about men’s soccer and writing about women’s soccer turned into the “natural” difference between men and women, I was not surprised but I did want to leave the room.

What does surprise me is how oblivious people in the field are to the toxicity of such conversations – it shows a total disregard for the conversation one might have in reply to a conversation like “how dangerous must women’s football be to have been banned for so long.” There is a place we can go that looks less like an elementary school argument, and more like the utopian “universalism” to which discourse about the game appeals. A place of not only gender equity, but gender fluidity. A world divided not in two but united in its assembly of singularities. Not Marta or Neymar, but Marta with Neymar.

____

*The panel was organized by The Football Scholars Forum, a terrific on-line seminar run by terrific scholars at Michigan State – Peter Alegi and Alex Galarza. Also on this panel was John Foot, who is based at the University of Bristol and is an important sports studies scholar in the UK.

 

Comments

  1. Unfortunately, women are far away from being seen as equals in the world of sports – whether it be writing, television, or playing.

    Aleksandra

    http://ignoredbypep.wordpress.com

  2. A truly enlightening (and depressing) read — thank you for sharing your experiences with such detail and clarity.

  3. No one says it better, Jennifer. I am glad I did not attend that session at the HUConference, or I may have been kicked out!! Refuting the “men are stronger, better, everything” argument in academia and athletics is so draining. When will it end? When will reputable scholars understand that this is such an unprofessional, outdated and bullying tactic? And why are they given a free ride to proclaim their unprofessional, sexist ideas? Look out – the uterus is moving, hysteria is setting in, muscle strengthening is replacing reproductive functions… why are women athletes seen as threats?

  4. Thanks for the post, Jennifer. But I’m not sure I can forgive you describing Alex and me as scholars based at the University of Michigan! Ugh.

    I thought it was unfortunate that the septagenarian idiot got the first question at the Football Scholars Forum (footballscholars.org) not only for the reasons you explain very well in your post, but also because that discussion went on for almost 30 minutes. I thought Chuck Korr handled it fairly well, since each of the panelists had taken time to craft six pre-conference posts as a springboard for informed discussion on a range of issues.

    It would be interesting to hear more of your thoughts on what other panelists reflected on in preparation for the Hofstra FSF session. Because what transpired that Saturday morning was a very partial, though obviously important, representation of the broader experience and dialogue. Thanks.

    • EEK! Thanks for catching that. I multi-tasked while writing that! As someone routinely ID’d as a professor at Irvine (!), I owe you an apology! Chuck handled the panel discussion well, but a feminist scholar would have handled it differently.

      Of course – that idiot’s attitudes proliferates in unpublished comments to this blog. I never publish comments that I think are sexist. But I keep them for the record. One just arrived, as a matter of fact: “those three statements at the top of your blog are all true.” Followed by a lengthly mansplaining which the world will never see. Most media outlets publish those remarks, of course. And much worse.

  5. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. So bogus and infuriating that those conversations still are (and aren’t) happening. But props for calling Kuper out on his bullshit by name.

  6. Thanks for keeping this “on the record” and not letting it go by without some extensive commentary. I am of two minds about this aspect of the panel. On the one hand, I was bummed that the Football Scholars Forum’s pre-conference work on the relationship between journalists and academics/historians was sidetracked by an ignorant and sexist set of comments. I was especially sorry for the female student athletes in the audience that were subjected to that rubbish. On the other hand, it did highlight the painfully persistent sexism in football criticism/writing. These writers often assume they are only reflecting what audiences want (stories on male athletes), despite scholarship that has challenged this assumption again and again, like that of Stacey Pope and Jean Williams. I’m trying to translate it into positive energy for researching women’s club histories in Latin America. Women football players are dangerous and, evidently, so are those of us who want to pay attention to them.

    • Thanks for writing Brenda! It was a good panel, too. And a great conference. What I want our colleagues – journalists and academics – to understand is that if a comment like that happens at a panel like that, we’ve encountered more and worse in other venues. For every comment I’ve posted here, there’s one I have not from people who want to have the same argument with me that Kuper was staging. People actually don’t get what’s sexist about the need to establish – once and for all – the forever and always secondary status of women’s sports. And of course that’s what feels natural to many folks, because that is how women’s sports are positioned by sports media, day in, day out. A positive response – as you point out – is that many of us turn to women’s sports ourselves, even if we started off writing about the men’s game, because it puts us in conversation with a different kind of community. And because the history is so insane and interesting. I just wish that all scholars wrote about women’s football as part of the responsible practice; that the world of those thinking about football were not so bifurcated.

  7. Well done Jennifer. I enjoyed your observations!

  8. Thanks for this Jennifer, I guess I have to hold up my hands (again) as a football scholar who focuses on the men’s game and its negotiations of masculinity without ever properly interrogating the complex of exclusivity that you effectively point out here. Only this time I’m determined not to let it wash over me: aside from the Jean Williams books, would you be able to recommend any useful readings I could use to expand my sense of what football is and has been beyond that doggedly masculinist frame?
    Luke

  9. Reblogged this on Soccer on the Brain and commented:
    An excellent and insightful reflection on sexism, sport and (sigh) academia. I would have liked to have attended this conference except for the inconvenience of already being at the AAG in Tampa at the same time. I like to think I would have been arguing for the women’s game, but it makes me think about my own writing and how I incorporate my own postionality in the game.

  10. ClintCrumley says:

    I’m headed to see a high school girls soccer playoff game tonight. (I’m an English teacher in North Carolina.) These girls are undefeated, having outscored opponents this season 48-4. They play fierce defense and can be wonderfully creative in attack. I’ve played pick-up with some of these girls before, one of whose perfect cross enabled my soccer-novice, middle-aged self to score a glorious goal (glorious in my memory, anyway), another of whose tenacious, 14-yr-old defensive skills put me on the turf. All season, I’ve talked tactics with them. One of them, our strong, solid central midfielder, loves to tell the story of when she met Abby Wambach. Anyway, it was frustrating to read what happened at that conference. I’m glad Richard Whittall retweeted about your blog.

  11. One more detail: Kevin McCrudden asked if anyone there played professional soccer. Two women in the audience in front of him raised their hands. He then blew off the panel as unqualified to contradict his points on the WNBA and shorter goalkeepers, etc. (Every point like that would constitute a [moral? aesthetic?] mandate to swear off the New York Cosmos.)

    I like Dr. Elsey’s response so much that I was glad it happened, given how widespread these premises.

    What is weird is how these aren’t treated like mere premises. People dig in. Something is at stake. It’s not like other sports talk.

    • I repressed that. And yes – that’s it exactly. The digging in, the commitment – when you are outside that mindset, it reads as, well, crazy. And then suddenly the whole of sports culture starts to look crazy.

  12. chelsea.jones says:

    Dr. Doyle- Awesome post. I can apply these lessons and tips at a “Women in Sports” conference next week in Green Bay.

  13. Jean Williams says:

    Thanks for such a comprehensive post. This is exactly how it felt. I can only say I didn’t call out the first sexist guy because I was reeling from ordinary football fans being called something like ‘stupid’ by Kuper in the approach to the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough and all that happened. I was angry about that callous comment, which got a bit lost in what followed, and so could not have responded in a composed manner. In the end I did walk out. I have been writing about these topics and enduring such irrational comments about women and football since 1998, so I am also pretty exhausted having to repeat the same old thing. It is why I chose to present some new research at this conference rather than my work on women’s football but I have since asked myself if that was the right thing to do. On a personal level it was. ‘Enlightening’ people who say ‘I am not a sexist but’ is such hard work because they have to confront their own fear and dislike. Thank goodness for Brenda Elsey who wore her robust critique so lightly. On a professional level, not presenting on women’s football was a mistake and we could have had more than one panel. It was lovely to meet Josh and everyone knows I am a Stacey Pope fan. How many more scholars could we have drawn together? I don’t agree that Charles Korr handled it well. He should have shut the rants down earlier and moved on to more reasoned debate. Why didn’t he do that? I also thought a lot of scholars were very quiet, not just the feminists. Why was that? Finally, I think your Keynote struck a few nerves and what you have described in the bar may have been in part a reaction to that. I can’t say, I wasn’t in the bar and I wish you had been having drinks with us instead. We might even have chatted with Grant Wahl. What I do know is, when you said something like ‘FIFA hates women’ there was a discernible ripple in the crowd. So although academics often criticise the present system they could not envisage an abolition and do not want a radical alternative. It seems neater to accept that women’s football is a separate and infantilised entity, best looked after by the benevolent paternalism of the existing structures, and making constant small steps towards ‘progress’. Of course, history doesn’t bear this out, but then again how many scholars read much on women’s football? Thank goodness for Jen Doyle and your willingness to engage on these issues in such a rigorous manner. The conference was enormous fun and I am also reflecting on other aspects of such a ground-breaking event. Many ongoing conversations I guess. One of which will be an international conference on women and the football codes. Watch this space….

    • Well, we have a mutual admiration society. And yes! Kuper got so lucky – I think everyone’s eyebrows flew off their foreheads when he described fans as stupid. That was the word he used. To a room of….FANS. I mean, why do we write about this sport if not out of love? Anyway, that was crazy and so wildly elitist.

      One thing I didn’t get to say above – it isn’t like I was in tears at the bar. I’m sure I laughed. I engaged and hung in there. I know I expressed my frustration in the fact that I had to explain the sexism of the conversation’s foundation. Most people, I think, have no idea how corrosive those conversations are.

      And – working on the women’s game will mean that you aren’t really a part of the conversation with most football scholars. And we love the sport; most of us follow the men’s game – are really engaged with it – and sometimes need, in fact, to participate in conversation about it. But when we do – we feel a burden – like we are letting our sisters down! But the guys let us down every day, and don’t think twice about it.

      I get why you didn’t talk about women’s football – in a way, I barely talked about it myself. But in the experience of that conference – and the Football 150 Conference, which was also great and also marginalizing – all I could think about what how different it would be if it was a feminist football scholars/writers conference; if we could present our work (on whatever aspect of the game we were writing about) within a context in which feminist approaches were the given. Things might be easier.

      Oh, and I felt that ripple over “FIFA hates women.” That was intense!

      • FIFA doesn’t just hate women. FIFA hate blacks (if Donald Sterling owned a football club he wouldn’t have been banned) they hate gays they hate ordinary white male fans like me. The only people they like are rich men. Why else do you think they take the 2022 WC to that fan freindly country Qatar? I hate FIFA so much I didn’t want my OWN country to bid for the 2018 WC and was pleased we didn’t get it. Hosting the WC means you have to bow to FIFA’S every whim. Why doesn’t FIFA pay the cost of the WC not Brazil? They can afford to.
        I want to ask you a question. Its obvious you don’t like the way football is run just now and that you believe in gender equality. How do you think it should be achieved? Do you believe in seperate but equal or are you in favour of all football being co ed? IMO I don’t think women could compete with men – I can’t see Necib competeing with Yaya Toure but I’m quite prepeared to admit it is only an opinion on a hypothectical question that has not been proved either way and I’m prepared to admit I could be wrong. Although I’m not a feminist I am an individualist who thinks people should be allowed to do what they want provided it doesn’t harm other people so if a woman wants to play for a male club and the club wanted her I would not stop them as I think it is thier right. I don’t think it would happen in Britain though as there was an incident last year that proves we are not ready for it. Sarah Taylor the best player in our (very good) women’s cricket team said in a newspape rinterview she MIGHT play Second XI men’s cricket (think AAA baseball). It caused uproar with people saying she couldn’t/shouldn’t and that if she did men should play women’s cricket! It caused such a fuss Taylor had to backtrack and say she wouldn’t do it.. And she had only SUGGESTED playing men’s cricket! In Britain we have no experience of breaking taboos as we had no Jim Crow laws therefore blacks just came into football when they were good enough. Therefore we have no Jackie Robinson figure – I bet yoi few British football fans could name the first black player to play for England (Viv Anderson) yet most people in the US know Jackie Robinson. So if a woman signed for a male club here I’d fear for her as we have too many nutters in my country. Caroline Criado Perez got death threats for campaining for a woman to be put on a bank note FGS!. However if a woman played for a male club it would be fascinating to see if I’m right or you’re right. Keep up the good work. Your blog is fascinating and provocitive. Will you be writing about the WC?

  14. Thank you for this. As a man and a big soccer fan, this “no one watches women’s sports” drives me nuts. In recent years, following the USWNT has given me as much joy and excitement as following the USMNT, possibly more.

    Spent much of the last Women’s World Cup in a packed San Francisco pub with other fervent fans, who would also be mightily annoyed to hear they are “no one”.

  15. Thanks for sharing your perspective. As a blogger I think I have been as guilty as any in over-focusing on the men’s game. This is something I now plan to rectify. As you point out too the women’s game is way more interesting in terms of its struggle and its politics.

    As for SK I think he needs to consider the parallels between his arguments and the ones put forward as a justification for things like colonialism and racism a hundred-odd years ago which turned out to be just as false.

    On another personal note though I regularly play 5-a-side and for quite a while one of our side, and one of our best players, was female..

  16. gillianrosh says:

    Reblogged this on footballisheartbreak.

  17. Great post Jennifer! I am always excited to read your writing.
    I hope that women football fans stop by Montreal for the U20 tournament this summer and the senior’s tournament next summer to share drinks after great matches. I hoping to get some people together that really do enjoy women’s football and want to hang out in my home city.
    find me on twitter: deganes

  18. patrickromero says:

    great read…i’m a sports fan but i find most sports journalism pretty poor for many of the reasons you’ve mentioned.

  19. patrickromero says:

    great read…i’m a sports fan who finds most sports journalism useless for some of the reasons you’ve mentioned..

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