Sexism, Corruption, Sports (a brief note)

If you have yet to read Meg Linehan’s story about NWSL coach Paul Riley, you should read it now. And if you aren’t following the story about sexual abuse within Haiti’s national women’s team program, you should catch up. Not a women’s sports fan and think sexual abuse is just a women’s issue? You will want to read this, or this, or this, or this.

Struggling to understand why sexual abuse is such a strong feature of organized sports?

Patriarchy is a specific form of corruption: men only dominate by virtue of theft and betrayal. They only occupy positions of power and authority by working hard to undermine and destroy people whose competency and talent challenge their sense of entitlement. In patriarchal structures, sex operates as a vector for the accumulation of power, and wealth. One feels entitled to the bodies of one’s subordinates. And a whole sexual culture — white, heterosexist, patriarchal, homophobic, cis, binary — normalizes this association of power with sexual access.

Women, gay men, trans men and women, non-binary and genderqueer people in these systems become targets because they, in essence, are sex. Territory to be colonized. Sexualized forms of hazing and sexual abuse of men and boys within patriarchal, straight homosocial spaces operate as a means for expressing and consolidating power—you become implicated in a set of “crimes”—if you speak of it, you exit the scene.

In systems like this, that sexualized performance of abusive authority is treated as a form of competency—even professional achievement.

A few years back, I remember sitting in a meeting with men in charge at my campus. We were talking about some issues related to sexual harassment charges. In some of the cases we were talking about, women had been bad actors—enablers, mainly. Ironic, isn’t it, someone said. No, I replied. In these corrupt systems, the only women allowed close to that form of power are those who collaborate with it. Either by operating as an abuser’s enabler, or as an alibi — “I haven’t had any problems, so my example demonstrates that there is no problem.” Usually, those women end up under the bus.

As Brenda Elsey and I have argued, this shit sits on a continuum with the profound corruption that rots this sport from the inside out. Professional sports does not have to be like this—it really and truly doesn’t. The people running the game will have you thinking that the “ironies” of the system are key to its pleasures and its profits. This is flat out bullshit. OK. I am going to go punch something.

The Voices in Her Head

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[Revised*]

On March 15 of this year, FIFA approved the use of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in the Women’s World Cup. This is, in general, a good thing. VAR was used in last year’s men’s tournament without too much trouble. But the implementation of VAR in the Women’s World Cup has not gone very well at all. Today, Pierluigi Collina, the chair of FIFA’s referee committee, hosted a press conference and reviewed this tournament’s refereeing statistics and fielded questions — if you are down for 90 minutes of VAR spin, you can watch it here. The questions (which start about an hour in) were pretty hard hitting and the panel dodged them – one gentleman, for example, asked why Asian, African and South American teams have seemed more vulnerable to VAR decisions than European teams. He was told to read the rulebook.

Like many people watching this tournament, I’ve been wondering why the VAR use has been so particularly awful. Luis Paez-Pumar, writing for Deadspin, provides an excellent overview of the misery caused by the combination of the last minute institution of new rules of the game, the amplified power of VARs, and FIFA’s general contempt for the women’s game. He writes:

FIFA listened (belatedly) to calls for VAR at the World Cup, and it gave its unprepared referees the unwanted responsibility of properly implementing new rules that were only made official six days before the first game of the tournament. These changes were made under the name of equality, but it’s hard to imagine FIFA implementing similarly dramatic changes so haphazardly coming into a men’s World Cup. FIFA set its referees up to fail at the Women’s World Cup, all in the name of technology no one fully understands and rules no one particularly likes

I have something to add to the running list of shitty FIFA things informing this situation. Every one of the 15 people initially listed as working this tournament as a Video Assistant Referee is a man and not one (as far as I can tell) has a history of working in women’s football.* (By the way, the latter may mean they don’t have much of a history of working with women, in general.)

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Before I dive in, let me be clear: I do not think that having women leading the VAR Room will necessarily fix things. What I do think is this: the fact that the VAR list did not include women or people with experience refereeing women’s matches is symptomatic of the sexist rot which plagues FIFA’s involvement in the women’s game. [Women are working in the VAR room as Assistant Video Assistant Referees: one woman per match team.]

There is a reason why those fifteen VARs are men and why they do not have experience officiating at the highest levels of the women’s game. This is the outcome of FIFA’s practice of maintaining separate referee lists for men’s and women’s football. It was not always this way. In a 2002 post on FIFA’s website, Sonia Denoncourt (the former head of referee development) explains:

In 1994, FIFA took the unprecedented step of appointing the first four female assistant referees in the world. These women were included in the universal (read: male) list. In 1995, FIFA followed this up with significant changes for women referees and assistant referees, by introducing FIFA’s first ever list of women referees just in time for the Women’s World Cup in Sweden.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for the conversations in which FIFA administrators debated the benefits of a universal (meaning all-gender) referee list! Denoncourt’s brief article suggests that the misogyny of national federations was so intense that it was hard to imagine working in any of its contexts and getting an education in much beyond one’s capacity to endure harassment. More than implied in this article was the necessity of this separation in order to create a space in which women might have a chance to gain experience and to do so in a minimally sexist environment. (The article also expresses some really quite regressive views about the differences between men and women athletes; it’s worth reading as a document of what I imagine was one of the more forward thinking perspectives on the sport within FIFA structures.)

There are manifold problems, however, with the total segregation of referee pools.

There is a tendency, in sports, to treat girls and women’s sports as a training ground for inexperienced referees. (In the United States, Civil Rights law actually makes it illegal to do that in most contexts.) This expresses a broad devaluation, in sports and in the world, of women’s capacity to lead and govern men.

Furthermore, women’s sports are held at a sub-professional level by governing institutions run by men whose misogyny is often worse than that one finds amongst the general population. So, if you only allow women to referee women, and those women work in countries with an amateur-level game at home, those women will hit a glass ceiling hard and early. Women’s leagues, furthermore, currently do not use VAR. The only referees with experience working with VAR are those working in the men’s game and in those leagues using it, VAR is still new.

Women refereeing this World Cup work in men’s leagues, however, and a few work as referees in leagues using VAR. To name just two — Bibiana Steinhaus (Bundesligue), Stéphanie Frappert (Ligue 1). Just a few months ago, in fact, the FFF assigned Frappert as the center referee to a Ligue 1 match. The federation explained that they did so in response to a request from FIFA to support her exposure to top-flight matches in advance of the World Cup. Frappert, one learns with just a little more googling, has experience working for Ligue 1 as a Video Assistant Referee. She worked 8 matches this past season. I point this out to emphasize the fact that it is not the case that there are no women with VAR experience. There have not been, until this World Cup, women with experience working in the VAR room at a World Cup — which is the result of FIFA’s unwillingness to use the men’s game to support the development of women referees.

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FIFA’s request of the FFF strikes me as interesting — it’s a sign that the people governing refereeing know that they have a pipeline problem, as is the language of its press release describing an all-male VAR team (“VAR will be part of a remarkable project as it will unite women and men referees in what we are certain will be a successful tournament.”) It’s also a sign that FIFA treats the Women’s World Cup as an afterthought. There should have been no question about whether VAR would be used in the Women’s World Cup, and women should have gone to Russia specifically to train with it last year. There is no reason why the men’s game can’t be a platform for the development of the women’s game.

Referee development is a big part of FIFA’s discourse about the World Cup’s function as an instrument for lifting the level of the game globally. From what I can see from my admittedly limited research on this issue, it looks as if in the 1990s and 2000s, FIFA punted the project of developing women referees because FIFA executives were not interested in taking on the misogyny of its national federations. The gender segregated list was one way of addressing that as it forced national federations to start working with women at least in women’s games; but it also tied the project of the development of women referees to the same federations that inhibit the development of the women’s game.

Basically, with that gender segregated list, FIFA extends the women’s game a hand while keeping its boot on her neck.

If FIFA is actually committed to supporting the development of women referees, it should have a universal referee list and work towards gender parity at every level of the sport. The minute FIFA started working with VAR, it should have included women referees in that process.

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In the press conference today, officials could not deny that governance of the match has been more aggressive that it was in 2018. Statistically, however, it is not out of line with the recent U20 tournament, a fact that raises more questions than it answers. In this tournament, if feels like VARs have micromanaged the referee, interfered with the match’s pacing and turned the game in a direction that seems unfair.

Perhaps this is just a sign of the times — so much of what passes as technical advancement makes the quality of our lives so very worse. VAR has made it harder to trust the technical apparatus — it amplifies the lack of trust we have in FIFA itself.

Returning to gender: in the imbalanced optics of this situation we have a great expression of one of the very biggest contradictions shaping FIFA’s governance of the women’s game.

About fifteen years ago, in rejecting a woman player’s request to transfer to a second-tier men’s club in Mexico, FIFA explained that “there must be a clear separation of between men’s and women’s football.” They’ve stuck to that line ever since.

But the truth is that the separation of women’s football from men’s football is not at all clear. If that were true, women would have total executive authority over the game. They would determine its funding levels, they would make decisions regarding player salaries and support, they would negotiate endorsements. They would govern the game’s rules — they would make the decisions about things like hijab, for example and set guidelines regarding who is eligible to play on a women’s team. If we take the players themselves as the center of the women’s game, we needn’t step very far at all from that center to find the game being run by men.

That situation is visualized in this tournament by images of (mostly) men sitting in what looks like a war room as they supervise a game played and refereed by women.

The contradictions in FIFA’s logic regarding the necessity for absolute clarity in the difference between the men’s and women’s game is made manifest in the fact the men in that VAR room do not work in women’s football. If the differences are so clear, so important to the sport’s integrity then how are those men actually qualified to do this supervisory work? And if they can do that work, then why couldn’t women work as VARs in Russia? Or at the U20 men’s tournament in Poland?

I wonder what the men working as Video Assistant Referees for the Women’s World Cup are thinking about women footballers and referees. I wonder what they are thinking about the difference that gender makes. How might race and gender be impacting the way that the VARs are reading the screens? Who does a freeze frame help, or hurt? We do not see the game through a race and gender neutral lens unless we’ve made a commitment to unlearning how racism and sexism pattern how we see what we see. I find it hard to believe that the decisions made by a group of men charged with reviewing the decisions of a team of women are not shaped by their attitudes about the women and the women’s game.

This, hopefully, will be the first and last world cup to give us this optic of a battery of men with no history in the women’s game supervising women referees. Maybe this situation will force FIFA to give up its antiquated policy of segregated referee lists. Maybe we are inching towards a more gender dynamic environment in the sport.

As it happens, during his press conference Collina reviewed a VAR call from (I think) last night’s match. When he showed a short clip of the VAR team at work, I spied a pony tail, two seats from the left: is that a woman referee in training? My bet is that it is Sian Massey-Ellis, getting herself ready not just for the next World Cup, but for next season’s Premiership. Oh, check that. It’s Scotland’s Kylie Cockburn! Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 8.01.54 PM.png

 

*I first drafted this working off of FIFA’s own press releases re VAR. I’ve been watching matches in person, in bars and missed that there are women working in the VAR room as Assistant Video Assistant Referees — eg Oleksandra Ardasheva, who worked the France-Brazil match. My first draft didn’t reflect this fact; I’ve gone through the post and edited to finesse my main points, which still work. Thank you Twitter for sorting me out!

 

 

 

 

Outer Limit: More Notes on Losers

Cameroon’s performances in the group matches hinted at the possibility that they might explore the outer limits of the possible. Every game they’ve played in this tournament has been characterized by the sense that anything might happen. They played the edge until it wasn’t playable.

They lost to the Netherlands (3-1) in a match that had the audience riveted. The pace and intensity of that game was glorious. I saw players race around the pitch with a tornado like intensity. They were really good at loosening the ball from their opponent’s intention and exploiting the chaotic episodes of a match. Canada shut them out (3-0), but Cameroon fought from start to finish. They made Canada work. They beat New Zealand (2-1) in a barn-burner, scoring on literally the last touch of the match. One of their players was stretchered off the field at the end of the match: she had collapsed from exhaustion.

At the group stage, they played by tearing the game open — they can appear very emotional but that emotion doesn’t necessarily mean they are out of control. I think they like discombobulating their opponents —  some teams work like that. They’ll push — literally — and how you perform against them has a lot to do with how you respond to the provocation. I don’t think any of their opponents (even the ones that beat them) really played “their” game. It felt like Cameroon was authoring these matches, even from the losing side.

England’s first goal was the direct result of Cameroon’s mistake: Ejangue, in a scramble in front of the goal, kicked the ball into the keeper’s hands — a miserable mistake — Houghton converted the indirect free-kick. Cameroon seemed to feel the call against them was somehow not fair — I would say it was more humiliating than unjust and that the refusal to acknowledge this mistake was a very bad sign.

England scored again just as VAR-enhanced extra-time wound down: the goal was initially waved off as off-side but then awarded after VAR review corrected an indisputably bad call. Cameroon nearly stopped playing; for a good bit, they refused to kick-off.

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Apparently, after all that, at half time, Cameroon’s coach, Alain Djeumfa, told players that the referee wanted England to win.

THEN, at the start of the second half, the truly incredible Nchout Ajara scored — only to have VAR take that goal back because a sliver of her heel (her back was to the goal) had crossed the line. The validity of that call is debatable.

The misery that ensued made me think of the following: When you get a red card, you have to leave the field — not just the field of play. You have to remove yourself from the game entirely. This happens because there is a real risk of fighting if that player doesn’t go to the locker room. It is a very, very bad idea to let a struggling team that feels like they’ve been cheated stand on the field contemplating the injustice of a bad decision while referees commune with the VAR apparatus. A better team, a more grounded team, a team with a stable situation, a team that trusted the refereeing might use that time to center themselves. But this team was convinced the fix was in.*

Cameroon’s coach was dropped into this position in January, after the team’s head coach and goalkeeping coach were unceremoniously fired. Why? Federation politics? Is it related to the political situation in Cameroon (Anglophone regions are threatening to secede)? Is is corruption? Were they cleaning house or the opposite? I would love to know the answer to that.

In any case, Cameroon’s players were not concerned by the question as to why none of them were given red cards — an elbow to the face, a cynical tackle which might have broken an ankle, the shove of the referee’s back, spitting on an opponent, refusing to get off the pitch at half time — the players had been tempting that fate from the start of the game and they were all spared.

And for all but the opening minutes of the second half, England did not let themselves get sucked in by the game’s drama. They very nearly paid for the few minutes they lost that focus.

People who haven’t spend much time with women athletes may find that Cameroon’s combination of attitude, playing style and tactic challenges their ideas about the women’s game. People who only watch the most intensely regulated and produced versions of the sport might have been shocked by what they saw on television. But people who watch a lot of the sport and who have played it will know that things like this can happen — in a way, the game is actually always threatening to fall apart and it takes a lot of effort on the part of match officials, event producers, coaches, support staff and players to give viewers a good game.

When a team starts to feel that the game is fixed, and that all is hopeless, they have to actively fight off the desire to stop playing. So very many national teams in the women’s game must struggle with this.

We might judge the Cameroonian side harshly, but we can do that with compassion—and perhaps use this moment to appreciate the losers who have lost well — to send some good wishes to teams like Nigeria, Thailand and especially to Brazil, who lost their match against France last night. An incredible constellation of stars are rotating out of the sky.

 

 

*a side note: in a very, very corrupt sport we should pause and reflect before dismissing players for feeling this way.

Their Loss, Our Loss

As the USWNT moved from dominating Thailand to obliterating them, people watching the game wondered, “is this OK?” Shouldn’t there be a mercy rule? As players and supporters celebrated the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th goals, people wondered — are those goal celebrations…necessary?

There are many ways to answer that question. The importance of goal differentials to establishing one’s path out of a group is the easiest. Other teams playing Thailand in the group will likely score a lot. Any attempt on the part of teams in the group to collaborate in capping scoring against Thailand would also challenge the rules governing the game — while this is certainly the decent thing to do in amateur league play, it’s not the kind of community-oriented practice supported within a World Cup tournament.

There are, however, other angles into this match’s scenario.

Some of us have played in games like this. There are the games in which one’s team scarcely touches the ball. Games where, for example, a team might pass the ball amongst themselves while limiting each player to two touches. In which they might, oh, count off each pass they complete—turning your game into their drill. Last night’s situation may be unheard of at the highest levels but it isn’t terribly unusual for an amateur league.

When your opponent is at a level you would normally never get close to, it’s possible to play, lose big, and to take a lot from that experience. But you won’t get that kind of experience from a team that withholds its game from you.

For the USWNT team to stop scoring in that game, they would have needed to abandon any pretense towards attacking. They would have needed to turn a World Cup match into a drill. That is actually, in my view, not respectful to opposing players.

It is also makes for terrible television. That sort of thing is, for the spectator, even worse than the one-sided win.

Last night, the USWNT played as they play. Thus the Thai-American player Miranda Nild described it as “amazing” and “as a really cool experience.”

Pushing back against those who chastise US players for scoring too much, and – horrors — for enjoying scoring lots of goals — numbers of people have been pointing to similar kinds of results in the men’s game. Generally, men are not criticized for the lopsidedness of their wins, nor is their affect and composure monitored in the same way. But their losses are also very different. When Brazil collapsed in their 2014 World Cup semifinal, giving up five goals in the first half, we experienced that collapse quite differently than we experienced Thailand’s loss. Brazil’s loss manifested as an existential crisis. It was a spectacular melt-down; a shame spiral of epic proportion. We conjured a thousand reasons for that collapse, none of those explanations, however, centered on the team’s ability. The mess of that game, in fact, was all the more spectacular because we know those players, we know what they can do.

Last night’s match was a different experience entirely; we glimpsed the systematic debilitation of the women’s game. There is a lot of nobility to Thailand’s performance. Being up for a game like that takes a ridiculous amount of fortitude. But there is nothing noble about the state of the women’s game globally — even the world’s most privileged players are fighting for equal treatment within their federations. Let us remember that last year’s golden boot winner hasn’t played for her national team in two years because she expects her national team program (Norway) to be as professional as her club team (Lyon). USWNT players are suing their federation; Thailand and Jamaica’s teams are supported by private benefactors who are compensating for the lack of support the programs get from their federations; Afghanistan’s players were subjected to horrifying abuse; women’s teams are less likely get the money they earn in competition (and the money they earn is insanely less than that earned by men); federation official will give coaching positions to friends of friends who use the team to feed their egos while the federation turns away from the program’s losing record. You will find struggles against material forms of inequity at every level of the women’s game. (See Shireen Ahmed’s blistering statement on this fact.)

There are a lot of reasons to feel angry about that game. The way the USWNT played is not one of them. We should not feel shame for the losers, or for the winners. That shame, in my view, belongs entirely to FIFA and to mainstream sports media — which honestly, even now, when it is doing so much more than it used to, still does so very little serious reporting regarding the corruption, incompetence and abuse that hinders the development of the women’s game.

I can imagine a situation in which teams might collaborate in refusing to produce a lopsided result. This action would not be staged in order to spare Thai players a humiliating loss. It would be a protest, a labor action — the athlete’s version of a work-slowdown. In such a game, women might pass the ball to each other. They might refuse to defend but also refuse to score. Thai players might abandon the pretense of defending, and lose even bigger. These actions, however, only make sense for teams committed to destroying the World Cup as we know it!

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