Grant Wahl’s Utopianism

In 2011, Grant Wahl announced his intention to run for President of FIFA. His platform included the introduction of term-limits for FIFA officials, hiring the best referees for the World Cup and requiring them to explain controversial calls, ending the use of yellow cards for stupid things like removing shirts in goal celebrations, and the dismantling of the system which effectively excluded women from FIFA leadership. It’s worth reading Grant’s take on his “half-serious, half-satire” campaign and watching his campaign ad: “There’s a cure for FIFA’s Blatter infection!

The prescience of this interventionist project is hard to appreciate. He promised to appoint a woman as FIFA’s General Secretary, its most powerful position. The role is now served by Fatma Samoura, appointed in 2016. He advocated for the introduction of goal-line technology and instant replay. We now have a new sports writing sub-genre: complaints about VAR. He promised a “wikileaks”-level release of FIFA’s records which would allow the organization to being to reckon with the rot within its structure and culture. Football leaks, a massive data dump exposing the scale of corruption in the sport, launched in 2015. In recent years, FIFA has been the subject of sustained forms of scrutiny and global reflection on the question of what accountability and change might be for an organization this incestuous, this rotten.

At the time, however, for a candidate to advance to the election, FIFA required the official endorsement of just one of its 208 football association: not one would take the risk of alienating themselves from the affections of the men who run the organization. The action of soliciting a nomination from the 150 FAs that Grant selected as the “least corrupt” in FIFA’s system made visible the shamefulness of FIFA’s so-called democratic process. Without a nomination, his candidacy was stopped before anyone had a chance to vote for him. Sepp Blatter ran unopposed.

Today FIFA requires the endorsement of five FAs, a change attributed to Wahl’s action and one designed to make interventions like his less feasible. But in the wake of his candidacy, Grant wrote, “ordinary fans in countries around the world talked a little bit more about the absurdities of Fifa’s electoral process.”

This is a good moment to reflect on what FIFA might have been under Grant’s leadership, and on the importance of journalism to the project of wrestling this sport away from the hyper-exploitative systems we’ve been tricked into thinking of as inevitable and insurmountable.

Truth tellers with utopian impulses are to be cherished. We saw a little of this side of Grant in the photo he shared of himself in a rainbow shirt when he was stopped from entering the stadium near the start of the tournament. He was eventually allowed to proceed to his seat in the press zone; reporting of his death often includes a photo of Grant in that shirt sitting at a desk, writing. He of course knew he was likely to be stopped, and I am sure he understood the action as pure symbol. But in a week marked by a mass shooting at yet another LGBTQ bar, in a season shadowed by the violent repression of young revolutionaries in soccer-mad Iran and the question of how one honors them at the tournament when the team is used ruthlessly by the country’s dictatorship as if their wins could wash away its sins, at a time when anti-trans hate has been perfectly fused into fascism’s psychosis, Grant’s gesture of solidarity from inside the machine mattered. It was a signal for those of us watching the game and feeling driven to the edge of madness by the gaslight—it was a way of letting us know that there are allies in the press who are also struggling with the structure and with the moment.

I don’t know how he managed to balance his love for the sport with his awareness of the awfulness of the organizations which manage it—I’m in constant awe of the people who write about this day-in, day-out. He clearly understood the importance and the value of that work himself: he was a constant ally and champion of feminist, queer, and anti-racist sports writing. He often let us know when, in our own work, we hit the nail on the head, and via his social media platform he amplified our voices. He read our work.

Great sports writers make you feel the passions invoked by the subject, and, often in equal measure, the frustration and outrage we feel when our love is exploited and betrayed. This has been especially true of Grant’s writing about this World Cup, the enjoyment of which is shadowed and corrupted not only by the ruthlessness of Qatar’s development practice but by the resonance of that practice with those of FIFA itself. Those of us struggling to manage our relationship to this tournament are responding not only to the present, but to decades of the abuse of our love for the sport and for the people who play it. We have really and truly had enough and want a different FIFA, maybe even something that isn’t FIFA at all.

The very deep grief so many of us feel at the news of Grant’s death is tied to the forms of grievance that Grant helped us to name, even as he wrote the story of our love for this game.

Note. There are many sharing their affection and respect for Grant. Although I’m using his name like he was a personal friend, I only met him IRL a few times. There are so many people out there who collaborated with him, worked alongside him, and really knew him and who are writing their grief and sharing stories. Richard Deitsch included a beautiful list on The Athletic as an addendum to the moving sketch of his own sense of loss. If you are feeling sad, I encourage leaning into this community of people who are sitting down at their desks and honoring his memory by giving our love and our grief a shape we can share.

Jaime Lauriano: morte súbita (2014)

morte súbita from Jaime Lauriano on Vimeo.

from the artist’s vimeo page:

direção (director) jaime lauriano
direção de fotografia e câmera (cinematography) cassio luiz rothschild
edição e finalização (film editing) onze corujas

The Brazilian team which won the 1970 World Cup is considered by many to be the greatest of all time. In a spectacle transmitted, live, for the first time for the Brazilian people through television, this achievement was transformed into a heroic feat. With strong media coverage then, the Brazilian team’s victory in 1970 was used as a propaganda tool for the Brazilian military regime.

“Morte Subita (Death Sudden)” consists of a projection with people covering their faces with shirts of the Brazilian Soccer Team. In the background, listen to an audio that mixes sounds of football stadiums (shouts, clapping, fireworks) with sounds of protests and street demonstrations (bombs, shots, shouts, etc); as the camera tracks these people, we hear a sports announcer recite the names of dead and disappeared politicians in the year 1970, the hardest year of the Brazilian military dictatorship.

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.

ACFC: Not Even a Women’s Football Club?

I pulled the above screenshot from Angel City FC’s “our story” page. How could anyone involved in marketing think “we’re not even a women’s football club” is an OK thing to put on the website for a women’s football club?

Reading this sentence, I recalled a year I spent working at a women’s college in Virginia — this place had no women’s studies program and was run by people who had internalized misogyny and racism so very deeply that the students went into revolt — I remember one student taking the mic at a town hall and telling the college president “You are a women’s college that is ashamed of the fact that it is a women’s college.” When I read “not even a women’s football club,” I remembered the hurt in that student’s voice.

I feel really hurt by this language. It contradicts the club’s too-good-to-be-true branding. Supporters like myself also feel it telegraphs the betrayal we are experiencing as we witness the club reproduce the patriarchal privilege which has marginalized women coaches in the game.

Lots of people new to feminist work struggle with the idea of women-centered organizations and structures, and are also challenged by what it means to center a practice in women and to also practice inclusion within these women-centered spaces. You can’t practice inclusion as a feminist if you hold onto white supremacist, homophobic, transphobic ideas about who and what a woman is—so really digging into feminist work always includes a confrontation with the way the term “woman” is defined. That’s HARD work and it is not a given that people in women’s sports have gotten any real training in that. That is just ONE zone of difficulty particular to feminist work in a women’s centered organization. There are others, like: confronting and working through the degree to which traits associated with toxic masculinity are treated in our society as hallmarks of professionalism and authority: women can and do buy into that system. Another: the sense that because your thing is centered in women, it will be valued less by the world at large. You actually have to accept some parts of that because the work you do is a direct challenge to patriarchal systems of value.

So, fans are nervous.

From where I sit, it looks like some of the people running ACFC are suffering from gendered forms of confusion and ambivalence — how else to understand the mixed signal combo of “not even a women’s football club” and the ultra femme crest and salmon pink ACFC has chosen for itself?

Good god ACFC please strip every layer of apology for the fact that the club is a women’s club from your discourse. And remember that you do not need to feminize the visual iconography of the club to remind people that the club is a women’s club. As the USWNT has shown us again and again and again and again and again and again and again: a great women’s team appeals to sports fans. Women are sports fans. So are other people! And it is really, really fun to experience an alignment between one’s love for the sport and one’s commitment to women. I will never ever forget the feeling that came over me in the stands at the World Cup final, when I understood that the USWNT fan section was changing “equal pay.” NEVER. I have never in my life felt so in love with the game as in that moment. The politics of women’s sports is really dense and intense: it is always best to run towards the white hot fire of that intensity than away from it.

I am guessing that ACFC folks were going for Barça’s “mes que un club” vibe, but good god I WILL WORK FOR YOU FULL TIME if you need an English professor to tell you how to communicate that spirit without treating the women of women’s football as a problem that must be transcended! I will come down there and give you all an intro to women’s studies course! I’m ready to retire from the University of California and make it my job to save you from yourselves because I love this sport and want very much to love my home team.

You cannot market women’s sports as a cause. You have to actually get the cause, and then build your brand around that. Horse. Then cart.


Note: Almost immediately after I posted this, some readers expressed anger on twitter about the lack of a non-binary framework in my writing here. Most people who read me here (and on twitter) have been reading my work for years and I’ve earned their trust (this blog normally sees only a handful of visitors a day). But of course people who are just seeing this have zero reason to trust me on anything.

When I say that in feminist work in women’s centered spaces the category woman should be engaged critically, this is what I mean: it should not be weaponized as we see in trans-phobic legislative violence we are seeing conducted in the name of protecting women’s sports. Women’s sports itself structurally embodies the problem of not only the gender binary, but of an apparatus that enforces radical gender segregation. This leaves no space for non-binary athletes. BUT, and this is a big one: athletes have a really interesting history of defying binarized structures and making space for non-binary athletes. People play across this line all the time and there is a rich practice of making this space within women’s sports. That’s the version of the game I most love.

I apologize to readers who experienced the above as harmfully oblivious to the violence of the gender binary and all of its enforcing structures.

One person criticizing me said that they’d read the ACFC statement as expressing non-binary possibilities. I champion that optimism and would be ecstatic to learn that this is the club’s aim. Perhaps I should apologize to all readers here for my cynicism!

Carolee Schneemann, Kitch (figure skater)

Artist’s postcard (photo from auction). See also Ice Skating Naked.

Khaled Jarrar: Concrete

Marcin Dudek: The Lure of the Arena

The Lure of the Arena, 2019 — a bit of football art, to recall the thing I know many of us can’t wait to get back to. Sitting in the stands together. Art historian and fantastic thinker of sports-art Przemyslaw Strozek wrote to me about Marcin Dudek a few years ago. Dudek tends to work with the situation of the fan/spectator, and has done some really provocative work exploring the relationship between sports, art and violence. Click on that first link for a slide show & text about Lure. I love this artist’s work, and find myself turning to it on a day when I’m planning to see some of the guys I used to play with.

The Joy of Ashlyn Harris

 

Within a sexist setting, women’s joy is valuable only as an image that serves men’s pleasure. Within queer and feminist settings that pleasure circulates, echoes, accumulates. It is shared out, given away, taken back, stored, recycled, amplified, converted into thought and energy or just left to be what it is. It is never just one thing. It is selfish and generous, sharp and blurry, spontaneous and planned.

The cultural minimization of the value of women’s joy has a big impact on the development of women’s sports. It is hard to start a women’s team when the women in your community are taking care of their families in addition to holding down jobs. Those women will need to argue (with themselves as well as their husbands, children, parents) for the importance of their game over the importance of care-taking. That is very, very difficult to do. For a 40-something year old woman, there is no argument for her game beyond its importance to her pleasure.

The trolls running the country would have you think that progressive spaces look like tortured graduate seminars in which everyone is trying to prove how smart and “correct” they are. And while, sure, some spaces are a lot like that, really and truly inclusively queer feminist communities can generate an energy much closer to the vibe of this USWNT or, reaching back to a moment earlier this year, the vibe created by UCLA’s gymnastics squad — as represented by Katelyn Ohashi.

Women’s sports and women athletes — like the Williams sisters — increase the sense of the possible and expand our sense of how joy, desire and power can express themselves.

Yesterday, when she called for more love and less hate, Megan Rapinoe spoke from that place of joy. Do not let anyone tell you that that “more love” is a limp political sentiment — whoever is telling you that has clearly never felt the full force of a 72-hour champagne-fueled chaotic gay energy wave, never mind figured out how to harness it!

Alors

 

Once the last match was finished, as the winners celebrated and the losers put their arms around each other, the stadium thrummed with the grinding beat of Stromae’s 2009 hit, “Alors on danse.”

As fantastic as that song is; it is a VERY strange thing to play at the end of a World Cup final.

The gist of these lyrics: it’s all pointless. We are misery itself and dance to forget. It’s all a grind; we just get deeper and deeper dans la merde. On danse because what’s the use.  It’s an anthem for alienation and depression. Go team!

Composition

Screen Shot 2019-06-19 at 1.25.13 PM

THENJIWE NIKI NKOSI, ROUTINE, 2019 Oil on canvas. 35 7/8 x 39 3/8 x 1 7/8 in. Series: Gymnasium

I am very interested in how artists engage, represent and work with the structural and formal dimensions of a sport.

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s Gymnasium series does just this. As is typical for Nkosi’s work, the canvas is clean, tight. It feels composed but also like a space meant for bodies and movement and, here, judgement.

So pleased to have happened on a tweet from art critic Rianna Jade Parker, in which she shared an image from this series.

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