FIFA can’t even handle its SEXISM right

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Most sex discrimination complaints break down not around the original discriminatory action, but around retaliation. Threats of retaliation escalate the problem created by the defendant’s sexism. They demonstrate a disregard for the process; they are easier to track and to prove. They are, also, against all sorts of laws.

So how does FIFA respond to the sex discrimination complaint filed by 40 women players, regarding FIFA and CSA’s decision to play the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf?

FIFA threatens players from a handful of FAs that it thinks it can bully—Mexico, Costa Rica and France (which wants to host the next women’s World Cup). Officials told women on these teams to withdraw their names from the complaint or they would not be selected to play and, in the case of France, their country might risk losing its future bid.

Result: said players withdraw their names—and file a retaliation complaint. And the number of players signing on to the original complaint jumps to 62.

Read the retaliation complaint here: Oct 2014 Letter-to-human-rights-tribunal-re-threats-against-players.

Second Sex, Artificial Turf

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If we needed proof that the people who govern the beautiful game do not see women as real athletes, we need look no further than FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf. Players have been angry since was this announced; a complaint of gender discrimination has been filed with Canadian courts. Artificial turf forces a different game: tackling is different, injuries are different, the speed/pace of the game is different. You can play harder when the ground is softer. Football’s Sith Lords probably figured that women would prefer the artificial turf because it’s prettier and doesn’t stain.

The women’s game is treated by FIFA as charity work that serves to justify its monopoly over the “real” sport. Note the opening page of “The Laws of the Game,” which categorizes women as disabled players for whom the rules might be adjusted. If FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association wanted to move the goal posts, make the field smaller, the match shorter, if they wanted to make women play with smaller balls, they could. They could do none of these things for men, unless those men were not men but children. Or over 35. Or disabled.

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If I were going after FIFA as a player, I’d call for a BOYCOTT. I’d demand that this “exception” for the women’s game be wiped from the books, and that FIFA change its leadership—dramatically. A few professional players might have a lot of success organizing amateur and semi-pro players—the bulk of the Women’s World Cup roster—especially players from countries where the administration of the women’s game is fucked up. Which is most places.

Sepp Blatter is as much a sexist bastard as Avery Brundage was an abominable racist. Why stop with a demand for real grass? How about a demand for real change!

 

FIFA’s Gendered Laws of the Game

From the opening page of FIFA’s Laws of the Game (2014-2015): Women appear on the list of categories of disabled players for whom one can modify the size of the pitch, the ball and the goal. And: FIFA’s use of the male gender in all documents really means both men and women. This gets really confusing when considering a 2004 FIFA Executive Committee decision asserting that “the difference between men’s and women’s football must be absolute.” Women, who should not be expected to play by the same rules as men, are not men. Except when we say men and we mean women. That difference is absolute!

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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.

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*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.

 

Goal Tending

For the past couple weeks I’ve been posting artwork centered on women’s football, partly in response to the exclusion of such work from curatorial projects on “the beautiful game.” I have a professional responsibility as a feminist art critic and as a feminist sports writer to point out when the marginalization of women’s sports is extended into the art world, to educate people as to how one might counter that tendency, but also to explain why it is important that we do so.

As I talk with people about this kind of artwork, and the condition of women’s football globally, I’m constantly reminded of cultural attitudes about the women’s game. For most people, women’s football is an obscure subject. It’s an obscure subject, in fact, for most women sports fans. People are committed to the idea that women’s football is slow and boring. They might enjoy the Olympics, or the Women’s World Cup – but what they seem to relish is the surprise that they liked the tournament. Sports media feeds the fan this narrative – that anytime a women’s game is exciting, it’s a “new” thing. It’s a surprise because mainstream fans of football are committed to the idea that women just don’t have the skill, strength, or speed to play an “entertaining” game. When not enthralled by an international tournament in which women are somehow possessed by demons and play well, those (sexist) fans entertain (comfort?) themselves with stories of women’s monstrosity and ineptitude. These people sit at home and make video montages, evidencing what they already know. Women can’t play.

This gross problem is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than in popular ideas about women goalkeepers. The above youtube video has been, since 2007, the first video that appears in a google search for “women goalkeepers.” The first (at least from my computers and in my locations). Not season highlights of the first goalkeeper (male or female) to win FIFA’s World Player of the Year (Germany’s Nadine Angerer) but a weird compilation of low points in the early rounds of an old tournament. Ask the world what it wants to know about women goalkeepers, and you will learn that the world cares only about how awful they are. This is the story that world is determined to see. The question “Why is women’s goalkeeping so poor?” takes as a given the idea that women are inherently bad at goalkeeping; it assumes that the limits one might see in the early rounds of an international tournament reflect a biological limitation. A deficiency. In fact, any mistake a woman makes in goal at any level is likely to be read as the result of her having a vagina. 

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But ask the world what it wants to know about goalkeepers – who are assumed to be men – and you will see that the world wants a definition of the position and it wants to know which ones are the best. Given the ruthlessness of the sexism of the sports world, I think it’s important – necessary – that when we take up football as a subject in our research, writing and cultural programing we actively refuse the impulse to take the men’s game as a universal standard, and the women’s game as some form of deviation. We need to think them both together, and in relation to one another.

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scene of a crime (football stadium)

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This weekend The Independent published a story about black lesbians in South Africa who have been raped, gang raped, murdered by men who claim this violence as a means for making women “straight.” Sexual violence is often presented as some kind of “punishment.” In these cases, the “punishment” takes the form and intensity of a lynching. Football often appears in these news stories, as gender non-normative women are found on the pitch, coming home from training, or in the stands – and assaulted. (See, for example, this 2009 Guardian story.) The above image is a photograph of the football stadium in Gauteng where Mvulina Fana was “left for dead” by her attackers. It is part of the artist Claire Carter’s series documenting the community targeted in these assaults. (The artist Zanele Muholi has produced a large and very moving body of work on this subject; there is, South Africa, an community of artists responding to this terrible crisis.)

The opening of “Crisis in South Africa”:

Mvuleni Fana was walking down a quiet alleyway in Springs – 30 miles east of Johannesburg – on her way home from football practice one evening when four men surrounded her and dragged her back to the football stadium. She recognised her attackers. One by one, the men raped her, beating her unconscious and leaving her for dead.

The next morning, Mvuleni came round, bleeding, battered, in shock, and taunted by one overriding memory – the last thing they said to her before she passed out: “After everything we’re going to do to you, you’re going to be a real woman, and you’re never going to act like this again”. (Patrick Strudwick, “Crisis in South Africa“)

To learn more, see, for example, Inkanyiso.org, a blog established by Zanele Muholi as a platform for people affected by this violence.

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