Un­level play­ing field

Dou­ble stan­dard on dis­play with fe­male ath­letes

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL PLASCHKE

The Women’s World Cup has only been kick­ing around for a week, yet it seems all the re­quire­ments for a ma­jor Amer­i­can fe­male sports com­pe­ti­tion have al­ready been ful­filled.

Sex­ist com­mentby a na­tional sports com­men­ta­tor? Check.

Ath­letes neg­a­tively im­pacted by play­ing in sub­stan­dard con­di­tions that­would never be forced upon men? Check.

Pan­der­ing tele­vi­sion cov­er­age? Check.

Dou­ble stan­dards in­volv­ing off-field be­hav­ior? Check.

The U.S. women’s na­tional soc­cer team is one of the most pow­er­ful and en­dur­ing ath­letic op­er­a­tions in this coun­try. It has brought home two World Cup cham­pi­onships, four Olympic gold medals, and­was ranked No. 1in the world for nearly seven con­sec­u­tive years. It has cre­ated na­tional celebri­ties such as Mia Hamm, me­dia stars such as Julie Foudy, and em­pow­ered mil­lions of young women to punch through ceil­ings and break down bar­ri­ers.

Yet its big­gest victory still awaits, that be­ing the day it can com­pete on a world­wide stage and be viewed with the same re­spect— and scru­tiny— as the men.

“We live in such a pa­tri­ar­chal sports cul­ture, it con­tin­u­ally di­min­ishes the tal­ents and ac­com­plish­ments of women while high­light­ing their ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion,” said Dan Le­bowitz, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of Sport in So­ci­ety at North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity. “You look at the Women’s World Cup, it’s there at the fore­front once again.”

It started be­fore the tour­na­ment started, when FIFA, soc­cer’s loath­some gov­ern­ing body, de­cided for the first time to al­low a World Cup to be played on ar­ti­fi­cial turf. The six Canadian host cities made the re­quest be­cause of the dif­fi­culty in grow­ing the proper grass in their cli­mate. FIFA agreed even though, for soc­cer games in the sum­mer, such turf is hot, slip­pery and danger­ous.

Sev­eral high-pro­file play­ers sued FIFA over the de­ci­sion based on gen­der eq­uity — the men have never played on ar­ti­fi­cial turf— but that suit was dropped. Still, the ef­fects have al­ready been seen in games played on fields as hot as120 de­grees. There have been nu­mer­ous slips and mus­cle cramp­ing among play­ers strug­gling af­ter nearly two hours of run­ning on what is es­sen­tially con­crete.

“The play­ers won’t say it, but I will: The field sit­u­a­tion is ter­ri­ble, it’s crazy,” said Foudy, a tele­vi­sion an­a­lyst and for­mer na­tional team co-cap­tain. “FIFA calls them­selves guardians of the game, but there’s noway the guardian of the game for both­men and women would hold a World Cup on turf.”

The fool­ish­ness con­tin­ued when the tour­na­ment be­gan with Hope Solo in goal for the U.S. team de­spite the un­cov­er­ing of doc­u­ments in­di­cat­ing she­was the ag­gres­sor in an al­leged do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in­ci­dent last spring. Although the case had been dropped for pro­ce­dural rea­sons, po­lice records, de­po­si­tions and in­ter­views ob­tained by ESPN’s “Out­side the Lines” al­lege Solo slammed her teenage nephew’s head into the floor dur­ing the al­ter­ca­tion.

Un­like play­ers in­volved in re­cent do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases in the NFL, Solo was not pun­ished for the in­ci­dent, and U.S. Soc­cer Pres­i­dent Su­nil Gu­lati shame­fully ac­knowl­edged Satur­day the fed­er­a­tion never fully in­ves­ti­gated it.

If this were amen’s sport, the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of Solo play­ing un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances would have been loudly ques­tioned un­til public pres­sure forced her from the team. But sadly, women are still viewed dif­fer­ently, more like a cute sideshow than a group of se­ri­ous ath­letes whose rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the U.S. is vi­tal and whose na­tional im­pact is real.

Alow point took place on the Women’s World Cup’s home TV net­work, Fox, when Solo’s trou­bles were show­ered with nau­se­at­ing in­dif­fer­ence.

“Save it for Judge Judy,” Eric Wy­nalda, a for­mer U.S. men’s star, said dur­ing a tele­vised dis­cus­sion. “I don’t re­ally need to knowwhat is go­ing on the out­side of the field right now.”

Save it for Judge Judy? Can you imag­ine if some­one said that about Ray Rice?

Then the tour­na­ment be­gan and, of course, some­body with a gi­ant mi­cro­phone just had tomake a sex­ist re­mark. This time it was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who com­mented on Ger­man play­ers turn­ing their heads away fromthe ball dur­ing a bril­liant free-kick goal by Nor­way, say­ing, “They might not have­wanted to mess their hair.”

Smith later apol­o­gized on Twit­ter, but the no­tion of th­ese play­ers as AYSO Bar­bies re­mains strong in the minds even amongth­ose who should know bet­ter.

“That is a prom­i­nent ex­am­ple of the frame­work through which most peo­ple look at fe­male sports,” said Le­bowitz. “The play in this Women’s World Cup ri­vals any­thing you will see any­where in sports— the speed of the game, the in­cred­i­ble ath­leti­cism of the game, yet it’s ob­scured by the id­iocy of some of the ideas [about] fe­male ath­letes.”

Amer­ica’s Ti­tle IX-in­spired fe­male ath­letes are the great­est in the­world, and should be held to the high­est stan­dard. Yet even now, in the tour­na­ment’s tele­vised dis­cus­sions and writ­ten ac­counts, there are few hard crit­i­cisms of a group that has a scary win against 10th ranked Australia and a dispir­ited tie against fifth ranked Swe­den.

There has been very lit­tle ques­tion­ing about the bench­ing of vet­eran Abby Wam­bach, who is third in ca­reer World Cup goals. Yet re­mem­ber the out­rage last sum­mer when the U.S. men’s team cut vet­eran Lan­don Dono­van? Sev­eral U.S. play­ers have clearly un­der­achieved, par­tic­u­larly the front line and mid­field­ers— ex­cept for ir­re­press­ible Megan Rapi­noe — yet many con­cerns are muted or couched.

Some­times the dif­fer­ence on tele­vi­sion can be found in what the Fox an­nounc­ers don’t say. In the 64th minute against Swe­den on Fri­day, Carli Lloyd col­lided heads so hard with Swe­den’s Jes­sica Sa­muels­son that Lloy­d­was sprawled out in pain while Sa­muel­son was briefly taken fromthe field for treat­ment of a huge gash on her head. Both play­ers fin­ished the game, and not once did any­one men­tion the idea they should have been pulled out to un­dergo a con­cus­sion ex­am­i­na­tion.

If this were amen’s sport — re­mem­ber Stephen Curry against Mem­phis early in the NBA play­offs?— there­would have been out­rage.

Michael Mess­ner, pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and gen­der stud­ies at USC and coau­thor of a re­cently re­leased study of how TV news me­dia cov­ers women’s sports, said his re­search shows women are con­stantly dis­cussed in softer tones.

“The ex­cite­ment level we see in the cov­er­age of­women’s sports is mostly bland,” he said. “Women ath­letes are framed in safe sorts ofways, as moth­ers, girls next door, girl­friends, cat­e­gories we can be com­fort­able with.”

There’s at least one area in which this dy­namic is thank­fully chang­ing, that be­ing Twit­ter, where Foudy said the in­creased public ques­tion­ing is wel­come af­ter years in which, af­ter a bad game, she­would get an­gry that no­body seemed to care enough to rip.

“While the crit­i­cism is ob­vi­ously not to the level of the­men’s game, it’s still light-years ahead of when I played,” said Foudy. “It’s a sign of re­spect thatwe are talk­ing about what the U.S should do to get bet­ter, pok­ing holes in our strat­egy. That’s a good thing.”

One step for­ward, one step back into the man­hole. At the end of Fri­day’s tele­cast, Fox showed a Women’s World Cup promo fea­tur­ing fans in a bar— ap­par­ently watch­ing women’s soc­cer on tele­vi­sion. The most dis­tinct fan is a bald guy rais­ing his right fist in tri­umph.

The guy is proudly wear­ing a U.S. na­tional team sou­venir: a Cobi Jones jer­sey.

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