Soccer and Me, Part I: Girl vs. Boys
When I was in elementary school I wanted to play in Little League. Other children in my class played. My best friend played. I played baseball, too, but only in my backyard, when we could get three or four or more kids together; the batting team supplemented their ranks with "ghost runners" who could never be thrown or tagged out due to their lack of corporeal existence. But I wanted to play for real, with uniforms and full teams, so I went to my dad and expressed to him my longing to participate fully in the great American pastime of baseball.
He said no.
He had his reasons, good ones - the local baseball league was populated with those Horrible Sports Parents that you read about in magazines. Coaches screamed at the kids, parents cursed at the umpires, and kids who weren't particularly skilled or athletically talented were benchwarmers, nothing more. My dad wanted something better for me, and so he told me that if I really wanted to play a sport, he'd sign me up for the fledgling local soccer league. Sulkily, I agreed, and so that fall, my brother and I played soccer.
I wasn't the best player on the team by a long shot, but I never considered myself the worst, either - I played two years on a U-12 team that was led by Coach Marilyn, the mother of one of my teammates. I couldn't shoot, so they usually put me in as a defender. I ran around and (sometimes) kicked the ball, and had good, low-key fun - which was my dad's goal for me in the first place.
But somewhere along the way I fell in love with the game. I first realized it when I graduated to U-14, a new team with a new coach, Coach Bill, who kept me on the bench for all but a few minutes of our first game. "Coach, can I go in now? Can I play now, coach? How about NOW?" I pestered and begged, more and more frustrated as time went by and everyone but me was substituted into the game. The league rules required that every player be used for at least half of each game, and the team was certainly small enough that this shouldn't be a problem. I wasn't a very valuable player, though. And I was the only girl on the team. I complained to my father, who complained to one of the league officers, who misunderstood our claim that I wasn't getting "enough" playing time and let us know that I'd just have to work hard and earn a place on the team if I wanted to play more.
And that's just what I did - because dammit, I wanted to play. I wanted it a lot. By this time my dad was coaching my brother's U-10 team, so I 'borrowed' all his coaching manuals and dug through them to put together an exercise program for myself. By the time the fall season ended and the spring season rolled around, I had a soccer player's leg muscles, and somewhere along the line I picked up something else, as well: a willingness to do what it took to prove that a girl could in fact be Good Enough. I still couldn't shoot, so I still played defense or midfield, and I went to every game determined to tackle the boys at LEAST as hard as they tackled each other, if not more so. So the same scene repeated itself nearly every game. We took the field against an all-boy team, and some cocky thirteen year old twerp would look at me and laugh. "Hey, it's a girl," he'd call out to his teammates. Not long after, if he happened to come my way with the ball, he'd find himself flat on his ass and me dribbling upfield looking for a target to pass to. They learned not to laugh - first the opposing teams, then my own teammates. At the end of that first year, during the team's trophy dinner at BJ's pizza, I was given a plaque that read "Courageous Award." Every player received a trophy, but not everyone got a plaque - those were for special recognition, above and beyond, so it meant something! I was too busy feeling pleased with myself and snickering at the grammar to think about what that award really meant: it meant that I was Good Enough, but that I was still The Girl. Other players were recognized for being the best goal-scorer, or the best on defense, or having the most reliable attendance at practices and games. But I was recognized for not being afraid to play against boys.
These days, soccer is more popular in the United States and soccer leagues (and high schools) are more likely to have girls' teams. There's more opportunity out there for girls, but they still get a much smaller slice of the pie than boys do. A few bloggers have addressed this recently by looking at coed vs. single sex teams. Soccer Dad of On The Pitch posted asking at what age teams should segregate by sex. This bit about the league his kids play in jumped out at me:
However, girls CAN play on the boys teams. In fact, my son’s U10 Challenge team has a girl on the roster who earned her spot via tryout like any other boy.
As Soccer Dad clarified in comments, this only applies when there is no girls' team in the girl's division. So this girl wasn't "challenging up" from a less-worthy girls' team to a more-worthy boys' team. But as Footie Girl makes clear in a post about an English lawsuit to un-segregate teams, that sort of thing isn't uncommon:
One of the leagues I play in right now is technically co-ed, but in practice about 95% of the players are men. It is more competitive than the women's league I play in, and playing with the men has made me a better player (although that's not why I joined the team -- it's because I want to have fun and play with my friends). This same league also has a women-only division, and frankly, they suck. Any of the women who are any good play in the coed division, and the level of play in the women's division suffers accordingly -- and I suspect the same thing would happen if you give girls the option to play on a boys' team.
So to sum up, in the soccer world, the hierarchy goes like this:
- All-Male Teams
- Coed Teams
- All-Female Teams
That being the case, it certainly explains the boys' resentment of my presence on that U-14 team (I didn't mention that, did I? But they did resent me. They were just shyer about expressing it after the time one of them called me a bitch and sundry other choice things and I knocked him down and walked up and down his back with my cleats. I had to run some laps for that.) But the problem goes much deeper, because it's not just thirteen-year-old boys who think that All-Male Teams trump Coed Teams which trump All-Female Teams. It's referees who complain about how women's league games are boring - or just complain about them in such general terms, which all the other male referees seem to understand and commisserate/agree with, that you're left wondering what the hell their problem is. It's coaches who don't play their female players. It's male players who won't pass to the female players, ever. It's the TV stations and the newspapers who cover men's sports and not women's. It's the whole damn world, really.
So what's the solution? What's the answer to Soccer Dad's question? What do we do? As a woman who wants to play soccer, my answer for that in my personal life, newly arrived at, is that (1) I play when and where I can play, and (2) I fight and argue when opportunity is denied me. But the second part is always harder than the first. We women are socialized to accept what's given to us and be grateful. (Click that link to see the Sport Corset - no really, do, you know you want to.) If we think about this long and hard, we'll start asking ourselves questions like: How can we give our girls the skills to compete AND the confidence to challenge injustice when they're not allowed to properly compete? And my question in response to that is, why should we have to? Why can't we just make these boys and men, these players and coaches and TV executives and referees and everyone else who's content to sit back and enjoy a world where women aren't allowed to be good at sports - why can't we just make them run a bunch of laps until they get their heads out of their asses and pass us the damn ball once in a while?
Well? Why can't we?