THE NEW YORK TIMES – Motherlode – By KJ DELL’ANTONIA
It was my 13-year-old son who insisted that we rush back from a birthday shopping expedition for his sister so that we wouldn’t miss the start of the Women’s World Cup Soccer game between the United States and Australia earlier this week. “The women are going to do really well,” he told me. “They’re really good.”
We turn on the television during dinner for major sporting events, and this clearly counted. In our house, two boys and two girls happily watched the game — and I’m a little ashamed to admit that I was surprised.
I would have turned on the tournament (called, by FIFA, the Women’s World Cup, while the men’s version is simply the World Cup) primarily for my daughters, wanting them to watch, or even just be aware of, women playing a sport at the highest level. I would have been thinking about them, about what it meant to their world to see an entire event, including game, commercials, many commentators and those little side-bios they do of the athletes that revolve entirely around their gender.
And I would have been wrong.
To see women’s sport played at that level, and covered and produced with the same vigor and enthusiasm as a men’s game, means a lot to our sons too. It validates what has been, so far, their view of the world, at least in many places in the United States: girls’ sports and boys’ sports taking equivalent roles on playing fields and in family schedules. Many boys (certainly mine) see their sisters as wholly equal participants in these games we play, even if they don’t play on the same team. They know the games are sometimes different (no checking in women’s hockey; no helmets and little contact in women’s lacrosse). They see those as differences in the rules (which they frequently wonder about), not differences in value. We adults see the same thing when it comes to our daughters, but when it comes to women’s sport, our vision is clouded by our history.
Andrea Montalbano, author of the middle-grade series Soccer Sisters, who grew up playing soccer in Miami and was co-captain of her college team made the same mistake. “Last year, at the World Cup, all the kids went crazy for these sticker books,” she says. “They were totally obsessed.” When she found the books for the Women’s World Cup this year, she says: “I paused. I mean, I really did. I bought one for my daughter, and I thought, should I get William one too?” She didn’t.
“When I got home, he was just crestfallen. ‘Mom, where’s my book?’ I had to run back to the store before it closed. I can’t believe I did that. He just viewed it as a great sporting event. It was my childhood experiences that made me question his interest.”
My older son isn’t a big soccer fan, not raised in a soccer family (since we’re pretty much team hockey here). What he is is a sports fan, who talks sports with friends (boys and girls both) at school. They’re talking about this women’s team without even knowing that what they’re doing strikes their parents as something new. They talk a little basketball, they talk a little Stanley Cup — and they talk a little soccer. At their eighth-grade graduation, one (male) student gave a speech about the (female) athlete who most inspires him.
They see nothing unusual in this. But I do. When I was growing up, if boys talked about girls and sports, it was usually in the context of the swimsuit issue. A few fathers and brothers “supported” girls in sports. That has evolved over the last few decades, but I hadn’t realized how much some things have changed. These kids — and the many, many men as well as women filling the stadium in Canada and bars across the country — they’re not supporters. They’re fans.
And that’s huge.
We haven’t achieved equality in sports interest or coverage, or even in soccer — far from it. The women are playing on turf, while the major men’s tournaments have always been held on grass. Alex Morgan, who was honored in 2012 as one of the top three players overall in the game, has said that FIFA executives and the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter didn’t know who she was at the FIFA World Player of the Year event.
When we assume only our girls will be interested in women’s sports, we’re contributing to all that leads to that inequality. Writing in The Atlantic, Maggie Mertens suggested in Women’s Soccer Is a Feminist Issue, that attitude — our attitude— creates the vicious circle that keeps women’s sports from building the kind of passionate fan base that leads to success: the news media, like us, assume a lack of interest, which means less coverage, which means less money. And even the quality of that coverage matters. As Cheryl Cooky, a professor of women’s studies at Purdue University, told Ms. Mertens:
Men’s sports are going to seem more exciting. They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary … When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it’s going to seem to be less exciting.
Embracing our son’s enthusiasm for the United States women’s team as well as our daughter’s is a step in the right direction. If this World Cup becomes what a new generation of fans expects when they watch women play, with the roaring crowds and the intense spectacle, then the sports world many of our children enjoy may finally begin to trickle up into more equality on the men’s and women’s level. That makes this World Cup more than a game. Will you and your children — sons and daughters — watch?