As I was waiting for my flight in the Vancouver airport, the day after the World Cup Finals, watching girls and women of all ages clutching their souvenirs on their way home, I couldn’t help but think that this just might be a huge moment, not just for soccer, but for women’s sports, and for women in general.
I’ve largely been following soccer through my husband, who is a huge soccer fan and doesn’t discriminate by gender. He loves men’s and women’s soccer equally well, having season passes for both of Portland’s teams, the Thorns and the Timbers.
In our hometown of Portland, Oregon, both the Thorns and the Timbers command impressive support, giving Portland the title of “Soccer Capitol USA.” Portland Thorns goalie, Nadine Angerer, in an interview stated that every Thorns home game is like a World Cup game. That’s because in her home country of Germany, where men’s soccer is immensely popular, sometimes only a few hundred people show up to watch women’s soccer. But in Portland, every Thorns home game commands ten to fourteen thousand enthusiastic spectators.
A few years ago when I visited Germany, my soccer playing friend whose sons are active in their local youth soccer club explained how Germans talk about soccer. Her sons’ soccer coach openly derided women’s soccer as a joke of a sport, and in front of her kids. In many countries where men’s soccer is a national treasure, women’s soccer gains little or no recognition. The United States puts those countries where women’s soccer is a second- or third-rate sport to shame.
However, even in the US, not all women’s sports fare well. Last year when my rock band was filming a music video with Portland’s semi-pro women’s football team, the Fighting Fillies, I had a chance to speak with one of the players. As she ran laps around the field I encouraged her to show off her skills for the video. She responded, “It doesn’t matter, I’ll never be a famous football player… because I’m a woman.”
This woman is an All-American athlete. She exudes athleticism from every pore; and sadly, she’s right. If she were a man with similarly stellar athletic ability, her story might be different. Yes, women have done well in many college, Olympic, and amateur sports, but less so in professional sports, especially professional team sports.
So I ask myself? Was this the biggest moment in women’s sports history?
Let the numbers speak. In all, 53,000 people came to see the Women’s World Cup Finals. 25.4 million viewers tuned into Fox TV for the game. Worldwide viewership smashed previous records from the Men’s World Cup and the NBA Finals. In the future, the meaning of “World Cup” will not automatically default to the men’s sport.
I wonder, is this a big deal? I actually think it’s a huge deal.
Why? Because well-known athletes, along with entertainers and celebrities, are the heroes of our culture. These heroes capture the media spotlight. They are icons of our society and they reflect what society values. In general, women who are in the media spotlight are valued for their youth, sex appeal, and beauty.
All too often, women in the public eye are judged for their taste in clothing, hair styles, and makeup, instead of their skills, determination, and experience. Furthermore, women who aspire for top positions in the public eye are swatted down and labeled as emotional, uncharismatic, catty… and sometimes they are even described as “bitches.” We see this happening over and over. But things may be about to change.
The U.S. women soccer players have taken on hero status for being passionate, for playing to win, for supporting each other, and for playing as a team. Maybe these attributes could become the new labels that media uses to describe women striving for success in other arenas- in politics, technology, and business.
As I watched the girls and women clutching their World Cup souvenirs at the airport, I got the feeling that they were holding onto something more than just T-shirts and soccer balls. They are holding onto something much bigger than that. I believe they are holding onto the idea of equal recognition for women.
Maybe, just maybe, this harkens in a new era where women could become heroes in our culture without being judged by their outward appearances, their youth, or other superficial factors. Women could become our heroes- cultural icons, business leaders, and political leaders- by being recognized and admired for their perseverance and fighting spirit, for their tenacity, and for being good.
****thanks for reading****
More commentary about the momentous game can be found here: