Invisible change is not enough

Sometimes, it’s the things we take for granted—the things we don’t notice—that would should spend time celebrating or condemning. Or both. We rarely do.

Over the past week, I wanted to write to celebrate something we perhaps hadn’t noticed changing. And then… well, news almost made the thought of celebration seem not just superfluous but also ironic and naïve.

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Over the past several weeks, almost all of those people in my “soccer circle” have had plenty to worry about (as well as celebrate).  Nashville SC went on a torrid run to put themselves in good playoff position for the end of the season; we fans get to celebrate that as well as worry about the closing games, and how the team ultimately lands. The fact that this final run didn’t start well only heightens the tension.

We had a fairly magical night in our “international” club friendly against Club América (well, at least the benches of both teams) and walked away with a PK victory, something we are not used to. 

On the U.S. Men’s National Team side, we’ve watched the team play two truly uninspired performances in their final two tune up matches for the World Cup, so now we have a use for our worry beads again. 

Our attention has been focused.

While we are worry and celebrating, I wanted to take a moment to talk about something we are NOT thinking about, or not as much as we might. My thinking on this began two weeks ago, when I was teaching my “soccer class” at Vanderbilt and had the students watch the 20 year old film “Bend It Like Beckham.” I show this film as an historic document to be sure, but I also assumed that the narrative of a young Asian woman trying to work against cultural expectations has resonance. And I suppose it does, but not at all like it used to.

Rather than the conversations I’m used to having around the film, the students mainly found this to be a dull rom com with a very, very problematic (and what my students saw as unlikely) relationship between a male coach and one of his female players. They find the notion that the women would have to come to the U.S. to play soccer professional ridiculous. “What about the Women’s Super League,” they ask. “That would be so much better.”

Not only do they not understand how young both the WSL and the U.S.’s National Women’s Soccer League are, they are somewhat baffled that anyone would see their existence as anything out of the ordinary. It’s a pretty amazing turn.

I end up having to show them a recent short BBC documentary about the impact of Bend It Like Beckham, 20 years on, for them to grasp what an impact the film made on the imaginations of young women who wanted to play soccer in general, and more specifically on those same young women in England (and, even more specifically, Asian young women in England).

Then, as if to really make the point, I take them on a lesson in the very scant historical documentation of women’s soccer in the United States, as well as the woeful tale of how England’s Football Association in effect put a Stop sign in front of the rapidly growing women’s game in the 1940s and 50s. 

Once I get the point across, you can almost hear their brains: “Hmmmmmmm, the olden days were really ridiculous.”

While no one enjoys getting older (well, at least I don’t), this is the one aspect of aging you have to appreciate:  when the corrections of injustices of the past become the expected norms of the present. Their reactions tell us that there is no going back. It’s not a political reaction, so much as one of “That’s the way the world is.”

That’s worth thinking about, and that’s what I wanted to tell my students. In short, the world in general is not perfect, and neither is the world of soccer on a local or global scale. 

But it might be worth a little time now and then, if only to recharge one’s imagination to be thankful for where we are right now. There’s a lot we can still change about the attitudes of fans and players, I suppose, but the infrastructure for all of these changes is now there. 

I wanted to say all of this. I wanted to celebrate the little victory of the unnoticed changes that have taken place across the span of a generation. I wanted to celebrate the fact that the students thought the romantic relationship between coach and player was political/ethically problematic AND unlikely because times have changed.

And then… well, and then, the Yates report came out. 

If you haven’t read it in full, you’ve read about it. You’ve heard about the systemic physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of female soccer players from youth to professional leagues. You’ve read some pretty horrific and skin crawling tales that I don’t want to repeat here. You’ve heard Candice Fabry argue that absolutely no one who has played women’s soccer in any serious level is at all surprised by the Yates report. 

I personally listened to a number of my students tell me that there is nothing in the report that doesn’t resonate with what they have seen, heard about, or experienced in their own histories with soccer AND other sports.

So, while I initially wanted to write a goofy little column celebrating positive changes that have happened in ways that we haven’t noticed, instead I sit feeling defeated and disgusted by the systemic problems I haven’t been paying attention to. 

Something must be done. 

USA midfielder Lindsey Horan points out that the Yates report cannot be seen as an endpoint, but the end of the beginning of such behavior. And of course she’s right.

So, while I’m going to continue to celebrate NSC victories, and while I will continue to fret about the wins and losses of my different teams, I don’t want any of us to let the Yates report go. Change has to come, and it needs to arrive in visible and clear ways. I don’t want to celebrate invisible transitions; I want to hear about systemic changes being brought forth now to protect players.

In its essence, soccer is a community effort on the pitch; it should be the same off as well.  And we should all be part of this effort.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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