Earlier this week, ESPN’s Graham Hays shared a wonderful interview with United States women’s national team defenders Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg. In the piece, Hays told a touching story of a young boy who approached Johnston for an autograph in the San Diego airport shortly after the team’s World Cup win this summer.
Cool story. pic.twitter.com/WoBH7E9uFv
— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) February 10, 2016
The anecdote resonated with me, in particular, because it contradicted the common assumption that males only follow men’s sports and that women’s sports are some sort of cultural aberration. The truth, in reality, is that our world is far more complex than that.
I grew up in a fairly masculine culture. In addition to an unremarkable soccer career, I played baseball, football and basketball growing up and turned a minute amount of athletic ability into a fairly successful wrestling career. In college, my roommates and I played intramural sports during the week, drank beer on the weekends and made daily visits to the weight room in order to achieve our desired physiques.
While I would hesitate to call myself what in today’s parlance is known as a “bro”, I was certainly “a guy’s guy”.
Shortly after college, I became a coach, starting with freshman boy’s soccer in the fall of 2000, followed by freshman wrestling that winter. The next year I repeated the duo and that spring was talked into my first season of coaching girls, with a stint running the JV soccer team.
Growing up in small Midwest town in the 1980′s and 90′s, I didn’t have much exposure to girl’s sports. My mother was not an athlete and few female athletes or women’s teams managed to puncture the national sports conversation (although it is notable that the best player in my little league was a girl, and one who was so dominant that she caused the league rules to be amended).
Despite all that, in my role as a coach, I quickly grew to enjoy working with the girls more than the boys. While I was often told coaching girls was more difficult because of the “drama”, I didn’t find that to be the case. In fact, I found female athletes to be much more coachable because they generally lacked the alpha male nonsense that was ever-present in coaching the boy’s teams.
In 2004, I became the head coach of the girl’s soccer program. In 2005, I took over the boy’s program as well. My stint as the head coach of the boys began as a favor when the previous coach quit one day before the team’s first game that fall. I told my athletic director I would stay for one season – it turned into seven.
Despite wide success with both programs, running two teams took its toll on me physically and emotionally. Eventually, I had to make a choice and drop one. When that happened, I stayed with the girl’s program. The decision shocked many – they couldn’t understand why I wanted to coach girls more than boys.
Often to my detriment, I’ve seen the world as fairly black and white. To me, the decision was a simple one. The girls were less resistant to teaching points, more team-oriented and less egotistic. Wins, and losses, always felt more like a team effort – a shared experience.
When I began writing about soccer – primarily about the U.S. national teams – I felt a commitment to covering both the men’s and women’s teams equally. Although it was often more difficult to cover the women because of the lack of television coverage – even just a few years ago most U.S. games were only available on choppy internet streams – the work was just as fun.
Which brings me full circle to the Johnston story. When the U.S. women won the World Cup this summer, everyone jumped on board to cover the event and the celebration. The team was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and the national team players came back to their National Women’s Soccer League teams to an increased presence in the press room – even if the major papers staffed that work out to young interns who only came out to one or two games.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, a third star was added to the U.S. jersey to commemorate their third world championship. For a short period, it seemed that Nike would be making the women’s three-star jerseys available in men’s sizes, but it quickly reversed course. It seems they were worried some fans would be confused and mistakenly think the U.S. men had won three World Cups.
It was odd decision for several reasons. One, could any self-respecting soccer fan ever really believe that the U.S. men had won three World Cups? Two, Brazil’s women’s national team wears a five-star jersey, even in major competitions, despite never winning a world championship on the women’s side. The five stars on their jersey represent the five world titles their men’s team has won. No one seems confused.
— American Touchline (@AmerTouchline) January 20, 2016
The Johnston story illustrates that Nike’s decision on the three-star U.S. women’s jersey in men’s sizes is a mindset not appropriate for the world we live in, even for old curmudgeons like me. Men can, and do, enjoy watching the women’s national team or NWSL as much, or even more, than watching the U.S. men or Major League Soccer. They can also enjoy coaching girls more than boys.
And young boys can have female role models.
We shouldn’t discourage that.