Sexuality And The Female Athlete

One of the great things about keeping a blog is you get to see what search results lead people to your writing.  The biggest search term to this blog is “Bob Bradley must go,” which if you are a follower of this blog you will know why.  A big search topic (perhaps the biggest search to lead people to this blog) is about Bruna’s handball at the World Cup.

In the past few weeks I have noticed a bunch of people have come to my blog asking if certain female footballers are gay.  I fear that I have done an injustice to those people who have come to my blog looking for a definitive answer only to find that I do not even address the question.

Honestly, I don’t know.  Unless the person in question publicly comes out, I tend not to care.

I am not trying to be glib, nor am I casting aspersions on those who ask.  What fascinates me is the question itself.  I am hesitant to name whose sexuality has been searched, but I will say none of them were either Alex Morgan or Hope Solo.  I believe that is telling, and I have a theory about why that is.  Here is my caveat, the number of searches to my blog is not a particularly large sample size.  Take from that what you will.

So why not Hope Solo and Alex Morgan?  Because they are two conventionally beautiful, classically feminine women.  Alex Morgan in particular makes femininity something of a calling card, so much so that her trademark color is pink (her headband and matching sports bra, which was quite visible under her white US Women’s jersey.  I suspect that there was some awareness of that when she chose the color.)  Beautiful women get attention, specifically male attention.  On World Football Daily, I heard all about the producer’s Alex Morgan lust or Kenny Hassan’s crush on France’s Louisa Necib.  Hope Solo feminized her image over the last few years.  Compare this World Cup to 2007, and there is no question.  This new feminine Solo (complete with meek, coquettish voice) was highlighted by the soft-light, taped interviews she did with ESPN.  The truth though is that Solo’s demure image masks the fact that she is all kinds of crazy.

It should come as no surprise that Solo and Morgan have gotten more post-World Cup exposure than any other of their teammates except maybe Abby Wambach, the unofficial team leader, the most recognizable US name of the past five to eight years, and a World Cup hero.

In contrast, the women whose names have popped up in these search engine searches defy the girly-girl image.  Some have short, boyish hair.  Some, when they sweat, look rather fierce, or have visible tattoos.  And two have been the epitome of fiery competitors; they are two of the game’s all time greats.

Sexuality in sports is a very complicated subject.  If a man plays a team sport he is automatically assumed to be straight, but when a woman plays a sport (excluding those like gymnastics and figure skating which fetishize the feminine) her sexuality is–not exactly suspect–but is more subject to scrutiny.  Around the world, society is fairly rigid in terms of gender conformity.  The United States is no exception although the rigidity has eased in the past few decades.  Nevertheless, definite lines still exist on some level.  Pink is for girls, blue is for boys.  Girls plays with dolls, boys with trucks.  Girls dance, boys play sports.  Girls do play sports though, and in greater numbers than ever.  I think there may be more girls registered for football in the United States than boys.  Thanks to Title IX, women’s sports are widespread both at college and high school level.  As a result, we have seen powerhouse dynasties like the North Carolina women’s soccer team and rivalries like the Connecticut/Tennessee in women’s basketball.*

Even though women in sports is acceptable now, the specter of gender nonconformity (and the undercurrent of lesbianism) has not truly gone away.  It is more acceptable in the United States to play football than softball because softball is a “lesbian sport.”  Although there are lesbian softball players, the sport is no more a “lesbian sport” than any other.  This is not a judgment of right or wrong, it’s a media-induced perception (a media that generally ignores softball.)  Stereotypes have a germ of truth in them somewhere, which is why they are stereotypes.

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It used to be that women’s tennis was a lesbian sport.  And again there was a grain of truth to it in that some of the all-time great players in history were lesbians, including arguably the game’s finest player, and one of the most significant athletes in all of sports history.

Because of the prominence of lesbian players in women’s tennis though, the sport is a far more tolerant place, and homophobia is far less acceptable.  When Margaret Court said that Martina Navratilova was not a role model, and spewed her Anita Bryant-esque filth, tennis essentially rejected her.  Court gets the occasional honor, such as the Australian Open court that bears her name, but no on in tennis is clamoring to preserve her legacy even though she won the Grand Slam in 1970 and has more major titles, both in singles and overall, than any other person in history.  To the non-ardent tennis fan, probably the most famous fact about Court is that she choked and lost to Bobby Riggs in the first Battle of the Sexes.

One incident in particular shows how much tennis has progressed.  In the semifinals of the 1999 Australian Open, Lindsay Davenport, then the world’s top player faced an unseeded Frenchwoman named Amélie Mauresmo.  Mauresmo, with her powerful ground strokes, shocked the establishment by beating Davenport, no slouch in the power department herself.  After the match Davenport said she felt like she was playing a man.  Although this was meant to be a compliment to Mauresmo’s power, Mauresmo is a lesbian, and publicly came out.  Davenport, mortified at the implications of what she said, apologized profusely to Mauresmo.  Mauresmo lost the final to Martina Hingis, the defending champion and former top ranked player in the world.  After the match, Hingis referred to Mauresmo as “half a man.”  Hingis’s comment set off a firestorm of criticism that she could not understand,** as world fandom generally sided with Mauresmo.  More importantly, Mauresmo’s sponsors openly supported her after she came out (loss of sponsors is a primary fear for the gay athlete, or so we are told.)  The world had completely changed since Navratilova and Billie Jean King were snubbed by sponsors for being gay.

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1999, the year that Mauresmo announced herself to the world on both a professional and personal level, was a significant year for women’s sports because of the success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.  A milestone for women’s sports, the World Cup was also fascinating from a media and marketing perspective.

If women’s football has one superstar, it is Mia Hamm.  Even the football-haters know her name.  Hamm is so utterly intertwined with women’s football, that she has achieved that ambassadorial status that only Pele occupies only she does it with honor rather than embarrassing herself.  This is no exaggeration, she’s a global ambassador for Barcelona, a club that she is in no other way associated.  Hamm was never the best player out there, which she herself would be the first to tell you, but since the 1996 Olympics Hamm has been the face of women’s football.  Literally,  The WPS logo is her silhouette.  I don’t begrudge Hamm any of this, even if I seem critical.  She’s worked hard, suffered for sport and team, and earned her legacy.  She’s given back tenfold what she got from the sport.

Yet Hamm is a reticent personality, and is not particularly media-savvy; even now she seems a bit uncomfortable on camera.  Yet of all the women’s football players in the world, Hamm is by far the most renowned.  She was signed endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade (for whom she featured in a very famous commercial with a very famous costar) but she was also a spokeswoman for Pert Plus and promoted a Soccer Barbie.  There is nothing wrong with that, but one wonders if Hamm, a very beautiful heterosexual woman, would have gotten those avenues opened to her were she either not conventionally attractive or an open lesbian.

Women’s football is aided by the fact that it is uncontroversial for young girls to play.  It is not stereotyped as a “lesbian sport.”  There have always been openly lesbian players, including the current coach of the US Women’s National Team.  The first great female footballer in history was a lesbian.  But by and large the most prominent American personalities in women’s football are heterosexual, and usually conventionally attractive.***

In 1999, there was a tendency to harp on (1) the “babe” factor of the USWNT, and (2) the fact that certain members of the USWNT were mothers.  Not much has changed in women’s football with regard to the motherhood aspect; it’s emphasized a lot.  This year it was all about Christie Rampone, team captain and mother of two.   On one hand, one understands where this comes from.  Emphasizing the motherhood aspect shows how dedicated these women are, both to their families and their sport.  It’s noble.  On the other hand, it also plays up the heterosexuality of these players.  They are mothers, therefore the implication is that they have husbands.

Mercifully, the lead-up to this World Cup did not include the sex-sells marketing of 1999 (for the American team, for the French and Germans it was more explicit.)  The American women were promoted as athletes and, surprise!, there were a ratings success.  On the other hand, because there was not such in-your-face heterosexuality being trumpeted from the rooftops, I suspect that is why I see so may searches asking if certain players are gay.

The question is not whether the personal lives of athletes should go unmentioned.  The issue is whether a lesbian player with or without a wife (and children) would be treated with the same reverence, or would the story be ignored and the media excuses itself for that squeamishness by saying that it is that player’s personal business.  The media repeatedly commits this sin of omission.  Watching the movie A League of Their Own, one would think that all the women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were avowedly heterosexual, which was untrue.†

I suspect an openly gay, professional female athlete would have an easier time being herself than her male counterpart.‡  Despite the preponderance of baseball teams recording “It Gets Better” videos (do gay people even make them anymore, or is it just companies marketing their brands to an audience with a huge disposable income?), I am far from convinced that an openly gay male player would be welcomed by either the club hierarchies or the fans.  In contrast, I do believe that lesbian athletes would be with minimal difficulty from clubs, fans, and teammates.  Navratilova, once the villain of women’s tennis, is now a universally beloved icon. I wonder if deep down, the gender definitions still rule, and people just expect it.

Footnotes: 

* Women’s college sports, though mainstream, still brings out controversy.  Title IX is constantly challenged both in court and in public opinion.  When women’s teams do something spectacular, they are always degraded as “a women’s team.”  To wit: when UConn broke the record this season for most consecutive wins, the dinosaurs in the sports media acted as guardians of someone else’s legacy, and howled that UConn was only able to accomplish this because it was in women’s basketball and therefore the disparity was much greater.  This ignoring the obvious rejoinder, which is when UCLA set the record, John Wooden’s Bruins also benefited from a similar disparity.

** Tact, alas, was never one of Martina Hingis’s strong suits.  Success probably came too early for her, and at that time she saw herself as the tennis diva and often acted as such.  Yet in an age where sports figures try never to say anything controversial, her honesty was both refreshing and  infuriating.  Although she did not know it at the time, the 1999 Australian Open final would be her final major singles title.  In the 1999 French Open final, Hingis met Steffi Graf and imploded both on the court and afterwards in now-legendary fashion that, along with her comments about Mauresmo, earned her the ire of the French fans, who for the next several years mercilessly taunted her whenever she played at Roland Garros.  Hingis’s career is perhaps the perfect subject for a critical and literary reevaluation; her peak era came as the intelligent, creative, and artistic game that she specialized in waned due to the pressure of the power game best exemplified by her challengers-turned-archrivals-turned-tormentors, the Williams Sisters.

*** At this point, I feel like I have to say “not that there’s anything wrong about that” after every sentence.  Please just assume it’s there so that my writing will be less clunky.  I’m not judging anything, just observing.

† I liked the movie a lot, particularly the scene that subtly acknowledged the racism of the league and of segregation.  However, Penny Marshall did a great disservice by not including any mention, subtle or otherwise, of the fact that the league expelled open lesbians and forced a code of strict heterosexuality over all the players.

‡  This is for the United States.  A gay female footballer in Nigeria would still have a hard time.

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