Swimming

For years after I left childhood, I almost never swam.  Now I live near a pool, and I started swimming again.  I feel like I had far more energy for swimming when I was a child than I do now.  It’s much harder than I remember.

The other day I went to buy a pair of goggles at a sporting goods store.  There was a whole wall of goggles.  When did this happen?  It was the most complicated purchase I have made in the past few years.  Were goggles always this specialized, or is this a new thing?  Did my mother just buy the cheapest thing she could find?

Now I have my goggles, which are lovely, and I went swimming today.  The goggles made swimming easier, but now I see how dirty the pool is.

Eat your heart out, Michael Phelps.

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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.

The Return Of The Cosmos

Next Friday is Manchester United’s testimonial for the great Paul Scholes.  The opponent will be the New York Cosmos.  Now if you are like me you may be asking yourself, does the Cosmos still exist?  The answer is, not really.  As far as I can tell, the Cosmos is an old name and youth football.  The–rather uninspiring– Cosmos roster for the Scholes testimonial comprises of some of these youth players and big retired names (some of whom being former United players who came through the ranks with Scholes.)  The “Cosmos” is the first American team to ever play at Old Trafford.  I weep and so should all MLS fans.

Former United legend Eric Cantona is the Cosmos’s “director of soccer.”  Again, if you are like me you may be wondering why crazy, insane Eric Cantona, a man who has given absolutely no indication that he knows anything about being a director, got that position.  Or what connection he has to the New York Cosmos.  I have no good answer for that beyond the cynical.  Ask the seagulls.

And speaking of the seagulls, this new incarnation of the Cosmos is completely media-driven.  I know of no fans who want the Cosmos back, yet I listen to Cosmos paeans on World Football Daily or I read articles like this or this, and I think to myself, am I just crazy?  Fans of MLS deride those of us who prefer the European game as “Euro snobs,” and I suppose they have a point.  One should support one’s own league. (Of course, do these critics support WPS?)  Of course, around the world many leagues have the exact same problem in that fans prefer the major European leagues to their own local one, so the MLS is not special in that respect.  People want to follow the best product.

But whenever the Cosmos is mentioned, I am glad that the league I support is across the ocean.  This kind of insanity would not happen in a league that is confident in its own product.  The Cosmos is all smoke and mirrors.  There is no team; it is just a name.  Yet, already Cantona and Pele are involved and no doubt David Beckham will be too if it ever gets off the ground (Beckham is the type of celebrity who would go to the opening of an envelope.)  By involved, what I mean is that the Cosmos gives Cantona and Pele a paycheck to show up every once in a while and make a push for the Cosmos to enter MLS.  That is why they are director of football and honorary president respectively.

Despite the best attempts of the media and some wealthy investors, MLS is not exactly clamoring for a second cross-town rivalry. Chivas USA/Galaxy does not make for scintillating entertainment.  There are not enough fans in New York City to support two teams, and Red Bull fans, such as they are, are not really excited about the return of the Cosmos.  Despite what Goal.com would have you believe, the return of the Cosmos will not help the Red Bulls.

I understand that MLS is doing respectably and the league wants to expand to places that do not have a football team.  It seems wrong that New York should get a second team when legitimate soccer towns like St. Louis have none.  Why not Atlanta?  Or Detroit?  Or somewhere in the Southwest which could tap into the immigrant communities?  (Miami is trying to get another team even after the Fusion folded, but Miami is the absolute worst place for non-American football sports?)

Forced rivalries that no one cares about is not going to fill seats (see: Chivas USA/Galaxy).  In contrast, Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver are all relatively new to MLS, but those three teams have battled each other for years and have created the league’s most compelling rivalry.  MLS is desperate to capitalize on a New York/Los Angeles rivalry because those are the two biggest media markets, but fans have been stubbornly resistant, and with good reason.  Regional rivalries are the bread-and-butter of MLS.  A fan can travel to away games, and American sports generally favor regional rivalries (especially in league play.)  Americans don’t really do cross-town derbies or cross-country ones.

Back to the Cosmos.  One of the media’s tropes about the Cosmos is that they still have worldwide name recognition despite not having played since 1984 or so.  Frankly that says more about how poorly American soccer is seen than praise for the Cosmos.  The reason the Cosmos are so recognized is that some of history’s greats played for cosmos, including Pele, Carlos Alberto, and Beckenbauer.  A new Cosmos will not have name players, just faded glory and overpaid, uninterested, honorary administrators.  When Pele left the Cosmos, the popularity of the franchise, and NASL as a whole, took a nosedive.  The Cosmos was keeping NASL afloat.  The massive names that were the attraction of NASL (also including players as famous as Best and Cruyff), were also a big part of the decline.  That includes Pele.

The Cosmos is not a panacea for MLS.  A Cosmos/Galaxy rivalry, although it sounds stellar, is not going to turn the unenthused into diehard fans.  Let the Cosmos remain in history, and let MLS build its own Cosmos-free legacy.

An Appreciation

Tonight the Republican leadership was unable to pass its own debt-ceiling bill.  This was a bill that was hated by every Democrat in Washington, and still the Republican leadership could not convince the lunatics in their asylum.  The United States economy (and therefore the world economy) is perilously close to collapse come August 2.  This is acknowledged by sane people across the political spectrum even if the Congressional Republicans and the Tea Party refuse to see it.  But the Republican leadership could not pass the bill.  Speaker of the House John Boehner looks very weak right now as he failed to pass a bill that was too conservative even for a weak-willed Democratic Senate and President Barack Obama.

But that’s not what I want to focus on.  The Republican spectrum in the current House runs the gamut from very conservative to Know-Nothing conservative.  In other words, there is very little in the way of ideological difference, just degree.  When the Democrats had control of Congress from 2007-2010, the ideological spectrum of the Democratic Representatives was much more vast, ranging from extremely conservative to extremely liberal.  Yet, among the bills the House leadership got passed (even if the Senate did not follow) were the stimulus bill, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a Child Nutrition Act, a law that lets the FDA regulate tobacco, a major reform of health care (with a public option), a major reform of Wall Street, a jobs bill, stronger hate crimes legislation, a health and compensation bill for Ground Zero workers, the DREAM Act, a restructuring of student loans, the Waxman-Markey energy/emissions bill, and SCHIP.

This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch.  Every one of those bill came about between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2010.

The point is that despite the large and often contentious ideological spectrum that the Democratic leadership had to contend with, they still managed to pass monumental, potentially nation-changing legislation.  This is why, despite only being in office for four years, many of us consider Nancy Pelosi to be one of the most effective Speakers of the House ever, up there with Sam Rayburn.  Unfortunately, while Rayburn had Lyndon Johnson as the Senate Majority Leader, Pelosi had Harry Reid.

Nevertheless, as evidenced by Boehner, being Speaker does not guarantee that you can keep your party in line.  That Pelosi was able to it over and over again for such major bill deserves major appreciation (and also credit to Steny Hoyer, her once bitter rival, turned effective partner.)  Here’s to Nancy Pelosi, the once and hopefully future Speaker of the House.

Bob Bradley Is Gone Now

Well, it’s official, Bob Bradley has been sacked.  After the Gold Cup, it seemed like he would be around forever, or at least until the US exited early from the 2014 World Cup.  For once Sunil Gualti and the USSF did the right thing, although the larger issues–thoroughly average players, mismanagement of US soccer at all levels, Sunil Gulati and the USSF in general–still remain.

Why did the sack finally happen?  Well, I cannot be certain.  On ESPN, they seem to be sure that this is part of Gulati’s plan to “brand” US Soccer, hence the need for a name (foreign) coach.   (Please God, not Marcello Lippi.)  Others seem to believe it will be a US-based coach such as Sigi Schmid.  And of course there will be the inevitable will-he-won’t-he dance with Jurgen Klinsmann.  I am far from convinced that Klinsmann is the right guy, but for a number of American fans, he is the great white hope.  We’ll probably find out tomorrow who the next coach will be.  Watch this space.

The announcement took everybody by surprise.  Everybody.  I wonder if even Bradley had an inkling.  It makes sense to get rid of him now so a new coach can experiment with and improve a US team gone horribly stale.  The World Cup cycle is still in its infancy, so this is the best chance (only chance) for effective change.  Argentina certainly felt that way by firing–oh excuse me, Argentina doesn’t fire coaches–by allowing Batista to quit.  And inevitably there is moaning from the media who for inexplicable reasons loved Bradley dearly and gave him a free pass he did not merit.  Leander Schaerlaeckens of ESPN liked him so much he wrote two different pieces today defending Bradley–and implicitly blaming us, the stupid American fans, for not appreciating him.  To get Schaerlaeckens on your side, just give him the time of day.  He’s easy.  (It probably also helps that Bradley’s brother Jeff is the head soccer writer for ESPN The Magazine.)

I accept that a lot of US fans took poorly to Bradley from the start, and the relationship went from bad to worse.  I also accept that Bradley’s results with the national team were solid, and maybe even progress.  I even accept that Americans tend to have inflated expectations of the National Team.  I accept also that the 2009 Confederations Cup was a good result, but I counter with the fact that the Confederations Cup is an exhibition and not a real tournament.  Finally, I accept what Bradley’s defenders trumpet again and again, he did not have quality players to work with (by blaming the players though, Bradley’s defenders implicitly agree that the results were not acceptable.)

But Bradley was mediocre.  Thoroughly, utterly, undeniably mediocre.  It’s not his fault; Bradley is a product of the system he developed in, specifically the United States college system.  One need not be a former player to be a great coach, but a coach in the international game should not be provincial, and that is the inevitable result of being a product of the American college system.  Both Bradley’s career and his results, no matter how hard he worked, never really showed that he was a participant in the international dialogue.  One hopes that Bradley’s departure signals the end of the American college system era.  It should be required that whoever coaches the National Team from hereon in should already be a participant in the larger world football dialogue.  Hopefully the USSF is going in this direction; perhaps the fact that the u-20 and u-23 sides also need new coaches is no coincidence.

In the end what undid Bradley was his loyalty.  Bradley had his pet players, players.  Although they underperformed time and again, he stubbornly called them up while ignoring others who may have deserved a second or even first chance.  His pet players were players he knew and trusted, and his excuse for leaving out other players–that they didn’t play enough minutes for their clubs–rang hollow when some of his favorites also barely got off the bench.

No one exemplifies this favoritism more than Bradley’s son Michael.  Michael Bradley is a decent player, aggressive and competitive, but lacking in technique.  His pass leave much to be desire.  He is also dull, lifeless, abrasive, and robotic in interviews, which really hurts his image, but I suspect he doesn’t care.  (He probably should.)  At the World Cup, Michael Bradley was the best US player, or at least the most consistent.  After the World Cup he moved to Aston Villa on loan and barely got off the bench.  Villa opted not to extend his contract and Michael Bradley had to go back to Borussia Mönchengladbach (a club he effectively trashed after leaving) with his tail between his legs.  His club future is uncertain.

It’s not that Michael Bradley is a bad player, but prior to the Gold Cup he failed all the criteria that his father requires for his non-favored players.  As a result Michael Bradley, fairly or no, has come to symbolize his father’s favoritism/nepotism.  Michael Bradley had a poor Gold Cup, and gave the doubters all the more ammunition.  I suspect that Michael Bradley is going to be the player who suffers most from the regime change, at least among the starters.  He, more than any other player, symbolizes the Bob Bradley era.

Which brings us to the Gold Cup, the final nail in the coffin of Bob Bradley’s National Team career.  The US underperformed, although not necessarily on paper.  In ordinary circumstances making the final and losing to Mexico would be a disappointing but  acceptable result.*  What happened though is that the US lost in the Gold Cup group stag for the first time ever (to powerhouse Panama), looked terrible in the  group stage wins (to Canada and Guadeloupe), and lost the final in horrific fashion.  It’s not that the US lost a 2-0 lead that grates, nor is it that the US lost 4-2, nor even that the US was by far the lesser team.  It’s that the US lost its 2-0 lead almost immediately after earning it.  The US looked tactically stale, completely lost, and the using favorite players (especially Jonathan Bornstein) came back to haunt Bradley.  At this pace, Mexico will dominate the US for the next decade at least.

It looked like it would never get any better so long as Bob Bradley was in charge.

I have nothing against Bob Bradley as a person.  I have never referred to him derisively as “Coach Sweatpants” like some of my fellow fans.  I don’t take pleasure in his sacking, and I wish him well.  He gave all he could to the US Men’s National Team, and for that he deserves credit.  Nevertheless, all he could give was never going to be enough.  It was clear for some time.

The life of a football coach is unfair.  No credit for a win, blame for a loss.  But no one is forced to coach.  Angry fans, pressure from the football administration, criticism from the media, and the sword of Damocles are all part and parcel of the job, especially for international team coaches.  It’s Bob Bradley’s time to go.  Thank you for the nearly 5 years of loyal service, enjoy the gold watch, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Footnotes:

Bradley’s US team made four finals, but lost three of them, two of them to Mexico in the Gold Cup finals.  The one final the US won was also a Gold Cup.  The other was the 2009 Confederations Cup final to Brazil, in which, like with the 2011 Gold Cup, the US blew a 2-0 lead.  Against lesser teams, the US falls behind and catches up.  Against better teams, the US loses the lead.  This too is blamed on Bradley.