Professional soccer's sexism problem

Brian Lenzo looks at the ugly sexism rearing its head in Major League Soccer--and asks how a new generation of soccer fans can fight it.

OVER THE past two decades, soccer has made its way, slowly but surely, into mainstream sporting consciousness in the U.S. This is in no small part due to the explosion of participation by women at the high school and college level, and the success of the U.S. women's national team, which won two women's World Cups and three Olympic Gold Medals since 1991.

Consider this when reading the comments of Simon Borg, a writer for the U.S. men's professional soccer league, Major League Soccer (MLS), and panelist for "ExtraTime," the official podcast of the MLS:

It's fine if you're a female and you want to be a super-fan. Clearly go for it, that's your choice. But there is something to be said for how appealing that might be to the other sex. Having a woman that's such a fan, like painting your face, tuning in to every podcast. I don't know how many males would be into that.

It's great that in Kansas City there are a lot of women in the stands, it's great, but for the guy who wants maybe a serious relationship...If you are following just casually, but if you're such a die-hard, I don't know, it comes a point that it is a bit of a turn-off.

The MLS, for its part, has issued an apology, saying, "Mr. Borg will be suspended from his position at MLSsoccer.com for seven days, effective immediately. All MLS employees undergo diversity and sensitivity training on an annual basis, and Mr. Borg and the entire MLS Digital group will receive additional sensitivity training promptly."

Unfortunately, this isn't a solitary blemish on an otherwise female-friendly organization. Sportswriter Alicia Ratterree writes, "[T]his example is not the first by the league's [MLS] official media in the last few months to be, frankly, straight-up sexist."

Some other examples:

-- In November 2011, the MLS chose to enlist two scantily clad, blond women for a photo op unveiling the MLS Cup, the trophy awarded to the league champion. In years past, Seattle politicians and a group of Canadian Royal Mounted Police had accompanied the trophy. When fans complained on the MLS Facebook page, a torrent of sexist and degrading comments flooded the MLS Facebook wall, but it was left un-moderated for weeks.

-- On March 23, the MLS was forced to remove a controversial graphic that ran at the top of the a soccer news roundup called "The Kickoff" after a groundswell of complaints. The graphic depicted a yellow coffee mug, presumably the "male," accompanied at the beach by a bikini-clad coffee mug painted with large breasts. This graphic ran daily for an entire month before being taken down.

And even then, an article appeared on the website making fun of the whole incident, with a tongue-in-cheek missive to their departing colleague, saying, "He was friends with folks around the league and the world of soccer. All other mugs wanted to be him, all the lady mugs wanted to be with him. But now the Kick Off Mug has set sail on the sea of retirement, and we wish him well."

The MLS has since brought back "The Kick Off Mug" persona, sans-logo, for a weekly column.

-- It gets worse: In March, users were treated to a photo posted from the official MLS Facebook account of a road-side billboard advertising a strip club with the caption, "You had me at strippers."

And now, we have Borg advising women on how to be more attractive to men in the stands, on an official MLS podcast.

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A CURSORY investigation into the results of Title IX (the landmark legislation that banned gender discrimination in athletic funding and access for any entity receiving federal money) would reveal to Borg the reasons why women might be passionate about sports.

Just six years after the enactment of Title IX in 1972, the percentage of girls playing team sports jumped six-fold, to 25 percent from about 4 percent. Robert Kaestner, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studied the effects of Title IX on women and concluded, "the increase in girls' athletic participation caused by Title IX was associated with a 7 percent lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later, when women were in their late 30s and early 40s."

Similar studies showed decreases for instances of eating disorders, diabetes and other life-changing health conditions. These figures are just a taste of why guaranteeing equal participation for women (and all genders) in sports benefits everyone.

Thankfully, Borg's actions have caused an outcry among soccer fans and the wider public. Much of the criticism has called upon soccer fans to jettison gender roles that assign males as the "fanatics" and women as uninterested or passionate sidekicks at best. Ratterree concludes, "Being a guy does not make one a sports fan or soccer fan. Start considering women likewise."

Other reactions have gone even farther and revealed just how much the boys' club atmosphere of sporting past has changed. In a post on the blog Gay4Soccer.com, sports fan John Leung writes, "There's something you probably should know about me: I do bat for the other team...yep, queerer than a three dollar bill. AND I'm seeing someone, too--who doesn't happen to be a soccer fan."

Leung continues, "[H]e knows I am a sports fan, and knows about my TFC [Toronto Football Club] supporting ways. Does he have a problem with me spending my time writing and covering the team for SBNation.com? Heck, if he did...he would've dumped me right after my trip to LA for the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final."

Borg's comments and the response of fans like John Leung reflect a widening gap between the way people are actually living and what the dominant institutions in society say is how we "should" be living.

It's not just about one blowhard sports commentator. Borg's comments reflect the sexism, homophobia and transphobia that seem to have a chokehold on our government and the wider institutions of society.

In the last year alone, Republicans (and many Democrats) have attempted to restrict and redefine what constitutes "rape," have introduced fetal "personhood" bills in states like Oklahoma and Alabama (giving rights to an embryo but denying them to the pregnant woman) and restricted abortion rights in numerous other ways. Bills guaranteeing workplace protections for transgender individuals languish in Congress and most state legislatures.

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WHEN WE sports fans do get a chance to relax and try to enjoy a game, we are treated to a regular onslaught of half-naked cheerleaders posing for the crowds and commercials showing homely men attracting beautiful women solely due to their choice of beer. For women's sports, it's nearly impossible to find a televised game outside of the NCAA women's basketball tournament. Many of us are tired of it, and the outcry around these comments shows it clearly.

Borg's comments reflect a profoundly conservative point of view that believes in strict gender categories where women exist mainly for men's use and enjoyment. While he admits women can watch the games, they shouldn't get too "manly" about it, lest they scare off a potential (male) mate. In this twisted world, the primary role of women in society is to both be sexual objects for the titillation of men AND to produce and raise their children.

Today, women do have more opportunities for personal, sexual and economic development than ever before, although we have a ways to go with our LGBTQ citizens. Polls also show that young men are more supportive of women's rights and LGBTQ rights than ever. However, as long as the institutions of our society, legislative or commercial remain steeped in sexist ideas, practices and laws, it will not be enough.

Borg should not just be suspended. He should be fired. And send the caravan of jackasses who have been posting sexist garbage on the MLS website and Facebook accounts along with him. In his place, MLS should hire some of the amazing female or LGBTQ sportswriters who have raised a stink about his behavior and demanded a rightful place as "legitimate" fans.

But more than that, we need fans and players to stand together and demand a truly welcoming environment for women and LGBTQ people in sports. We can't expect these mega-corporations or our government to change on their own.

You can see the precedent for such a struggle in the "Stand Against Racism" campaigns in European soccer and the world soccer bodies (FIFA and UEFA). The international movement against sexism and sexual violence known as "SlutWalk" has shown a generation is ready to fight again. The list of more than 60 MLS players listed as "allies" on the Gay4Soccer blog is another encouraging sign.

Are any MLS players out there willing to reveal a "No to Sexism and Homophobia" shirt after they score a goal? How about thousands of face-painted, chanting fans descending on the next MLS game with "Stand Against Sexism" signs? Any takers?