Why We Discriminate Against Women Athletes And Why I Almost Kicked A Kid: An Essay

11/02/2017 12:13 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2017
Portland Thorns FC forward Ashleigh Sykes (14) and North Carolina Courage midfielder Denise OSullivan (8) fight for poss
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Portland Thorns FC forward Ashleigh Sykes (14) and North Carolina Courage midfielder Denise OSullivan (8) fight for possession during the NWSL soccer Championship match on October 14th, 2017.

It was a Wednesday afternoon.

A crisp, fall breeze gently kissed the trees that framed the Los Angeles skyline. But I was in a mall food court scribbling down a joke about dog farts ’cause I’m a comic and a goddamned professional.

Then it happened.

Two yards away and one tired teriyaki chicken taste-tester away sat two young boys. Children. Six? Eight? They seemed old enough to know Santa Claus isn’t real, but young enough to still think their parents’ love is unconditional. One of them wrinkled his face when he spoke, like a squirmy, excitable human pug. The other looked like a tiny Tom Hanks and periodically stuck his stubby little finger up his nose when his mother wasn’t looking. They were playing that “Would you rather...?” game, asking each other little boy questions. The types of questions I imagine Trump asks foreign leaders.

Tiny Tom Hanks: “Would you rather... eat forever... cupcakes or pie?”

Pug Boy: “Pie!” (idiot)

Tiny Tom Hanks: “Okay, um, would you rather... fly or be invisible?”

Pug Boy: “Invisible ’cause then no one could see me!” (someone get this kid therapy)

Tiny Tom Hanks: “Umm... would you rather... play... baseball or soccer?”

Pug Boy: “Baseball, duh! Soccer’s a girl sport!”

Then they laughed. Oh, how they laughed.

I put my pen down. I summoned my most potent “I hate you” look. Then I aimed.

They, of course, didn’t notice me staring daggers at them. Which is a shame — It’s never too early for a kid to learn that people around you despise your joy.

His words struck me on a personal level. But also, on a professional level — the irony of hearing an unsolicited opinion about girls playing soccer felt so ironic it felt like divine intervention. But I’ll get to that later.

I remembered when I was his age. My bedroom walls were adorned with posters of Derek Jeter. I remembered the string that dangled above my bed that stored the sock my mom made me cover my hand with at night so I wouldn’t suck my thumb that I later replaced with a New York Yankee replica helmet. I remember staring at that helmet every night as I drifted off to sleep; I allowed it to be the tour guide to my subconscious, steering my dreams to the day I could glide the real helmet onto my head before stepping up to the plate, before sticking my back leg out of the batters box and telling the umpire time out. Just like my hero, and — undoubtedly— my predecessor, Derek Jeter.

But when I was nine years old, I got kicked off my tee ball team. A boy teammate started to “like” me so the coach deemed me a distraction. He explained it was an unspoken rule girls weren’t allowed on the team anyway, and basically fired me. I got fired! FROM TEE BALL! The fact that ESPN wasn’t alerted to this nine-year-old future Yankee’s incomprehensible termination was beyond me. I wasn’t juicing. I wasn’t betting on the game. But I committed the most reprehensible offense possible — I was, simply, a girl. Way to go, Coach... you made an unspoken rule pretty fucking spoken. Dick.

I was shattered. I was afraid MLB scouts would stop tracking my progress. My dad — SUPER CASUALLY — told me the Yankees wouldn’t allow me on the team anyway. He told me Major League Baseball didn’t let girls in. “There, there,” he said. “There’s no future for you in baseball anyway.” I was numb.

A couple grief-stricken months later, I discovered soccer. I entered the fray tentatively — like a young widow re-entering the dating scene: Broken. Hesitant. Horny.

I watched Mia Hamm score. I watched Julie Foudy run. I watched people in the stands watch them score and run. I became interested in soccer because I was allowed to play it. Then, I fell head over heels in love for the sport itself.

So as I watched these little boys (in a not-at-all-creepy way), I had questions. I wanted to reshape these boys’ undercooked little minds. I wanted to inform them that soccer is the most popular sport in the world — what makes it a girl sport? Is it a “girl sport” because it is only one of two team sports women are allowed to play professionally? Is it a “girl sport” because as children both boys and girls are encouraged to play it, but since girls are allowed, that somehow dilutes it compared to the sports girls aren’t allowed to play? So, to Pug Boy, the idea of playing soccer — compared to baseball — is laughable?

What a hilarious notion, really. That this pink-dicked machismo of a man would ever associate himself with something girls can do?! How disgusting! How embarrassing! How. Fucking. Funny.

I wanted to punt that kid into the open oven of the Sbarro’s like he was the extra point after a touchdown.

Full disclosure: Yes, I am an LGBT-rights advocate Jew lady living in 2017. Which means, yes, if I were to sit on a stool and have a portrait painter render me as accurately as possible, the end result would be a bruised bowl of blood filled to the very brim.

That being said —

Why does a little girl have no shame idolizing a male athlete, yet a little boy is ashamed even considering a girl athlete. Or, even, an entire — how’d he say it? — “girl sport.

“He’s a child! Children don’t know anything!” I agree. I am eavesdropping on a kid whose brain is still mush. He literally knows nothing. Except for thinking he’s better than girls. HOW? How can a mini-person with such limited life experience already be prejudiced?

“He’s a little boy. Boys don’t like girls.” Are they conditioned not to, or do they pop out of the womb that way? Is it because a woman’s womb was his first place of residence? Look, I’m ashamed of where I came from too. But I came from Florida. Totally different. So how can a child — a blank canvas of morality — a still-evolving pre-man, somehow, subliminally, be ashamed of something he associates with girls?

You think I’m over-reacting.

Possibly. I’m not devoid of self-awareness. After the results of the election and one more guy friend lashing out at me for choosing not to have sex with him (or as men call it, “friend-zoning”), I sulked into my first ever therapy session dressed in all grey like a slumped-over storm cloud. And so I’ve learned, yes, I can at times be a tad, well, dramatic. But buckle up!

’Cause here’s where the divine intervention comes into play.

For the last year, I’ve been developing a dark comedy TV show about a professional women’s soccer team. A professional women’s soccer team no one seems to give a shit about. Or realize exists.

Because in case you don’t know, there is a professional women’s soccer league called the NWSL. They recently had their championship game — their World Series of soccer — and the next day, one of the largest sport website’s headline boasted some NFL player’s injury. I couldn’t find the headline proclaiming the Portland Thorns as victorious anywhere on the homepage. My cable provider doesn’t even list the NWSL alongside the MLS (Major League Soccer - the men’s league) in their “sports” category.

They must also deem it a laughable “girl sport.”

What’s funny to me is considering soccer a girl sport — doesn’t “girl sport” sound like the sport favors girls? Like of both the genders who play the sport, the girls reign supreme?

I wonder if the women soccer players who make about 40 percent, if not less, of their male counterparts feel like they’re reigning supreme in a girl’s sport.

I wonder if the women soccer players who have day jobs to make up for their $8K professional athlete salary feel like they’re reigning supreme in a girl’s sport.

I wonder if the women soccer players who had their league shut down so the owner could buy an expensive player on his men’s team feel like they’re reigning supreme in a girl’s sport.

I wonder if the women soccer players who were forced to play their World Cup on the cheaper, injury-prone artificial turf instead of real grass like their male counterparts feel like they’re reigning supreme in a girl’s sport.

So those little boys’ words stung me. Because for the past year, I’ve dug as deep into the world of women’s soccer as a person who isn’t a player can possibly dig. I’ve done hundreds of hours of research about women soccer players fighting for televised games (thank you, Lifetime, for broadcasting NWSL games since all the sports stations ignore it), fighting for wage equality, fighting for equal employment opportunity, fighting for corporate sponsorship, fighting for our gender’s rights, fighting for our gender’s respect, just fucking fighting.

And as my studio and I begin to prepare for network pitches, the premise of my show has been received with skepticism, despite having Abby Wambach attached as a consulting producer. “Women’s soccer, really?” or “Risky! Good luck!” Does a dark comedy about a team of women sanction a dubious warning? I might as well be pitching a multi-cam about six nazis who share an NYC apartment. Which, let’s be honest, is much more likely to happen first. Sidebar, Abby Wambach: Two time Olympic Gold medalist, World Cup Champion, FIFA Player of the Year, Time Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People in the World (& girl athlete, obvi.)

So when I heard those little boys laugh at the prospect of playing soccer — of playing girl soccer — I realized their reaction is not all that different from some of these fully evolved non-mush adult brain reactions.

Are we conditioned to believe these women athletes are less than, or did we come out of the womb that way?

Let it be clear: I’m not bashing men. I’m saying from birth, every one of us is conditioned to somehow think less of a woman playing sports. To somehow assume watching women’s sports or reading about women’s sports is something the general public wouldn’t give two shits about. So we don’t broadcast women’s sports and we don’t write about women’s sports. I’ve read Harry Potter — pretty sure that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Case in point — I had a general meeting with a production company that has made it their mission to tell stories about women: Their struggles, their empowerment, their badassery. The woman I met with asked me to write an essay for their online feminist newsletter. I didn’t want to. I’ve never written an essay. But then I thought about that day at the mall. Those two little boys. I thought about my fight to get people to give women’s soccer a chance. I thought about the book I just read “Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer” by Gwendolyn Oxenham that details several players’ struggles to make it in an industry that is constantly trying to push them out. Stories about grit, about passion, about the extraordinary perseverance of the human spirit. (It’s excellent, please read it.) So I wrote this essay. The woman I met with said she loved it and sent it to the feminist newsletter’s editor. Then the feminist newsletter editor emailed me, said she wouldn’t publish this essay. She said, “Your voice is great and you’re really funny, we just weren’t that excited by the subject matter. Would love to have other ideas from you though!”

“The subject matter.” Girls playing sports. Even a feminist newsletter whose main objective is “to give a platform to young female voices to discuss feminist issues” like unequal treatment and unequal pay refuses to publish, FOR FREE, an essay trying to raise awareness of those very things. First, I was amused by the irony and the hypocrisy. Then, I was disgusted by the irony and the hypocrisy. “Would love to have other ideas from you though!” Fuck off.

It’s hard enough being allowed to write about women’s soccer. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to try to earn your life’s sustenance from playing it. To every woman who has risked everything to be a professional soccer player — you’ve been slighted by society, you’ve been slighted by your employers, you’ve been slighted by unequal playing surfaces, you’ve been slighted by working harder and earning less, you’ve even been slighted by a feminist newsletter — and yet, you continue to teach young girls (and frumpy older ones) to just keep your head down and keep fighting. You deserve to have people fighting for you, too.

So I guess my call to action is this: If you like sports, next season, watch a National Women’s Soccer League game.

Watch Marta dance a soccer ball between her opponents legs with such spectacular deftness it’s almost spiritual. Watch Meghan Klingenberg zoom around the field and miraculously appear wherever the ball is in a way that somehow reminds me of Tinkerbell. (sorry, Megan). Watch Becky Sauerbrunn clobber the offense with the intensity of an army.

Because if you like sports, you like competition. You like stakes. You like excitement. In women’s soccer, if your team wins or loses, it matters. It matters to the league, to the team, to the player. It effects the existence of the sport. Let’s be honest, if the Yankees win or lose, nothing changes. I might be happier for a night and tell my cousins in Boston to go suck it, but ultimately, nothing changes. There’s no stakes. With women’s soccer, everything is on the line.

So watch it, it’s fun. Support it, it matters.

Also if you have spawn, have them watch it too. It’s not a coincidence we celebrate the religion our parents celebrate, we eat the cheese our mom ate, we grill our steak the way our dad grilled it (well-done and I’m not apologizing for it). And we root for the teams our parents rooted for. Or at the very least, the teams they exposed us to. We support what we grew up with.

If you’re wondering…

No. I did not punt that kid into the open oven of the Sbarro’s like he was the extra point after a touch down. Because, to put it in the most annoying way possible, that’s football - another sport I’m not allowed to play. See? Self-aware.

Maybe my point is if we have kids grow up knowing who LeBron James is AND who Tobin Heath is, the idea of playing soccer the way girls do will seem less funny. And also that cupcakes are way better than pie. Seriously, kid. Get your shit together.

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