Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The “Radical” Notion that Women Are People: Feminism and the Exuberant Fan Base of the Portland Thorns

The Portland Thorns continue to rock the sports world by drawing thousands of exuberant fans to its cathedral of soccer, Providence Park. Every match draws a packed house of rabid enthusiasts from all walks of life. There have been ruminations in the national press about why the Portland Thorns have such a dedicated following. A recent article in Washington Post hits several key points about Portland’s rich soccer tradition, its historic urban venue, and its first class organization.

Fans begin filing into Providence Park for a Portland Thorns match, 2017.
(photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Fans like No Other Place in the World

Beyond the region’s soccer tradition, its desirable urban venue, and its top-quality organization, why are the Thorns so popular? There are two key constituencies that comprise the incomparable fan base:
  • Young female athletes (and their families)
  • The LGBTQ community (and their families)
Young girls are able to attend a match and envision themselves on the pitch, fostering dreams that earlier generations couldn’t even conceive of. Young boys have always had role models in professional team sports, but only recently have role models emerged for young girls. But other NWSL cities with larger populations undoubtedly have young female athletes, but don’t have anything comparable to the Thorns fan base.

The other key constituency is the LGBTQ community. Portland is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most progressive cities; it has a substantial LGBTQ community, many of whom are loyal die-hard sports fans, particularly for women’s team sports. So while you are guaranteed to see young children and teenagers at Thorns matches, you are equally guaranteed to see LGBTQ community members and their families, fostering the varied party-like atmosphere at Providence Park. For the LGBTQ community, Thorns matches give a voice to a historically marginalized community, and provide the community with a vibrant public sphere of positive expression.

The Radical Notion that Women Are People

Feminism broadly defines the core values of the Portland Thorns fan base. Why feminism? The term has baggage, and its definition is fraught with generational differences and a range of personal experiences. My interpretation of feminism is the idea of equal personhood for women and girls; that women and girls should have equal access to opportunity and to pursuing their dreams, and that this opportunity and dream-seeking can result in a viable career. It’s a cliché, but the simple bumper-sticker definition of feminism is spot-on: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

What would that mean in the soccer world, if women are people? It would manifest as the Portland Thorns.

Title IX: Where’ve You Been All My Life?

When I was growing up in Spokane, Washington in the 1970s, soccer was emerging as a popular sport. Even though the historic Education Amendments of 1972 had included Title IX (a portion of the law that was designed to prohibit gender discrimination in public schools), girls did not immediately get equal opportunity to participate in organized sports. As recently as 2014 and 2016, here in the Portland Metro area, there are alleged violations of public schools not abiding by the letter or the spirit of the law. 

Recollections of Playing Soccer as a Young Girl

When I was in elementary school, I’d wanted to play soccer. The school didn’t have any organized sports. The only recreational league I could join was co-ed. And so I joined a U9 co-ed team. I loved the sky blue jerseys and the feeling of booting the ball. I loved waking up on Saturday morning looking forward to a match. I loved beating another girl to the ball. I loved my black-and-white Puma cleats so much that I wore them to school (ill-advised, but I wasn’t taking them off; it was undoubtedly a fetching look, me in my skirt, knee-high socks and cleats). I loved my Hungarian soccer coach. I can’t remember his name, but I can see him in my mind; a towering lanky figure, his thick accent, his thinning sandy blonde hair, his bellowing but hoarse voice. His daughter was my age and was also on the team. She was, however, preoccupied by her nail polish, her pony tail, and ensuring that her socks were adequately pulled up; she couldn’t give a whiff about playing soccer.

The coach’s daughter and I were among the few girls on the team. I was not a particularly talented athlete, but I so thoroughly enjoyed running around on the pitch and soaking up the energy of the game. Despite my lack of athletic prowess, I do have one cherished memory of playing soccer as a girl; it’s one of my most vivid childhood memories. I usually played fullback, but during this one particular match in which we were leading by several goals, the coach put me in as a striker. I was disoriented at first but was eager to give it a try. I can recall the memory in slow motion, as I was served the ball close to the near post and then punched it in the back of the net (and somehow was not called off sides). I turned to the sidelines to see my coach erupt in joy. He motioned me over to the sidelines and I ran towards him. When I reached him, he put his arm around my shoulder and bent down to my ear and kept saying something over and over, though I don’t recall what. I do recall his sparkling eyes and his irrepressible grin with a missing front tooth. My mother was on the sidelines too, jumping up and down and yelping in hysteria. It is not hyperbole to say that this is one of the most thrilling moments I can remember as a young girl. There is a certain matchless thrill in the game of soccer when the ball hits the back of the net (as long as it’s your team scoring).

What’s Feminism Got to Do With It?

When I reflect back on my experiences as a young soccer player in the 1970s, I think of a lot of untapped potential for me and many other girls of my generation, a lot of “what ifs?” What if I’d been able to train with the same dedicated coach every year? (I’d had the Hungarian coach for only one remarkable season, and subsequently had several rather dismal coaches that sapped my enthusiasm.)  What if I’d had role models to admire and idolize? What if I’d been able to see women play professionally at a local stadium? What if girls had all the same opportunities to play soccer as the boys? What if young girls believed that they could pursue soccer as a profession?

The Portland Thorns are a manifestation of the feminist ideal: that women are people and ought to have the same opportunities to thrive and earn a living in a dynamic professional sports league with a lively and dedicated fan base. The NWSL is now in its fifth year and has surpassed all other attempts of a viable women’s professional soccer league. It is a testament to the profound effect of title IX (even though it’s taken decades to come to fruition, and the Portland Thorns organization is thus far an anomalous manifestation compared to other teams in the league).

Of course, as far as we’ve come since the 1970s, there are still substantial inequalities and barriers that inhibit full personhood for women on the pitch. Though I don’t know the specific numbers, I imagine that the salaries for players and staff in the NWSL are substantially lower than those in the MLS. We know that the USWNT recently put up a fight to get closer to the USMNT’s compensation framework. There have also been controversies about women being forced to play on substandard artificial turf, while men are not subjected to such conditions and instead enjoy real grass on the pitch. While a handful of NWSL superstars likely have fat endorsement contracts, the majority likely do not (and even for the ones who do, the contracts likely pale in comparison to their male counterparts).

Speaking as a season ticket holder since the inaugural season, I can vouch for the unique and committed ideal held by Portland Thorns fans: that we are feminists in the true sense of the word. We are thrilled to see women living up to their potential, and will continue to wholeheartedly support them, the coaching staff, the broader organization, and the NWSL. We’re also looking forward to seeing the other NWSL cities catch up, and for the league to continue to thrive and expand. Whatever the fate of the NWSL, we should all appreciate the Portland Thorns as THE football club that gave women the opportunity to truly tap their potential on the pitch. The fans are RCTID (Rose City ‘til I Die), though in this particular context, the Thorns are emblematic of the Rose City. 

Not one to shrink from a contest, midfielder Lindsey Horan goes up against three opponents in a 2016 match. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Ever the dominant striker, Nadia Nadim threatens to stride right past the goal keeper in a 2016 match. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

Celeste Boureille surveys the pitch and finds an option during a match in 2016. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

French superstar Amandine Henry stakes her position and surveys the pitch during a match in 2016. (photo: S. Leritz-Higgins)

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