Feeling Thorny: Or, 10 Reasons Why I Love Women’s Pro Soccer And You Should, Too

Image 2I never thought I’d be the kind of person to greet a sports team at an airport dressed in red and holding a sign, but it appears I am. There I was at Portland International Airport September 1 with a crowd of hundreds of cheering, singing, red-clothes-wearing fans to welcome home the Portland Thorns, champions of the National Women’s Soccer League, who defeated the Western New York Flash. I love our Portland Thorns, and I love the new National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). You should, too, and here’s why.

1. A Stadium Full of People Cheers for Women. The Thorns play at JELD-WEN Field, the same arena where the Portland Timbers men’s soccer team plays. Starting with the Thorn’s home opener on April 21, records were set—attendance reached as high as 16,479, the largest crowd for any NWSL game. I never heard that many people rooting for women. Strong women. Bad-ass athletic women. Teammates. The sound made me cry.  I know the crowd is cheering for the incredibly talented women on the field, but somehow it feels like they are cheering for all women. To root for strong women in a patriarchal culture, to root for people who endure pain and frustration and support each other’s diverse talents, to root for women who come in different shapes and sizes and sexualities and ethnicities is to root for something more than sport. We’re rooting for women who experience sexism at work. For queer women. For women writers and priests and politicians and professors and CEOs. For mothers and daughters and sisters. For survivors. We’re used to seeing women cheering for men, but not so used to a stadium full of people shouting in support of women. We should do it more often.

2. The Girl Who Sits Behind Me Knows All the Stats. A family with two daughters sits behind me at Thorns’ games, and one of the daughters, a 7- or 8-year-old, knows everything there is to know about every woman on the team: which position she plays, how many goals she’s scored this season, how many assists, how many saves and whether she plays for the national team. “Go, Alex!” she shouts. “Go, Sinc!” “Go, Tobin!” And she isn’t alone: The stadium is filled with girls like her. Girls wearing jerseys emblazoned with the number of their favorite players. Girls holding team rosters and collecting autographs. Watching the Thorns has already changed what these girls think is possible for them.

3. Women Use Their Bodies to Play Soccer. Open almost any magazine at your local supermarket and you’ll see article after article telling women how to make themselves smaller. Diet plans. Plastic surgery advice. Slimming bathing suits and jeans. Before and after photographs. The message is clear: Women should take up less space. Tighten. Pluck. Erase. Starve. I was a Division I athlete in college (field hockey), but I had arrived at college recovering from an eating disorder. The thing that finally healed me? Being part of a team. Getting to see a variety of women’s bodies in the locker room after practice every day saved my life. I learned to love my body not for how it looked but for what it could do; run, hit, jump, sprint, play. The women on the Portland Thorns use their bodies, too. We don’t watch them to see how they look. We watch them to see what they can do: run, shoot, dribble, juggle, slide, push, win.

4. Women Work as a Team: From the so-called mommy wars to beauty competitions to the Real Housewives, the dominant story about women is that they fight with each other, tear each other down and steal each other’s spouse or promotion or outfit. But not on the Thorns. Instead, you get to watch women working together to get things done.

soccercrop5. It’s Good for Girls to Play Sports: Forty-plus years after Title IX opened the doors for girls and women in high school and collegiate athletics, playing sports continues to be associated with all kinds of benefits. Lower teenage pregnancy rates, higher grades, better self-esteem. In 2010, The New York Times cited two studies indicating that “team sports can result in lifelong improvements to educational, work and health prospects.” And the National Institutes of Health cite study after study and theorist after theorist showing that athletic participation contributes to better academic performance, increased commitment to the school community, less absenteeism, stronger internal locus of control, better odds of going to and graduating from college … and the list goes on.

6. You’re Part of Something. I watched every home game of the season with thousands of other Thorns fans, and I watched the championship game (held at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y., home of the Flash) with 700 other fans at the Bagdad Theater and Pub in Portland, where you can eat and drink beer while watching a movie or sports event. When the game was over, I turned to my husband and said, “I love living in Portland.” And I felt the same way when I gathered with hundreds of other high-fiving loyal fans to welcome the Thorns home. I understand now why cities want winning professional sports teams: They make the rest of us feel like winners, too.

7. You’re Not Alone: I am a feminist scholar of religion, a critical theorist and writer; fighting against sexism usually feels like something I do alone. Or something I do so trolls on the Internet and reviewers in newspapers or websites can call me mean names (see my article “The Pen Is Mightier”). But sitting in JELD-WEN Field, just one of thousands rooting for our women’s soccer team, I feel part of a group. I am not in this fight alone. There is a whole stadium of people cheering for powerful women, wanting us to win.

8. It’s Fun. We sing. We scream. We jump up and down. We wave our inaugural season Thorns scarves. We wear red. We drink beers and eat food from Portland’s amazing food carts. We buy T-shirts that say things like “Feeling Thorny.” It’s a great way to spend a few hours of your summer.

9. We Need Professional Women’s Sports Teams: In the championship game, the Thorns and the Flash (who were heavily favored) played some of the best soccer I’ve seen all season. They played as if everything was at stake—because it was. The final game wasn’t just about which team would emerge victorious, it was about the league itself. Would it survive? Would fans continue to buy tickets? Does anyone want to watch women play soccer? The National Women’s Soccer League is the latest attempt in the last 12 years to establish a professional women’s soccer league. The previous attempts—the Women’s United Soccer League (2001-3) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2010-12)—lasting only three seasons each. These athletes are playing for something bigger than themselves. They’re playing to prove sportswomen are worth watching. They’re playing for all women in male-dominated professions.

10. Women Win! When the clock ran out and the Thorns were victorious, the crowd at the Baghdad went wild. I was shouting and crying and jumping up and down. And then it hit me: I couldn’t remember the last time women won anything. Every time I turn on the television or read the paper, I encounter stories of defeat—politicians repealing access to healthcare, or men making ignorant statements about rape or religious leaders insisting women still can’t be priests or president or CEOs. Sure, the results of a single soccer game might not alter all the other horrific injustices of the world, but it felt good to win one for a change.

If you live in one of the eight cities with a NWSL team, buy your 2014 season tickets now. Support the National Women’s Soccer League. Support women.

Top photo courtesy of the author. Photo of Portland Thorns (in white) playing Seattle Reign from Flickr user Heather L under license from Creative Commons 2.0

 

Sentilles.2Sarah Sentilles is the author of three books, including Breaking Up with God. She tweets @sarahsentilles.

Comments

  1. Love the story. All great points about why it was so great to be a supporter of the Thorns this year and why others should follow suit for their respective women. One nitpicky thing: The home finale for the Thorns (August 4th vs Kansas City) drew 17,619 fans so that’s the record for attendance. Up until that game the number from the opener had stood.

  2. Don’t forget about the Thorns supporters group. the Rose City Riveters. Lots of women (and men) working very hard to make Jeld-Wen a special place for the team to play, from flags to chants to the giant tifo displays to the capos on the stage.

  3. Indeed! I love the Rose City Riveters. They rock — and I know they are a huge part of why it feels so good to be in that stadium. Thanks for your comment. I should have been more direct about my love of them in my essay.

  4. Cory Coleman says:

    My favorite right now, that I think was missed in this piece, are the young boys. I have seen groups if boys sporting Thorns jerseys and cheering for the girls on the pitch along with their moms and Dads! This is what will change the entire world, these boys growing up respecting (and rooting for) women in sports, and in turn women in general! Go Soccer!!

    • Mia Heaslet says:

      This is also one of my favorite sights at Jeld-Wen on game days. It seriously warms my heart to see boys, and men of all ages embracing the women’s game, gives me hope. I am so proud to have grown up in this amazing city.

  5. OMG the thorns won!!! The year I spend abroad the NWSL starts up and my home city has the winning team!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! I can’t even find tickets for next season yet. Oh man, deep breath. Wow, great great article. Portland is the best!

  6. Julian Morrison says:

    Also for all the same reasons, roller derby!

  7. Lest it all seems too…nice, the players also suffer horrible injuries, get in fights, foul, dive, cheat and whine at the referee. It’s soccer as it should be played, with passion, regardless of by whom. With the Thorns, I hope we are reaching the point where the fans no longer say, “Good match, for women’s soccer” but rather just, “Good match”.

    • Very true. And the same for all activities women engage in that are deemed by default to belong to men. Woman driver. Woman priest. Woman athlete. Woman professor. Woman president . . . .

  8. Ursula Jordaan says:

    FAB-U-LOUS! Enough said.

  9. All this just still sort of makes me teary. I have so much hope for women, for sport, for strength instead of shame to pass on to young women. I love Portland. I love the Thorns. I love this article. What a year!

  10. Wonderful article. Wonderful!

  11. Peter Slansky says:

    A thrilling season and I for one, believe it CAN change for the better the perspective of how women are viewed.

  12. Rachel Kiernan says:

    Thank you for writing this and thank you for making your voice heard. There is so much more I could say (to the point I could write a dissertation), but mostly I just want to thank you for Writing While Female about women’s sports.

  13. Well…
    It was a good article but the author obviously is new to women’s soccer. The USWNT going to the recent World Cup and the Olympics has brought a resurgence of interest and acceptance and love for women’s soccer (football).
    For example: Abby Wambach and Hope Solo on David Letterman
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALuwUaV6fM8

    The best woman player in the world as deemed by sports writers is Abby Wambach. And she’s queer. And it’s fine. She has her own ESPN commercial:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHebuF8tNEM

    I’m thrilled you have found a love for the women’s game, and I love that you are excited for the Thorns and the new league. But please don’t showcase yourself as an expert. :)

  14. Shelley Somerville says:

    Great posting…as an AYSO referee, I love to officiate games for girls aged 12-16…the commitment and teamwork is impressive…and I NEVER have to deal with the abuse and violence that I see in boys games…and let’s not forget that the best women’s soccer team in the world is the US team…while the men’s team’s performance is pitiful…

    • Carly Carlson says:

      You realize that you’re being sexist with your comment, and it also shows a complete lack of understanding of the game on a global level.

      I’m not sure that reeling off 15 matches w/o a loss is ‘pitiful’. Has the men’s team excelled to the level of the women’s not by a long shot. But, that’s less to do with women being good sports who don’t get violent, and more with the fact that (unfortunately) other countries don’t prioritize women’s soccer they way the US does. We’re a good team partially because we’ve got amazing athletes and great support, and partly because (outside of a few countries) other federations place all their emphasis on their men’s teams.

      Beyond all that – the last thing we want as supporters of women’s soccer is to get into a petty pissing contest of boys vs. girls. Supporting one group does not need to come at the expense of others. You could have written your comment w/o ever mentioning the men / boys, and it would have stood fine on its own.

      I certainly don’t ever want to see an article that says “NWSL games are good, but they’re not nearly the same level in terms of quality of play as their MLS counterparts”.

      It’s not abut us vs. them – it’s about us (and ‘us’ includes women, men, girls, boys, and anyone that wants to be part of this growing supporters culture).

  15. My two boys 10 and 12 LOVE the Thorns. We also love our men’s team, the Portland Timbers. There is a great rivalry between the Portland and Seattle teams. While Seattle more than supports their men’s team (over 60,000 at games), they could barely muster 3,000 for their women’s team. I was aghast. I was talking to my 10 year old boy about it. He said, “What’s wrong with the Seattle fans? Are they sexist?” Not acceptable to my son. What a great experience to be in Portland where 10 year old boys respect and cheer for women athletes.

  16. John Clarke says:

    Would love to see a follow up on this article, now that a new season is still young.

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