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



Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, and scholar of religion. She is the author of several books, including the memoir Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. Her next book, Draw Your Weapons, will be published by Random House in 2017.