Sunday, July 12, 2015

Diversity On The 2015 Women's World Cup Team: Race & Perspective

2015 US Women's World Cup team
This morning I woke up and noticed an interesting reader comment that was posted in response to my blog post last Friday about the disturbing allegations of race-based emotional abuse of African-American players leveled against two coaches of the University of Illinois women's basketball team.

The reader, who goes under the name Black Panther Forever, questioned the racial diversity of the 2015 women's World Cup team and suggested that the racial makeup of the majority white 23-woman squad chosen by head coach Jillian Ellis was a contributing factor to the "charm" of the team that drew record television audiences and advertisers shelling out millions to pitch their products to those tuning into watch these players compete on the field.

He's not the only one asking that question, take a look at the team photo above.  

I watched a pretty decent amount of coverage of the World Cup and listened to a fair amount of the analysis from the assorted commentators and talking heads in between the matches; I can't recall hearing them discuss the issue of the diversity of the players on the women's team or in American soccer in general. Maybe they did at some point, but I didn't hear it discussed.

But there were a number of articles posted in mainstream media (including the New York Daily News) over the past few weeks that called into question the lack of diversity on the 2015 World cup squad, but I think a recent article by Assistant Editor Jessica Leber posted on the Website titled, "The Embarrassing Lack of Diversity In US Women's Soccer: Why America's Soccer Is So Wealthy, Suburban and White" offers excellent insight into this highly complex question.

 As Leber observes in her article, US women's soccer is "less the sport of the streets, and has long been associated with the largely white suburbs, as symbolized by the infamous soccer mom archetype. For talented kids who want to move to higher levels of the game—to be recruited for college scholarships or professional teams—their parents must pay thousands of dollars in private tournament fees and shuttle them to games that are long drives or even plane rides away."
Former U.S. player Angela Hucles
Leber quotes Angela Hucles (pictured left), an African-American mid-fielder who won two gold medals as a member of the U.S. National Team from 2002 - 2009 as saying that the huge costs inherent in helping young American women develop their soccer skills are a huge factor that contributes to the lack of diversity seen at the top levels of U.S. soccer.

According to Hucles, the President of The Women's Sports Foundation who speaks regularly on issues of inclusion, diversity and anti-bullying in sports: "I think it’s a problem not just higher up, but everywhere. If we’re starting out without a whole lot of diversity, we’re definitely not going to see a lot at the top. There’s a large drop-off at around high school age," 

As an African-American athlete who was raised in the mostly-white suburban communities of Bethesda, Maryland and West Windsor, New Jersey, I was fortunate enough to attend public high schools with excellent academic reputations and above average athletic programs.

In high school I was (and still am) friends with a number of soccer players. West Windsor-Plainsboro South, the high school I graduated from, had one of the top programs in the state of New Jersey; one of the most competitive states in the nation for both boys and girls high school soccer.

The best players not only attended special private soccer camps to hone their skills, outside of high school they also played in regional private leagues and clubs. They were also able to benefit from the experience and advice of former WWPS soccer alumni who remained involved with the sport and remained in touch with former head coach Brian Welsh - so there was also a "culture" of soccer excellence they had access to help groom them as players.

For example, my former WWPSHS classmate Bobby Nash was one of the top soccer players on our high school team and years later he was still playing on the club level and also teaching younger players as a coach because of his enthusiasm for the sport.

As Leber observes in her article, development of young soccer players doesn't come cheap. For the families of means in American suburban communities, that's not an issue. But the fees and traveling costs are barriers for the families of many young girls of color and Hispanic girls who might otherwise excel at soccer on a higher level; and in some ways economics can shut them out of that "culture" of soccer I mentioned above.

That said, let's look at how the media responded to the 2015 team.

There's no question the World Cup team were "media darlings". Press appearances, promotional spots for the team, the numerous segments about the individual members of the team itself that ran on local and national television both on network TV and cable outlets like ESPN reflected the team's iconic cultural status.

Then there were the commercial spots featuring the players. To me two of them stood out, first was the Nike TV ad promoting women's soccer played to the Canadian band The Guess Who's hard rock 1969 song "American Woman" showing a harder-edged tougher image of women soccer players practicing and training in true "Nike" fashion; getting sweaty and gritty as they endure grueling workouts.

There was also my personal favorite, the widely-played national Nationwide Insurance commercial spot titled "Band Together", a clever wordplay on team member Alex Morgan's (pictured below) trademark pink headband.

Alex Morgan in the "Band Together" Nationwide TV ad
Now no one is going to confuse me with Don Draper on "Mad Men" or anything, but I used to work in advertising when I worked at the National Football League in New York.

I've developed and pitched commercials and also written dialog for national television commercials, radio and print ads.

The "Band Together" TV spot developed by Durham, North Carolina-based ad firm McKinney, is both effective and well-executed; frankly it's a Hell of a lot better than most of the Super Bowl TV ads I saw this year.

It features Morgan in her trademark number 13 uniform getting ready in the locker room against a well-edited montage of various short video images of a diverse group of American fans showing their passion for the women's World Cup (and Morgan) by wearing pink head bands.

Office workers in their cubicles, burly construction guys with pink bands on their hard hats, a young girl putting up a picture she drew of her family wearing pink head bands on the door of the fridge, a business man in a suit wearing a pink head band while sitting on a bench eating his lunch, and a group of rowdy face-painted American fans getting on the subway attired in red, white and blue with pink head bands.

It's an effective commercial with no dialog, just images played against the catchy, up-tempo feel-good song "Stretch Your Rubber Band" by The Meters (cool tune); the ad simultaneously evokes excitement for the World Cup and women's soccer, a positive optimistic view of a diverse American populace and of course promotes Alex Morgan, one of the best players in the world, as both a role model and as a "wholesome" American sex symbol.

In my opinion, the commercial manages to capture the feeling of how many Americans felt about the 2015 women's World Cup in under a minute.

It's not even about insurance, but it cleverly and sub-consciously bombards the viewer with images associated with scenarios of where insurance is needed; the farmer on the tractor, the construction guys on the job site, the little girl in the kitchen at home.

The commercial, like all effective ads, is operating on multiple levels, Click the Link and watch the extended 60-second version for yourself a couple times; watch the images closely and see how you feel after you watch it.

You feel so good about women's World Cup soccer, Alex Morgan cuteness and the song that you don't realize Nationwide is pitching you insurance.

To the point expressed by Black Panther Forever's reader comment, in this day and age with where we are as a nation racially, even if there was a black female soccer player with distinctively dark skin on the 2015 World Cup squad (which there wasn't), I'm not sure she would really be considered for that Nationwide commercial.

The reality is that the media and Nationwide Insurance are going to be far more comfortable with a successful fresh-faced young white female athlete being associated with a corporate brand and being a "face" of U.S. women's soccer than they would be with the aforementioned hypothetical dark-skinned female member of the World Cup team; even if she was equally fresh-faced, talented and successful as Morgan.

In answer to Black Panther Forever's excellent rhetorical question, the simple truth is, for the reasons Jessica Leber's article cited above points out, the white, blue-eyed brunette Alex Morgan actually IS more representative of U.S. women's soccer today.

85% of women who play Division I and Division II college soccer today are classified racially as non-Hispanic whites. While there are ongoing efforts at the national and local levels to change that, that's the state of U.S. women's soccer today.

Plus of course the media is more comfortable portraying Alex Morgan's sexuality on screen, even here in 2015 black physicality and sexuality is perceived differently by many people and the media in general; not just in this country but around the globe.

Take Serena Williams for example.

As a really insightful article by Tara Culp-Ressler posted yesterday on titled "Serena Williams Is the Best Tennis Player of All Time. Get Over What Her Body Looks Like" reveals, Williams winning her 28th straight Grand Slam match at Wimbledon yesterday entrenches her in the upper echelons of the greatest professional female tennis players of all time - but people keep talking about her body.

Serena Williams in action at the Australian Open
As Ressler observes, time and again, Williams' victories on the tennis court have been accompanied by biting comments based on the perception of her physical body type stemming from the entrenched notions of the European and Western-centric "white" female body type or standards of beauty.

Those comments have come from commentators, tennis officials and even her fellow tennis players.

As Ressler's article notes, in 2014 the President of the Russian Tennis Federation referred to Serena and her sister Venus "as “the Williams brothers” and said the sisters are “scary” to look at, Serena Williams responded that his comments were “very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time.”

Serena's ripped muscular arms and shoulders and powerful thickly muscled legs and glutes stand in contrast to the leaner physical body types of many white female professional tennis players; and many tend to view her not for who she is as an individual, but through the perception of their own internalized concepts of female physicality and sexuality.

As Ressler quotes DailyBeat writer Thomas Rios in an article showing how Serena is paid less than her white counterparts, “She is an unprecedented affront to our collective notion of the beautiful female athlete.”

Because of her fame and high profile, Serena is often the focal point of this kind of body comparison or "body shaming" as Ressler calls it - but it's clearly linked to a much broader and deeper psychological issue of how people of color are perceived as "other" in America - a notion constantly reinforced by conservative white Republican politicians. 

So while race does indeed impact the perception of female (and male) athletes, race itself is just one part of why there is such a lack of diversity on the 2015 women's World Cup team; it is also based on socioeconomic factors that impact Hispanics and other racial minorities in much higher percentages as well.

Given the athletic skills of black American female athletes in track for instance, or the deep cultural ties to soccer within the Hispanic community in this nation, you'd think we'd have a large and talented pool of racially diverse female athletes from which a World Cup team could be drawn; one that more accurately reflects the diverse American populace.

But despite winning the 2015 World Cup, in many ways, American women's soccer still has a long way to go. In some ways it's more reflective of lingering boundaries than it is possibilities.

The next women's World Cup is a ways off, but maybe the next team of American "media darlings" paraded down the Canyon of Heroes in a shower of ticker tape will look a little bit more like America itself.

No comments: