Women’s soccer haze | Even with World Cup rush, sex always gets headlines

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You’ve all seen the pictures by now, but here is the original headline.

Evanston, Illinois | We had intended to let this one lie, but a recent posting from Newsweek columnist Mark Starr on the hazing scandal affecting the Northwestern University women’s soccer team made us reconsider. The actions of the players depicted on a vigilante-style website intended to document misbehavior among athletes cross all boundaries of decency. The blindfolding, titillation, and excessive drinking stirred in us the same vague fear we remember from watching bizarre “secret society” rituals in our own college past.

Other hazing events among female college athletes have come to the fore: members of Catholic University women’s lacrosse team carousing with a male stripper, binge drinking among Fairleigh Dickinson’s women’s softball team and, as recently as 1 June, allegations of underage drinking at a hazing event for the University of Albany (N.Y.) women’s lacrosse team. Survey responses from nearly 1,100 female athletes in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association report that 49 percent have experienced alcohol-related, physical or mental hazing. The latter includes “singing or dancing, practical jokes and being stranded or ‘kidnapped.’ ”

Nevertheless, we find in the “girls gone wild” approach taken by Starr and other commentators (such as the Fox News demagogue Bill O’Reilly) stronger testimony to the fascination among the male-dominated media with the sexuality of women athletes than a show of genuine concern. Starr says that illusions of virtue created by the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup have been shattered.

For me, like many in America, that summer proved to be one of love. The women on that unforgettable American team were not only winners, but exemplars of all the virtues that we once associated with sports. I spent months covering that team and felt privileged to share the experience close up. I have no doubt those ladies could be, on occasion, rowdy and even crude. But they didn’t develop a selfless team ethic—a one for all, all for one credo—through exercises in bondage and group French kissing. …

[T]here is almost nothing that distinguishes this Northwestern affair from the seamy and demeaning antics of the Duke men’s lacrosse team at their team fiesta—except, of course, that at Duke it escalated into allegations of criminal behavior.

This is a fatal linkage, comparing an event at which women athletes debased themselves and their sport with an alleged incident in which men selected a victim to terrorize. The women at Northwestern are self-made victims. Starr’s recognition that Duke’s lacrosse players may have committed a crime—an extremely serious one—seems tacked on. (Thus far, the two teams have suffered the same punishment, with their playing privileges temporarily revoked.)

The similarities between the two incidents lie in the institutions themselves. Duke and Northwestern share vast resources, prominence, high academic reputations and historically poor gridiron-football teams. More important, despite protests to the contrary, they are both deeply invested in the high-stakes, corrosive, symbiotic relationship between elite sport and higher education.


Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the home of the school’s woeful gridiron-football team. Each year, Duke fields 26 varsity sports teams, men’s and women’s, and spends $10.5 million for athletic scholarships.

“There is no overstating how big college sports are in America,” writes Paul Harris in the Observer of London, offering a valuable outsider’s perspective. He marvels at the Duke gridiron-football stadium, “a deep bowl, carved into a hillside” that would put “many professional British football teams to shame.” He should have a gander at the stadiums housing good college teams; there, he would behold even more opulence.

Frank Deford, the curmudgeon of National Public Radio and Sports Illustrated online, extends the “athletes gone bad” theme to women on the basis of the Northwestern incident, going so far as to imply that the extension of Title IX in the 1970s, seeking equal participation for women in college sports, has helped lead us to the present shame. “We had hoped when women started participating in sports in large numbers after the passage of Title IX that they would improve the institution,” he writes, “investing it with the finer feminine values. Well, the results so far seem to indicate that, instead, sports has won and womanhood has lost.”

In fact, the source of much problem behavior remains the men. According to Harris’s research in the Observer, male student athletes, representing 3 percent of student populations, account for 19 percent of campus sexual assaults. Another aspect, naturally, is the ready availability of alcohol and its awesome impact in the dysfunctional zones of student housing. At Duke, the campus food service offers kegs of beer for student groups to help them slosh through the weekend. There is also an on-campus bar, which seems like overkill.

Now, with the Internet and the prodigious wireless networks at campuses nationwide, exploits can be documented with ease. Susan Lipkins, an authority on hazing who has been making the media rounds, says the posting of demeaning photographs online, presumably by the participants themselves, indicates a malfunctioning moral compass. The participants’ lack of perspective relates directly, she says, to the exaltation of sports in the very environments where civic responsibilities and development of the inner person should be cornerstones of the curriculum.


Chin

In an interesting column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elizabeth J. Chin, a visiting professor of cultural anthropology at Duke this past spring, chronicles the attempt to teach students in her “Girl Culture/Power” course using the men’s lacrosse team’s alleged misbehavior as a case study. Deliberately, Chin tried to break down walls in a campus culture supposedly intended to facilitate diversity and the meeting of different minds. Chin notes the barriers of race, gender and status, and might have included the separation between non-athletes and athletes, between members of different fraternities and sororities and so on.

“[A]lthough 32 percent of [Duke] students belong to ethnic minorities,” Chin writes,

many whites have no significant interactions with people of color or anyone “different” in some way, like sexual orientation. Members of the dominant white group feel that other groups are segregating themselves, but do not recognize their own behavior as segregation.

The idea of separation seems, and we are not sure exactly how, close to the center of the controversy involving the Northwestern women’s soccer team and other allegations of hazing. (For more information, the Wikipedia entry on the subject includes an astounding range of hazing behaviors, broken down by category, and some insight into the history of such rituals.) The hazing acts as another means of “setting off” groups that are already quite isolated to begin with, who spend chunks of practice and travel time together and who might even live as roommates. The strong group identification that hazing seeks to instill seems, in the case of college athletes, like needless duplication.

As Chin writes of her students, in forcing them to pair in their research projects with peers seen as “different” from themselves, “I wanted them to experience how ridiculously easy it actually is to step into someone else’s world, to realize that the separation between my world and yours is almost always made and enforced by us.”

Such would be more sensible rites of initiation for the college athlete, male and female.

Update: As of 9 June, Northwestern officials had reinstated the women’s soccer program, while suspending some players from regular-season games in the fall season. Everyone on the team will be required to participate in a joint community service project. 

DATELINES IN WOMEN’S FOOTBALL

Before attention turns almost exclusively to the men’s World Cup finals, we mention other stories in the women’s game. …

Windhoek, Namibia | Often we gain the most pleasure reading accounts of the women’s game in Africa, where nations emerging from postcolonial struggle have started spreading football passion to the previously marginalized. These dispatches brim with optimism that girls and women can transcend gender stereotyping and, through soccer, carve out new roles in society.

Writer Surihe Gaomas in the Windhoek New Era chats recently with players commemorating Namibia’s 16th anniversary of independence. Marelle Polster, 15, of the Khomas club of Windhoek, the capital, wipes sweat from her brow and expresses fresh confidence. “Maybe I can represent my country by playing soccer at a professional level one day. … [B]oys that call me ‘tomboy’ are just trying to break me down because I play better than them.” Teammate Belinda Mbaindjikua, 16, credits the game with keeping participants “away from clubs, drinking and smoking as well as teenage pregnancies.” Continues Gaomas:

Now sixteen years after independence, the grooming of Namibian female soccer players is on the cards and this is becoming a growing phenomenon, where the sport is also being offered to girls at schools throughout the country.

“Women have the willpower, discipline and need the encouragement to play soccer because they have potential. Nowadays we can’t underestimate them,” said coach [Tobias] Hermonn with a smile.


Sun Wen

Beijing | At the other end of a playing career, on another continent, reports from China Youth Daily in April that Sun Wen, FIFA’s co-player of the century, was living in a run-down hostel while trying to revive her fortunes before China hosts the Women’s World Cup in 2007 had us dejected for the rest of the day. The woman who had brought footballing class and extraordinary technical skill to the Atlanta Beat for two professional seasons in the Women’s United Soccer Association now washes her own kit.

I buy a plastic bin and do my laundry wherever I go. I’m afraid I’ll have to bring my own bedclothes next time.

Sun plays in the National Women’s League in a Beijing suburb, housed with teammates, according to the Reuters transcription of the story, “in rooms no more than six meters square (54 square feet) with dirty sheets on tiny beds, malfunctioning television sets and air-conditioning and a leaking toilet.”

China women’s coach Ma Liangxing had asked Sun to end her two-year retirement to helped rebuild the national team before the World Cup and 2008 Olympic Games, also in Beijing. Sun says, alluding to her situation in a harsh statement for the government propaganda sheet, that “if the situation keeps getting worse, in the future no girl in China will play soccer.”


Celebrations ensue when Tonga defeats the hosts 3–2 in the semifinal.

Apia, Samoa | The spread of the women’s game can be recognized in the participation of eight sides in the Oceania U-20 Women’s Championship in early April, the qualifying tournament for the FIFA U-20 Championship in Russia in August. Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Fiji and eventual champion New Zealand fielded teams. Australia has moved to the Asian zone, and Tahiti was a late withdrawal.

Samoa’s availability as host signals a broader trend in Polynesia toward football and away from traditional games such as kilikiti, a form of Polynesian cricket that includes women in teams of up to 50. In Tuvalu, another archipelago, “young people do not want to play kilikiti any more,” a player on the main atoll, Funafuti, told the Daily Telegraph in March. The word for the game is a Polynesian corruption of “cricket,” brought to the islands by the London Missionary Society in the 19th century.

A Samoan church service, hosted by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, featured in the tournament’s cultural program. Rev. Fepai Kolia preached at a youth hall in Mulinuu before Malielegaoi, perhaps sensing he was losing his audience, alluded to the “smell of food filling our nostrils,” which was To’ana’i, the Samoan lunch.

Oceania has a claim to prominence in women’s football, in that Evelyne Whitman of Tahiti in 1998 became the first woman to take charge of a nation’s football federation. “[T]he fate of football in Polynesia has always been steered by a man,” she told a FIFA symposium on women’s football in 1999. “I can assure you that my arrival at the top of the Tahitian football association was an innovation in the Polynesian football world.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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