Historically black and proud | At Spelman, women’s soccer pushes beyond expectation

It is unsurprising, however, that these new faces in women’s soccer should come to the fore on the fields of American higher education. Colleges have helped nurture women’s soccer in the United States since the late 19th century, when women played as part of physical-education classes at schools in the Northeast. By 1924, the women’s athletic department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, promoted regular teams and intramural games. Intercollegiate matches, however, were banned in most schools. Not until 1975 did Brown University in Rhode Island create a varsity women’s soccer program.

Given its founding in 1881 in the basement of a church planted by a Boston mission society, Spelman College has long-standing ties to the New England tradition of women’s colleges and the classical liberal curriculum. Said benefactor Thomas Jefferson Morgan in “What Spelman Seminary Stands For” (1901):

Spelman Seminary is aiming to do, as far as practicable, for the Negro woman precisely what is being done for white women by Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and other institutions of Christian learning, which for decades have been contributing most liberally and potently to their preparation, not only for the homely duties of life, but for the larger sphere of activity to which the age calls them, thus fitting them to add their quota to the great work of human betterment.

“[T]he responsibility to be borne by the women at Spelman was an awesome one …,” writes Johnetta Cross Brazzell. “[T]he women bore the weight of the entire race. If they failed, a whole people failed” (38). Community service and responsibility has remained an emphasis at the college. Hamilton says that, partly due to urging from her coach, she has helped bring soccer to urban neighborhoods as a volunteer with Soccer in the Streets (see Jul 7 as well as the Black Athlete Sports Network interview with SITS executive director Jill Robbins, Jul 26). Spelman students have been active in protesting misogynistic images of women in rap videos and, almost inevitably, became enveloped in the controversy surrounding talk-radio host Don Imus in April.

Imus’s racist remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team before the 2007 national championship again helped place Spelman in the spotlight. CNN cameras visited a “Violence against Women” seminar to record students’ comment, only to heavily edit the video such that the women appeared to be endorsing use of the degrading stereotype in their own speech. A short online documentary deconstructs the ravages of white media in reporting the Imus reaction (“CNN Misrepresents Spelman College Students on Don Imus”).

Jamar, in addressing the Imus controversy, suggests that lingering on the insult might pigeonhole black women, especially black women athletes, still further. “I soaked it in, heard it—offended—and moved on,” she says.

Preconceived ideas founder on seeing Jamar and Spelman teammates do what they do on the pitch. The expectation is that black women do not play soccer and do not play it well—an idea challenged recently at the youth level by Guardian blogger and Philadelphia Weekly writer Steven Wells in his feature on the Anderson Monarchs (“Bend It Like Janiah,” Philadelphia Weekly, Jul 4). But enough “non-standard” expressions of what it means to be a women’s footballer exist to challenge the expectation.

Sources

Johnetta Cross Brazzell, “Bricks without Straw: Missionary-Sponsored Black Higher Education in the Post-Emancipation Era,” Journal of Higher Education 63 (Jan/Feb 1992): 26–49; Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman, “Women’s Soccer in the United States: Yet Another American ‘Exceptionalism,’ ” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, Sport in the Global Society (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004), 14–29.

Update

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