USA | Sarah Palin, ‘soccer mom’ at a new frontier

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article appears in issue 60 (Nov 08) of So Foot (Paris), a special on American soccer. See “Sarah Palin est-elle une bonne soccer mom?” 76–77.

soccer mom, noun (1987) : a typically suburban mother who accompanies her children to their soccer games and is considered as part of a significant voting bloc or demographic group. (Merriam-Webster Online)

soccer mom : the downfall of human society. (Urban Dictionary)

Surely there have been soccer moms in North America at least since the early 17th century. The difference between the stereotypical image of today—that of a parent who shuttles children to training and matches whilst piloting a vehicle of three tons’ throw weight—and the women of the Powhatan Indian settlement of colonial Virginia is that the latter played soccer and did not merely provide transport. A 1609 journal by Henry Spelman, an orthographically challenged 14-year-old from the Jamestown settlement apprenticed to the Powhatan in order to learn the Algonquian language, describes these Americans’ favorite recreations. Games included

football play, which women and young boyes doe much play at … the men never. They make ther Gooles as ours only they never fight nor pull one another doune.

Algonquian Football
A reprint of Games of the North American Indians: Games of Skill by Stewart Culin, originally published in 1907, shows one variation of indigenous football favored by the Koksoagmiut of Labrador: “This ball is very light and is driven either by a blow from the foot or else by a whip of peculiar construction.” (© 1992 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska)

In modern times, the first soccer mom with political ambitions may have been Susan Casey in Denver. In municipal elections in 1995 she campaigned successfully with the slogan “A Soccer Mom for City Council.” Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee, lays claim to this heritage while giving it a new ideological slant. In her national-television debut at the Republican Party convention in early September, she called herself a “hockey mom” and appeared on the dais with five scrubbed children and snowmobile-racing husband, Todd. This was Minnesota, however, part of America’s frigid northern tier. Like Michigan, another heavily contested prize in the presidential race, large numbers of residents support ice hockey, the favored winter sport.

Eventually, the pragmatics of electoral strategy demanded that Palin, 44, accept the ill-fitting “soccer mom” label—though she is one of the few soccer moms to have shot a rabbit or stalked caribou. Ice hockey has a provincial following, while soccer in the past 25 years has conquered every territory that votes in the Nov 4 general election, including Hawaii and Alaska. More than three million children are registered with U.S. Youth Soccer, compared to 350,000 with USA Hockey (Jacob Leibenluft, “Hockey Moms vs. Soccer Moms,” Slate, Sept 4). Commentators expressed surprise that the Republican Party would include a soccer mom, customarily viewed as a Democratic constituency, on a national ticket. In her opening statement at the vice-presidential debate Oct 2, though, Palin reached out to soccer moms across the contiguous 48 states. To understand Americans’ economic predicament, she said, one must “go to a kids’ soccer game on Saturday.”

Palin’s choice of language—or that of the McCain-Palin campaign staff—was fascinating. In unambiguous code, she explicitly addressed the country’s suburban majority that has employed youth soccer as a means, according to sociologists influenced by the late Pierre Bourdieu, of assisting the “symbolic construction of whiteness.” These parents, now angst-ridden by rapidly deteriorating investment portfolios, selected soccer over American football or basketball for their children in order to fit with the suburban habitus, a deliberately engineered zone of isolation in which soccer has also come to express the ennui of soul-consuming sameness. These are ghettos of privilege. At weekend soccer tournaments, replicated from Katahdin, Maine, to Hilo, Hawaii, parents have been known to wear T-shirts reading, “I don’t have a life. My kid plays soccer” (Julia Feldmeier, “Sidelined No More, Soccer Moms Lace Up,” Washington Post, 29 Sept 05).

There are doctoral dissertations devoted to the soccer mom. Lisa Swanson at the University of Maryland in 2003 produced “Soccer Fields of Cultural (Re)-Production? An Ethnographic Explication of the ‘Soccer Mom.’ ” She characterizes research in which she studies 14 mothers of an under-13 boys’ team as an initiation into lifeways of an unfamiliar tribe.

“How could I not know of this other world with its religious-like fervor?” Swanson writes after narrating a journey of several hours, along back-country roads, to an out-of-state tournament. Mothers support girls and boys in these time-consuming pursuits in order to differentiate their lives from the urban dystopia, with its aggression and free-form basketball. Soccer moms, to Swanson, are prepared to offer a “never-ending supply of themselves” to ensure that their children acquire the cultural and social capital to succeed in an American life of endless acquisition. These mothers wish to produce “good boys” and “good girls.” Soccer facilitates this aim.

Conservative commentators in the United States, rather than regarding soccer as a perpetuation of “family values”—the hallmark of the Palin approach and other pro-life Republicans—have seen in the sport “the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports.” This is what Stephen Moore, in “Soccer-Mom Hell,” wrote in the National Review in 1998. In agreement with vaunted Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, Moore criticizes an alleged inefficiency in soccer, a game that “requires huge volumes of effort but produces no output.” Others have perceived in the soccer mom a latent sexual appeal. “Am I the only one to have discovered her sultry poignancy,” writes Matthew DeBord in Salon, “the sexy affirmation that everything—and I do mean everything—is possible after childbirth at the age of 35?” (“Saucy Soccer Moms,” 1 Jun 00).

Would Palin have emerged as the first woman governor of a wilderness state, associated in popular imagination with masculine ideals of self-reliance, had it not been for soccer? In a prescient New York Times article in 1977, as Pelé completed three seasons with the Cosmos, Lowell Miller suggests that soccer might come to represent the emergence of women in sport as well as politics and business. But, regarding Palin’s presence on a national political ticket, not even soccer moms themselves are convinced. A woman from the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, writes on Barack Obama’s website that she feels patronized by John McCain’s selection.

I am a soccer mom. I drive a mini-van. I grew up in a small town. I live in a suburb. I do not have a job outside my home. … John McCain picked a beauty queen from a state … that has a very small population, who has no significant experience, and apparently, based on my demographic, I am supposed to be excited about this woman. Instead, I am insulted. (Melissa Rogers, “I Have Been Patronized,”, Oct 2)

Obama Forever Blowing Bubbles
If it’s in the Sun, it must be true: The London tabloid on 28 Jan 08 runs the “exclusive” that Obama, influenced by his sister’s in-laws, backs the Hammers. (© 2008 News Group Newspapers Ltd.)

In the London Review of Books, Jonathan Raban links Palin’s appeal to that of French populist Pierre Poujade, leader of an anti-elitist, anti-urban agenda in the 1950s. Part of such raw populism in the American, and especially Alaskan, setting is connection to sport. Palin, a former basketball player and television sports presenter, left as a legacy of her mayoral service in Wasilla, Alaska, a $14.7 million ice rink now the subject of legal dispute. Palin plays politics by the rules of basketball, Raban says; she improvises, changing the plan as necessary. As point guard of the state champion Wasilla Warriors in 1982, Palin learned a sporting ethic, according to a former opponent, that contrasts with the neo-liberal associations of the 1990s-vintage soccer mom:

We didn’t play basketball to pad our college applications or fulfill some bureaucrat’s notion of “gender equity.” We played because the winters were long and cold and dark. There was nothing else to do. Maybe as a result, basketball was deadly serious business. Away games were played at the end of eight-hour bus rides or harrowing plane landings in frozen, remote villages. Our opponents were tough, and the fans were unforgiving. (Jessica Gavora, “Game Changer,” The Weekly Standard, Sept 15)

Ultimately, Obama’s soccer-mom credentials may prove stronger than Palin’s. London newspapers were agog earlier in the year with news that he supports West Ham United. Punters placed wagers on Obama taking over as West Ham manager. ABC filmed him in July at one of his daughter’s soccer games in Chicago. He toted the obligatory folding chair and at the interval tutored his daughter on her kicking form. According to one journalist’s count, he also yawned six times and periodically checked his Blackberry. But if portable soccer goals are installed on the White House lawn in 2009—400 years after the mixed-gender Powhatan football games—Obama will be the one to do it.


David Andrews et al., “Soccer’s Racial Frontier: Sport and the Suburbanization of Contemporary America,” in Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 261–81; Lowell Miller, “The Selling of Soccer-Mania,” New York Times Magazine, 28 Aug 1977, 12–15, 20–24, 38; Jonathan Raban, “Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill,” London Review of Books, 9 Oct 08; Henry Spelman, Relation of Virginia (1609; London: Henry Stevens, 1872); David Starkey, introduction to Living Blue in the Red States (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 1–13; Lisa Swanson, “Soccer Fields of Cultural (Re)-Production? An Ethnographic Explication of the ‘Soccer Mom’ ” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 2003).

One should also consider narratives of women who break the soccer-mom cliché, beginning with the New Jersey mothers who form their own team in Harvey Araton, Alive and Kicking: When Soccer Moms Take the Field and Change Their Lives Forever (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001). Soccer moms are not monolithic: see our earlier report on the development of the soccer program at Spelman College in Atlanta (23 Aug 07).


Film producer Joe Roth, owner of the MLS expansion club in Seattle, draws a shaky correlation between the Nov 4 presidential election and Obama’s support in soccer-playing districts (Patrick Goldstein, “Would Obama’s Election Make Soccer a Major League Sport?” The Big Picture [Los Angeles Times], Oct 31):

If you took a map of America where Obama is strongest and laid it over a map of where soccer has its biggest appeal, you’d see an incredible overlap. The blue states on both coasts are very soccer-friendly as well as huge areas of support for Obama, whereas the center of the country is full of people who are the enemies of soccer and Obama—white, 50-and-over guys who listen to talk radio and only care about football or basketball.

One complication is that soccer’s popularity spans blue and red states. Obama also did well in homes that contain kitchen sinks, but any linkage would constitute a statistical fallacy.

Fearmongers in Britain worry that Obama’s election could cost England the 2018 World Cup finals. “Now when you think of America, you don’t think George W. Bush or war, you think of this man, Obama, who has made history and given hope to millions,” one FIFA rep told Yahoo! Sports. “The men who vote on World Cup hosts are not immune to those same feelings” (Andy Bull, “Obama’s Election Threatens to Derail England’s Bid for 2018 World Cup,” Nov 12).

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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