Opinion: The way we talk about football needs to change

Megan Rapinoe kneels on the sideline during the national anthem.
Megan Rapinoe kneels during the national anthem at a U.S. women's national team game against Thailand on September 15, 2016. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

In advocating for the women’s game, popular debates include those over pay inequality and insufficient resources and training facilities afforded to women’s teams. Another, perhaps more benign-seeming issue, is the lexical field prescribed to association football. This is something I wish to focus on throughout.

Football was hugely popular amongst women by the mid-20th century. It’s no secret that crowds drawn were frequently bigger than those of men’s matches. It was only after the FA effectively banned women from playing in 1921 that the progression of the women’s game came to a grinding halt.

So when we hear people dismiss women’s participation in the sport because “football is a men’s game,” or, “that’s just how it’s always been,” this is simply not true.

Still a male-dominated culture

Women’s football is not underdeveloped because its players are fundamentally less talented or important. Rather, “because conscious decisions have been made, in many societies over time, to provide men an advantage in almost all areas of human life.” Male-dominated cultural hegemonies have taken great pains to make sure that women and LGBTQ athletes have been irreversibly disadvantaged in sport.

How does our vocabulary play a part in this?

We have football, and we have women’s football. What we have here is an example of the word “women’s” being a supplement to the “always-already-masculine subject.” Cultural hierarchies are established through language and repeated until they are internalised and assumed to be tangible. That “football” is the sport played by men assumes that to be a man is to be the “norm”, and that sport played by women (and others) needs to be lexically differentiated from this.

As a result, women and those who otherwise do not identify as cis men are “othered,” a term favoured by Michel Foucault. That is, they are defined as something that deviates from the supposed norm. Another example of this is the way we discuss “marriage” vs. “gay marriage.” As if the nature of the marriage is altered by its being between two women, for example.

Not just a footballing issue

It cannot be just marriage, or just football, because that would shatter the illusion that being a man, or being straight, is the default.

Even we, as supporters of the women’s game, perpetuate this othering discourse just by naming it so. This is by no means a criticism, but rather the beginnings of interrogating our own role in the discourse.

Ironically, many women are seen as inherently more “masculine” because they play football. And yet, they are still not allowed to be referred to on equal terms with men, because they can only make a failed attempt at masculinity.

Can we fix this? Unfortunately, the solution is not necessarily to simply start making a concerted effort to call men’s football “men’s football,” to put it on equal lexical terms with “women’s football.” All this does is presuppose that everyone who plays football is either a man or a woman, which we know to be untrue.

Most recently, Quinn of the Canadian national team and OL Reign came out publicly as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Whilst Quinn continues to play for the WNT and in the NWSL, their coming out reminds us that there is no language nor legislation in association football that creates space for non-binary players.

It’s happening every game

One example of more inclusive language is the espousal of the “Player of the Match” award within the WSL. Whilst this is a positive step away from gendered terminology, the same has not been adopted by the Premier League, who still favour “MOTM.”

Inclusive terms implemented by women’s leagues, encouraging though they are, will not suffuse into mainstream football vocabulary until they are embraced by men. It is a long and continual process of becoming aware of and working to undo, how we (re)produce patriarchal discourse in our everyday language.

There is not, unfortunately, a clear way forward. It seems virtually impossible that gendered football leagues will ever be disbanded or merged together. But transformation is possible, and indeed necessary, to make the sport more inclusive and less ignorant of players who fall outside of fixed identity categories.

As the most popular sport in the world, football needs to be a place that is welcome to all who wish to participate. Watching our language is a relatively simple way we can all contribute to making football a less restrictive environment, from the grassroots level to top flight competitions.

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