Today we feature a column by a guest writer and friend, Camille Hankins. Camille is a junior at Emory University who majors in Women’s Studies and works in the University Women’s Center. Camille published a shorter version of this piece on the Women’s Center blog, which can be found here.
On Monday, the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league announced the suspension of its 2012 season. According to WPS, a legal battle with former team owner Dan Borislow has forced the league to implement this hiatus. Most of the details of the struggle are widely known. In case you’ve been living under a boulder the size of Dan Borislow’s head without a laptop and magicJack (TM) connection, I’ll run down the details for you. Even before the WPS’s inaugural season in 2009, financing and investment in its long-term future had been an issue. In the run-up to the 2009 season, the league had only two investors, with scant exposure. Its existence has more or less been a roller-coaster of success and failure, complete with a revolving door of clubs in and clubs out–national exposure followed by drops in attendance and investors. In other words, like trying to grow a garden in an already dry climate in the middle of a drought with more bite than a Megan Rapinoe cross. Despite intense efforts to till and cultivate the crop, without water or irrigation, every new plant was preternaturally doomed.
The most visible tipping point occurred with the high-profile case of magicJack creator Dan Borislow, who bought the struggling Washington Freedom in 2011 and moved them to Florida. It appears (to the average consumer of sport) that Mr. Borislow regarded his new toy as something of a video game franchise, irresponsibly failing to conform to several of the league’s requirements for ownership. According to ESPN, these include: “failure to display sponsor sign boards, failure to upload video to the league’s site for scouting purposes, lack of an ambulance and EMS staff at the game, failure of the coaching staff to wear required Puma attire, an undersized field (league minimum is 66 yards wide), lack of seating for a minimum of 5,000 fans, lack of press accommodations, lack of player availability to the media, and a past-due balance of $53,166.67 owed to the league, according to the league’s motion in opposition.”
Over the summer months in 2011, the WPS penalized Borislow several times for similar misconduct and officially notified him that they were considering terminating his ownership rights. Additionally, the WPS players union filed a grievance against a him for “inappropriate statements and conduct toward his players, and players’ fear of improper retaliation by Mr. Borislow based on their grievance.” Although I’m sure the specifics of this grievance are manifold, the most bizarre details of the ordeal surfaced on the blog of Ella Masar, who related how Borislow demanded the players refer to him as “Daddy;” how he more or less blackmailed them into opposing the grievance; how he refused to pay for a nose surgery she needed after getting kicked in the face, and then told her to either pay for the surgery herself or be traded; and how he then refused to trade her after she had asked that he do so. It is worth pointing out that player-coach Abby Wambach has come out in support of Borislow (or, at least, in support of remaining positive about the situation). You can find her comments here.
A few weeks ago, the WPS announced it would be suspending it’s 2012 season, with an eye to return in 2013. Clearly, the Borislow debacle is not the only reason why the WPS cannot find any measure of long-lasting success. Long before the idea for a magicJack was a twinkle in his beedy-black eye, the Women’s United Soccer Association had trouble finding support amongst the people with the money in America. What are the implications here? Why can’t women’s professional sports just get it right?
Take a good look at one sport that does seem to be getting it right: the Lingerie Football League (LFL). Few would argue that the women who compete in the LFL are athletes on par with the women who play professional soccer, but their website quotes NBC Sports asserting that “the LFL is the fastest-growing pro sports league in the nation” (also check out the quote from Business Week). If you aren’t familiar with this sport, it’s exactly what it sounds like—women playing football while wearing lacy underwear. You would think to find Sepp Blatter’s fingerprints all over this, but no–the LFL phenomenon is fueled entirely by homegrown, good ol’ US of A support.
Feminists have critiqued the LFL since it began in 2009, and the strange attempt to recruit Michael Jordan’s daughter in October of last year (including a statement that the league was considering ways to prepare young girls to play lingerie football) sparked a renewed criticism of this intensely problematic phenomenon. The issues from a pro-woman prospective are obvious: creating a space where women are valued as athletes for their attractiveness rather than their physical prowess is insulting to women athletes everywhere. The emphasis on attractiveness is even worse when you consider exactly the type of beauty the league is looking for in its players. All of the players are young and thin—they look much more like Victoria’s Secret models than football players.
In the words of bell hooks, “being oppressed means the absence of choices.” Even in a time and place where women athletes had the same celebrity status as male athletes, Lingerie Football would be problematic. In our current culture, the LFL is intensely damaging for the prospects of all women who aspire to play sports professionally. It’s easy to empathize with the players of the WPS—are they wondering if their league would have a season this year if their pre-match ritual consisted of donning lingerie? What if they each focused more on their physical appearance than their fitness? These ideas are not far-fetched—when asked how to make the sport more popular, FIFA president Sepp Blatter recommended “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. Female players are pretty…” As much of an idiot as we all know Sepp Blatter is, there seems to be some sad prescience in his words. If the LFL is truly the fastest-growing professional sport in America, it does not bode well for the reality of where our money goes.