Sunday, October 18, 2020

Love is Love; Image is Everything

I had my recorder out for the mixed zone at the end of the USWNT game in Los Angeles some years ago and one of the stars of the match, after having answered a few questions, left the media scrum to affectionately greet a woman who called out to her. The pair then departed, holding hands.  
"We never write about that," one reporter told me. I looked at him, puzzled. I had had one more question to ask about the game and I was contemplating following them (they weren't technically out of the mixed zone area) to ask it of the women's national team player. 
"All the national team players that have girlfriends," the reporter explained. "We know, everybody close to the team knows, but we don't ever write about it."
"Why?" I asked. "I've seen a lot of articles about who on the team is married or engaged to men." 
He laughed, "Oh, the team puts out plenty of publicity about that, but not this. They don't want the public to know." 

I thought about that incident recently, partly because of Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird going public in a national media article, not about their relationship, but about key differences between the WNBA (and by extension, the USA women's basketball team) and the NWSL (and the USWNT) popularity.  

The blame is not entirely on the public here, given that US Soccer itself has gone out of its way to cultivate the image of the USWNT as, well, straight. Even as certain players have stepped forward and gone public with relationships with other women, there's been little coverage of that, at least from the team media channels or website, compared to the players on the team in relationships with men. Put "Zach Ertz" into the US Soccer website engine for comparison against Sue Bird or Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach's wife. Bird results come back in single digits and Doyle comes up a zero, opposed to Ertz's 24.  

There is a nice podcast on the site with Robbie Rogers from July of this year, which is notable since he was the first openly out MLS player. However, all of his USMNT call-ups took place while he was closeted, so the distinction of being the first openly out USMNT player to take the field remains for someone to claim someday. Soon, I hope. 

It's a positive to see national team players going directly to media about who they are and love. I believe the WNBA deserves credit for blazing that trail and it is sad to think some of the repercussions have been negative. It's also about time for the USWNT team known at one point as "America's Sweethearts" to break from a stifling mold of conformity and fear of offending anyone. It's good for the revolving cycle of the public being fed an image, but also being blamed for that image being cultivated in the first place to stop.