There has been something on my mind lately that I can’t seem to shake.
I have a hard time calling myself a fan of women’s soccer in the way I call myself a fan of baseball.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been a baseball fan since my uncle, who lived just outside of Boston at the time, placed a Red Sox hat on my head in the second grade. The draw of Fenway has been an unwavering part of my identity since. Baseball gave me something to share with my grandmother, a staunch Yankee fan; a woman whose own father walked her down the aisle on her wedding day in 1952 only to leave the church shortly after to go to his car to listen to the Yankees’ playoff game on the radio. The then Brooklyn Dodgers won that game, by the way, 6 to 5 in 11 innings before the Yankees won the Series.
Women’s soccer is a much more recent addition to my sport loving heart, though often my devotion to the sport feels more academic than passionate. It’s the kind of non-casual pursuit that forces my attention to be directly on it versus simply having it hum along in the background of my life the way baseball does.
I put on a baseball game in the summer and go on with my life, looking up from my laptop to check the score or to see where the ball is going when I catch the start of action out of the top of my visual field.
When I put on a soccer game, on the other hand, my attention leaves the screen only so long as to compose a tweet or write a note to talk about later on a podcast or for a piece I’m writing. My attention is more focused, more exclusionary to the rest of life.
If I were to be honest though, I think one of the strongest subconscious processes that drives my aversion the title of “fan” is a part of me that struggles with the idea of claiming to be a fan while I also act as media.
Soccer, women’s soccer more than soccer in general, relies on a network of largely unpaid writers who write for small to slightly less small sites for much of the coverage. It’s not SportsCenter breaking down the USWNT January camp roster, it’s the (mostly) unpaid masses of women’s soccer sites who have built reputations and followings for covering a sport that is often on the outside looking in at more mainstream coverage.
While the debate about unpaid labor taking over a job that should be paid will have to wait for another day, it is the most common model of women’s soccer coverage we have.
And that presents some interesting side effects for the people in those media roles.
We are a (largely) self-trained group who do the jobs we do out of a devotion to supporting a game while often times paying for the pleasure of doing so. We are fans who felt a calling to help cover a game we feel is being sidestepped by those media outlets that sports fans would usually look to for coverage. While sometimes it might look from the outside like we’re fans who have found ourselves “in the loop” there is more than that at play. We are, by and large, a bit like puppies who might slobber a little as we learn how to sit, stay and roll over on our way toward covering the game in the way we believe it deserves.
And for me, that is where a lot of the tension lives.
I am not a perfect soccer writer, nor am I a flawless as an editor in chief. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve put out pieces that were a little (or a lot) undercooked. I’ve signed off on letting pieces go out without first weighing their full impact. I sometimes open my mouth and insert my whole foot inside of it.
But I do try to be better with each piece I write and with each piece Backline Soccer puts out. Every podcast episode I record, I try to get a little better at stating my case for my varied opinions. I try to form those opinions based on facts, watching a whole lot of games and talking to other media types.
But one of the dilemmas I face, more internally (maybe) than not, is how much of a fan do I get to be?
There are some boundaries I have no choice but to abide by.
No cheering in the press box. No asking players to sign things or take personal photos. Don’t get personal with the players. Be respectful when speaking with coaches and players. (It has been, on occasion, very hard to not ask, “what the hell were you thinking?” to either a player or coach, I won’t lie.)
But there are other boundaries that aren’t so clear.
How do you articulate your biases as you create content? How do you figure out what those biases are in the first place? Do you still get to be a fan of one team before all others if you cover that league? How public should your support be if you are? How do you turn off your fan brain when you are trying to evaluate talent or a coach or a system a team is playing in? How do you get others to take you seriously when you have doubts about how seriously you are able to take yourself? How do you report things people might not want to hear? How do you get verification that would stand up if you were questioned about a fact?
Often the answers to these questions aren’t taught. Each of us has to figure them out for ourselves. And it’s often messy. And complicated. And hard.
It is hard to go from just some random fan of a team or a sport to someone who is trying to cover it at the very best of times. And throw in no money and little support (more if you’re lucky to find a good site with a strong copy editor), and it becomes a battle of your will to do this thing against a viewership that can feel like a school of sharks waiting to hit up your social media the moment they sense a bit of blood in the water. Or worse, a viewership that just doesn’t care.
But I have been lucky too. Luckier than a lot of people who decided one day this was what they wanted to do.
Lucky that I have been largely welcomed by the women’s soccer media. Lucky that Sky Blue, the club I cover most often, and I have a solid working relationship. Lucky I have gotten to do player interviews where I think (I hope) I come out of them looking like I know what I’m doing. (I am still amazed I got Nicole Barnhart to agree to an interview, a personal high point for me.) Lucky I have friends in the media world who help challenge me and guide me and teach me. Lucky I have Backline Soccer and one of the most supportive groups working with me there. Lucky I have the Ride of the Valkyries crew to talk goalkeeping and Laura Harvey with (Side note: Harvey will never stop being talked about by Seattle people. It is as sure as death and taxes.).
I am coming around to the idea that admitting I enjoy the way Marta floats with the ball or that I am a fan of Fishlock or Zerboni in their “take no prisoners” style. I’m learning this isn’t a problem with me as a media member but just a part of who I am as a soccer fan. Having nerves before a big interview, not always feeling I know what I’m doing, those things are part of the deal too.
I’m not sure I will ever feel like anything other than some nobody from upstate New York who has to try over and over to prove themselves. But I do know I am starting to slowly get more comfortable in my own skin when it comes to life and soccer. And that does have a positive effect on my work (I think. I hope). I invest a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of mental energy into women’s soccer. I hope people who are not me and who are not my friends get something out of my work, both written and podcasting.
I haven’t made any New Years resolutions yet. But I think allowing myself to be a little more open about the things I love in soccer without worrying that my excitement is somehow antithetical to the role I have in women’s soccer media might be a good place to start.
So to start 2018 off? A confession.
I’m a Raquel Rodriguez fan.
There, I said it. Feels pretty good.