It’s Time to Start Letting Women Be Athletes

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Is the job of the referee to pass moral judgment or to call the game by the book?

This might seem an obvious question, but it turns out to be a lot more difficult than it seems. And that has some big implications on how we assess officiating. In particular, how we think about officiating of the women’s game.

The issue here is the intersection of two different moral economies. In the first, punishment is a measure of virtue. The laws exist to sustain good behavior and discourage bad behavior. Cards are therefore reserved for those with bad intentions. Good players give 100%, pushing themselves right to the limit. And if every once in awhile they overstep the lines, it’s all part of an honest day’s work. They deserve the benefit of the doubt.

In the second, punishment is a measure of lawfulness. The rules are clear, and they are inexorable. Infractions require responses, just as naturally as applying force on an object will generate an equal and opposite reaction. Intentions make no difference; there is only the act itself.

As with most things, reality is more complicated than either of these idealized models.

Certainly, referees do their best to enforce the rules as they are actually written. A foul in the box is a penalty, regardless of whether it prevents a clear goal-scoring opportunity or whether it’s a pointless lunge on someone at the edge of the 18 going in the wrong direction. The rules simply are what they are. And if that occasionally produces irrational results, well, that’s simply part of the game.

But referees are not automatons. In fact, they exercise enormous discretion throughout the game, with every small decision. It’s up to them whether to call the game loose or tight, just as they must decide whether to enforce the letter of the rule or the spirit. Watch for just a few minutes and you’ll see a play that would be a foul if committed in the center circle which is allowed to go uncalled if committed in the box. You’ll see offenses whistled only for a foul in the 5th minute, which might be a yellow card in the 60th minute, or a red card in a game that has been overly aggressive. Watch any corner kick and you’ll see countless fouls—shirt grabbing, high elbows, hip checks, bear hugs. A strict reading of the rules would produce twenty or thirty penalties a game.

And in a certain sense, there’s no getting around this. Every line that is drawn produces edge cases—those difficult places where people step right up to the limit of the allowable. Policing this space will always involve subjectivity, no matter where you set the limits.

Ultimately this means that the question about the role of the referee isn’t a binary one. Referees do need to exercise some judgment about what is appropriate, above and beyond a literal reading of the rules as such. As we know quite well from centuries of debates in law and philosophy, pure textualism is a recipe for terminal incoherence.

So, rather than thinking about this as ‘one or the other,’ we need to instead dig into the specific frames through which decisions are made. And we need to ask what is at stake when certain presumptions become dominant.

Violent play, not violent players

Which brings us to the heart of the argument. Because at the moment there is a strong, perhaps overwhelming presumption in women’s soccer. The presumption that bookings should be reserved for the truly egregious offenses. You can see clear evidence of this in the numbers.

Just take a look at the number of yellow cards per game, across a few different leagues:

  • La Liga (Spain): 5.0
  • Serie A (Italy): 4.4
  • Bundesliga (Germany): 3.7
  • Premier League (England): 3.6
  • MLS (USA): 3.6
  • NWSL: 2.1

There is obviously variation across leagues in the men’s game, with Spain and Italy consistently calling a tighter game than some of the other big leagues. But the gap between the NWSL and all the major men’s leagues is enormous.

And it’s not just about the raw numbers. Watch any game and you’ll see plenty of offenses that could easily produce bookings. But listen to the commentary, or follow along on social media, and you’ll hear the same refrain, repeated endlessly: “she didn’t mean anything by it,” “just good, tough play,” “that wasn’t intentional.” The general sense of all these comments is clear: bookings should be regulated primarily through the moral economy of punishment. Cards are reserved for truly dangerous play, for offenses that go beyond the pale. They should be saved for ‘bad’ players, or for good players who egregiously overstep the line. It would be cruel, maybe even unfair, to issue a card when a player didn’t really ‘mean it.’

This attitude is widespread in women’s soccer—both among referees and within the community at large. And there are some good reasons for it.

Think about it terms of the games we all play with one another. Imagine a game of poker where your opponent says ‘call’ when they meant to raise. Technically, by the rules, they are bound to that statement. And if it’s the World Series of Poker, you’ll insist that the rules be followed. But if it’s a home game with your friends, played with low stakes or no stakes at all, you’ll most likely let them make the correction, on the principle of ‘no harm, no foul.’ If a rule can be enforced without unduly hurting someone who made an honest mistake, that’s preferable.

There’s a generosity here that is laudable. It avoids turning the game into a purely transactional process: results-focused, denuded of honor or respect. For many fans of WoSo, this is one of the primary selling points of the game. How many times have we heard the claim that women’s soccer is purer, more honest, closer to the true spirit of the game? “If you want to watch flopping, watch the men. If you want to watch soccer, watch the women.” 

But there are also real consequences to this sort of expectations-setting. For one thing, it provides an easy excuse structure for all sorts of violent play. If the overarching assumption is that women’s soccer is purer, closer to the spirit of honest amateurism, the presumption will almost always be against tight enforcement of the rules.

But a loose game is a more aggressive game. If violent play doesn’t produce cards, players will play violently. If dangerous challenges aren’t punished, players will make dangerous challenges.

And beyond the problem of actual physical danger, there is a broader question about the style of play. You’ll often hear that referees should ‘let the players play’ and ‘not insert themselves into the game.’ But this reflects a misunderstanding of what refereeing is. Players will exploit the space given to them—that’s just as true when it comes to referees as it is with the other team. Calling a loose game isn’t ‘letting the players play.’ It is a choice to allow certain kinds of play—hard-nosed, physical—to dominate.

That may be what people prefer, but it is an active choice that the referee has to make, not a natural condition of the game. And whether or not the players themselves are violent in some intrinsic sense, the game that results will be more violent if referees adopt this approach.

Gender integration and the problem of respect

But there’s a deeper issue here, one that has less to do with the style of play and more to do with the way we think about women in sports. And more broadly, the way that we as a society handle the integration of women into traditionally masculine fields.

If you look back to the turn of the 19th century, you’ll find a period of growing economic and political integration on gender lines. Women had always worked, but more and more they were entering fields that had previously been almost exclusively male. This was a product of industrialization and urbanization—shifts that rendered traditional agrarian divisions obsolete for huge swathes of the population. And as economic necessity shifted, it brought a great deal of consternation about how this would affect women.

You can probably imagine how these arguments went: if women are to work in factories, what will happen to their uniquely feminine virtues? Can we afford to expose their delicate natures to the grim, economized reality of life in the factory? Won’t something ineffable be lost in the process? And if the tide can’t be stopped entirely, shouldn’t we at least impose some restrictions, to protect them from the worst extremities of life in this workforce?

In short: women were brought into a masculine space, but they were never regarded as full participants. Since they were purer and better, they would be eaten alive by the horrors of a purely marketized life. It would be wrong to expose them to its depredations.

On the positive side of the ledger, the desire to protect inspired legislation to restrict maximum hours and impose some bare standards of safety for women. In a landmark decision (Muller v. Oregon), the Supreme Court upheld these protections, even as they were striking down similar progressive laws for the broader workforce. Women—pressed on one side by ideologies of laissez-faire capitalism, on the other by ideologies of gender exclusionism—were granted a limited set protections that men would not obtain until the New Deal.

But this came with devastating negative consequences as well. Women were introduced into industrial life, but as partial members. Their pay was lower, they were denied the social standing that accompanied the work, and integration did nothing to erase the old gender expectations. They could never be regarded as full participants in the masculine economy—where money rules and moral life is sidelined.

The same process happened in the realm of politics. For many at the time, the argument against suffrage was all for the sake of women. Politics is a grim and dirty business, one in which moral considerations are all-too-easily steamrolled in pursuit of power. It would be wrong to expose women to this world. Their natural virtues would be polluted, and something important would be lost. Again, the argument is framed in positive terms. Precisely because women are better and purer, they should be protected. There is a moral character to their existence, and it would be wrong to regard them as nothing but economized, rational agents in pursuit of their own narrow interests.

In each of these cases, the desire to treat women primarily as women—and to presume a certain virtue associated with that status—was framed as a matter of respect. But there are real dangers in the desire to ‘safeguard’ the moral virtues of femininity.

It often comes at the cost of denying women agency.

Rethinking respect and acknowledging the agency of choices

While the consequences are not nearly so extreme, you can see the same tropes at work in our contemporary soccer landscape. 

In the men’s game, everyone is far more comfortable thinking about cards as transaction costs, to be calculated within the logic of cost-benefit analysis. A professional foul is ‘professional’ precisely because the player makes the judgment that the advantage (stopping a dangerous attack) is worth paying the cost (a yellow card). In the same way, a corporation might regard fines for misbehavior as simply part of the cost of doing business. The defining question is not ‘is this illegal?’ but ‘what are the consequences?’

We have centuries of examples of societies that are deeply uncomfortable with allowing women to exist within this sort of moral economy. And it’s not difficult to draw the connection between that general discomfort and the specific practices of law enforcement that exist within the game of soccer.

I don’t think that referees are consciously considering the virtues of femininity when they make decisions. Nor do I think that most fans would put it in those terms either. But this can produce significant effects, even if it is merely a form of implicit bias. The landscapes of our lives are organized around structuring assumptions which filter down in unpredictable but powerful ways.  

And this particular set of structuring assumptions–about the superior virtue of our women athletes–risks denying them the respect that is unthinkingly paid to their male counterparts. The willingness to regard their choices as active and intentional: to see their decisions as their decisions, their mistakes as their mistakes, their successes as their successes.

Put simply: we owe it to these athletes to acknowledge the agency of their choices. They are full participants in their own play. And that play can (and should) be judged within the rules of the game, without implying some moral failure on the part of the player.

By no means is this an argument for some kind of total gender-blindness. Given the widespread and persistent biases grounded in gender, acting as if it didn’t exist is only a recipe for a different set of exclusions. And even if it were possible, the ‘freedom’ to integrate into an amoral and neoliberal political economy is not much of a freedom.

So we have every reason to remain skeptical of a system that accepts ‘what can I get away with?’ as its defining moral question. We saw this effect at work in debates over the contours of second wave feminism, which prioritized inclusion and deemphasized the scope of broader critique. We have (rightly) come to recognize the limits of this approach.

So there are no simple answers here. But we do need to start asking better questions.

What does it mean to take women’s sports seriously?

Our sports landscape is overwhelming male. Look at TV exposure, media coverage, money, advertising, and so forth. These all go overwhelmingly to the historically dominant sports, and to the male athletes who play them.

Still, women’s sports are growing, and that is tremendously important. But just like the integration of our economy and our politics in the late 19th century, there are dangers as well as opportunities in this change.

On one side, women’s sports can provide an important counterweight to our mainstream sports culture, which often trends toward the unthinkingly masculine, with some real (often extremely serious) consequences. Beyond that, there’s the issue of representation. Girls growing up in this country today can see themselves in the players that they watch. That matters, and it is part of why we tend to want to emphasize the virtues of the players.

But at the same, women’s sports matter because they are sports. And all the good elements I just mentioned depend on this. If we treat our female athletes as essentially women, and only as athletes in some secondary sense, we do them a disservice. And we do ourselves a disservice, too.

So let’s grant our athletes the freedom to be athletes, and stop burdening them with the expectation that they have to be heroes. They are selfish and imperfect. They make dangerous challenges and throw elbows. They engage in cynical play. They lie and swear and break the rules. And that’s all okay. Because part of what it means to grow up is to recognize that none of us are perfect. It’s what we do within the constraints that makes us who we are.

One thought on “It’s Time to Start Letting Women Be Athletes

  1. Funny how the article argues against the virtues of sportsmanship, which by the way is the only reason for the existence of sport, to raise one self above the uncouth, to appreciate the opponent for how they help you to do so.
    So I disagree with the summation of the article, it most certainly is not ok, for women or men, to win without heeding the virtue of sportsmanship. If we continue down this path in sport, we will return to the spectacle of the gladiators and lose our civilization with it.

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