The U.S. Women's National Team are role models.
I spoke to NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush last week in the wake of the U.S. Women's World Cup win, and I was struck by the perception that the players were role models for young girls, that there's an "aspirational model" present between a segment of the fanbase and the stars of the league.
I get it. When I was growing up, there were no women's pro leagues of any consequence until 1997, when I was already in high school, with the WNBA starting play. As a young girl, I dreamed of being a pro athlete, even as I had no actual league to play team sports in the U.S., and I remember very clearly a moment when I was 8 or 9, telling two boys I was going to be a pro athlete, and having them laugh in my face. I was stung by their reaction, literally taken aback at the apparent impossibility of that opportunity. Or maybe they had watched me play sports and knew it was a lost cause, who knows.
In the end, I was not a good enough athlete to become a pro, and the opportunities only really opened up a few years too late relative to my upbringing. C'est la vie, I'm in a good place and things worked out pretty well.
But for girls like my own daughter, who may or may not like sports, she's too young for us to tell at this point, having women who not only show up every two or four years to play in World Cups or Olympics as momentary superstars, but as possible figures to look up to on a regular basis through what one hopes will be a sustainable, successful pro league in the United States, is a great sign for not only women's sports, but sports overall.
So are male soccer players role models?
20 years into MLS, the answer is complicated. Players are often much more accessible than in other North American pro sports. But it appears that in the early years of the league, there was more of an emphasis of players connecting to their communities. Partly, this was an outgrowth of the paltry salaries many players made, so they had to take part-time jobs coaching youth soccer, which facilitated relationships with some fans, which in many respects literally made them role models on a daily basis.
Though many players nowadays aren't getting rich off playing in MLS, they're at least usually making enough to pay the bills and focus on a playing career full-time, so the remove from local communities has grown. And as a way to improve the health of the league overall, that's not a bad thing.
At the same time, we've been told for the past 20 years or so that male pro athletes across all sports shouldn't be role models -- they're human just like everybody else. Some can be held up as paragons of virtue, others are as imperfect as can be, and there's no morality bonus for being an athlete. We are who we are.
I think overall, the public has agreed with that assessment and backed off on male athletes as role models, and why not, when they are being charged with domestic violence, accused of sexual assault, and arrested for DUI (and that's only in the past year concerning MLS players)? Those are three very different offenses, but there's no need to really look up to guys who do stuff like that.
The fact remains that those are the outliers, at least as far as public information is concerned, and most MLS players are quiet, upstanding dudes.
But there still remains a gap on perceptions regarding male and female athletes and their roles relative to their fanbases. Men are just people -- women are special.
It's not like women are perfect, of course, as the saga of Hope Solo makes clear. And it seems likely that as women's sports continue to develop and gain a history in the public eye, female athletes won't be counted on to inspire generations and will simply be asked to perform on the field, and stay out of trouble off it.
But it's striking that male athletes can merely be winners and losers, and female athletes can be those things while also being people to look up to. The pressure is different, the demands off the field are considerably different. Male athletes may be ambassadors for the sport in certain circumstances, while female athletes are constant ambassadors. It comes with the territory, I suppose, and if it's the price of helping to establish a bedrock for the sustainability of women's sports, it's probably worth it. Is it fair, however, to assign different standards to male and female athletes, really?
It may be a pat conclusion, but there's a double standard as far as how athletes are treated based on their gender. Whether the norm ought to be more on the role model or normal person end of the spectrum -- that's really where the debate ought to be, on a universal basis.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!