Women Icons — and Why Men Need Them

The treatment of women athletes as sexual objects occurs everywhere — even amongst famous female sports icons.

Dec 03, 2017

idols Illustration by Shenuka Corea

A year ago, 10 NYU Abu Dhabi community members spent their Fall break traveling to Jordan for the 2016 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in football. I chose to go on that trip because it presented an opportunity not just to visit a new country while living in a private home, but also because the tournament marked the coalescence of two things I care about — sports and women’s rights — in a sport I too rarely have the chance to follow live: women’s football.

The four days we spent in and around Amman left me with memories to cherish for a lifetime: I will not soon forget the feasts our host family treated us to when we returned from day trips to the Dead Sea, downtown Amman or to one of the two football matches we managed to see over the long weekend. I left Jordan so overwhelmed with good memories that it feels discourteous and almost impudent for me to recall this one incident that has also stayed with me from that trip.

That incident occurred on our third night in the country: Oct. 1, 2016, the day the U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team faced Paraguay’s team at the Prince Mohammed International Stadium in Zarqa, an hour’s drive north-east of Amman. I had looked forward to this match since I first saw the participating sides; while the tournament’s curtain-raiser between Spain and Jordan showed us just how passionate Jordan was to host the event, this game would arguably see a higher level of skill on the pitch. The USWNT has dominated the sport for a decade; Paraguay tried their best but could not stop the U.S. from winning 6-1 in a game that left followers of women’s football expecting great things in years to come, especially from the USWNT’s attackers.

But off the field, some onlookers were less appreciative of the prodigious forwards on the winning team. During the game, some of the audience members who surrounded us in the stands tried to fraternize with the NYUAD attendees but found themselves unable to cross the language barrier. At a loss, they turned to an unfortunate common language: They pointed to several players from each team, then gave each player the name of an adult video star whom she apparently resembled. This name game persisted for what remained of the first half, and though our host and guide had the resourcefulness to get us different seats for the final 45 minutes, I am sure the lewd jeers from that stand continued for the rest of the game.

What made that group of people, all men, think it would be a good idea to fraternize with us by comparing the athletes we had traveled so far to see to porn actresses? Why was the crowd for this women’s football game dominated by men? I refuse to blame this fact on some innate fault in Jordanians or in the region we live in; the treatment of women athletes as sexual objects occurs everywhere. If a woman athlete earns the label attractive or hot, it often becomes the principal label fans and pundits alike associate with her. As Jake Toffler’s Duke University article in 2015 noted when comparing the media portrayals of two iconic USWNT stars, Alex Morgan — then 27 — and Abby Wambach — then 34 — “[a] picture is worth a thousand words and a simple Google Image search tells the whole story. A search for Abby Wambach reveals action shots of a fierce competitor mixed in with a heavy dose of American patriotism. A search for Alex Morgan, however, results in a slew of sexualized photos, many of which come in the form of bikini photo shoots.” The consequence of this disparity shows in Morgan’s far greater popularity than Wambach’s — Morgan boasts three times as many Twitter followers as her seven-year senior. It may present one reason why Morgan, despite lacking Wambach’s greater experience and six-time receipt of the Player of the Year award from the U.S. Soccer Federation, was the world’s best-paid women’s footballer in 2015. Morgan earned $3 million that year, most of which income stemmed from endorsement contracts, which become more lucrative as a player grows her digital fan base. Of course, even Morgan’s income pales next to a male star’s; Lionel Messi, the highest-earning male footballer, earned $71 million that year.

Women’s football treats its fans to thrilling matches that equal the best games played on the men’s side of the game. I might take that statement even further: With its emphasis on finesse over the physical game, women’s football brings out the tactical beauty that reminds football fans why they love the sport. Onlookers who doubt the merit of women’s football might benefit from comparing two highly similar matches — the French triumph over Brazil in the quarterfinal of the 2006 Men’s World Cup and the U.S. triumph, also over Brazil and also in a quarterfinal, at the 2011 Women’s World Cup — to test their beliefs. Both games saw mesmeric performances by the greatest stars on the eventual winning sides: Zidane displayed pure grace for the Frenchmen, and Wambach demonstrated her sheer willpower for the USWNT. All four teams delivered high-paced football that could have led either team to score several times as many goals as they ultimately did. But only the men’s game lives on in popular memory, and only Zidane has become the celebrity that makes thousands of fans pine to get the chance to catch a glimpse of him when he comes to Abu Dhabi as head coach for Real Madrid later this month.

Wambach has every right to envy Zidane for his fame; her biography parallels his to an uncanny extent. Despite being blessed with enough natural talent to render them inevitable professional athletes, both had to struggle against exclusion and bias because of their minority identities — Zidane as a Maghrebin and Muslim in France, and Wambach as a lesbian in the U.S. before the recent surge of support for LGBT rights. Both enjoyed illustrious careers for their club teams but won the greatest acclaim for and ended their careers while playing on their national teams. Both have legacies that may be checkered by falls from grace late in their careers — he with his headbutt, she with her battle against alcoholism — but both can look back on playing careers that young players will aspire to emulate for generations after them. Wambach even eclipses Zidane on this metric: To this day, she holds the record for most goals scored by any player, regardless of their sex, for their national team, with an astonishing 184 goals.

If women’s and men’s football were respected equally by fans and by FIFA, Abby Wambach would have been the sport’s greatest icon in the past two decades. Her 180-centimeter height lets her tower over opponents and dominate the aerial game with far greater authority than Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimović on the men’s side; her prolific goal-scoring makes Lionel Messi seem containable and unthreatening. She may lack the dribbling prowess of Neymar or Ronaldinho but makes up for it with leadership skills and passion enough to lead her national team to uncountable triumphs. But save for gimmicky gestures like Mattel’s creation of a Barbie doll in her likeness, no major commemorations followed Wambach’s retirement in 2015. Football pundits and the U.S. Soccer Federation tried to tout her accomplishments, but what little acknowledgment she got shortly after retiring faded all too quickly, giving way to bland reporting on her personal life. Perhaps it was always utopian to expect an adequate celebration of Wambach’s career and merit as a player, but in those moments when I relive the memory of sitting in that stand in Zarqa, Jordan, I cannot help but wonder: If men had the courage and chance to respect and idolize women players as frequently and as passionately as they do male ones, might those men in the crowd have compared the budding starlets on the field to Wambach or Morgan instead?

Nikolaj Nielsen is Sports Editor. Email him at [email protected]

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