Whitney Cummings tells a great joke about how men’s sartorial choices explain their desire to watch sports in the first place. “You guys are so obsessed with sports that you will wear jerseys for teams that you’re not even on but you wish you were,” says Cummings. “That’s like me watching Grey’s Anatomy in scrubs.”
It’s a smart point. Men who wear jerseys for teams they wish they were on—in other words, men who wear jerseys—often seem to be driven by hero worship or fierce hometown pride. Think LeBron James in the former instance or David Ortiz in the latter.
So when Nike announced this spring that for the first time it would offer men’s sizes for the official jerseys of the U.S. Women’s National Team, it raised an interesting question: What happens when jerseys cross gender lines from the women’s side to the men’s? No one blinks when a woman dons a Brady or Ovechkin, but how many guys will sport the Wambach?
The image I most often associate with the 1999 Women’s World Cup, still the nation’s most iconic and important soccer triumph, is stands full of pre-adolescent girls, some of whose dads—possibly also their coaches—had brought them to the stadium to watch and scream for Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain. In today’s version of that image, will the dad be wearing an Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan kit? Some of these fathers—and other male fans—might wear the U.S. Women’s National Team, or USWNT, jerseys out of national or team pride. Others, meanwhile, might wear them to make a statement.
Buying a jersey to show solidarity or make a point about the role of sports in creating social and cultural progress is not unusual. Just look at the popularity of Michael Sam’s St. Louis Rams jersey. Even though Sam was a late pick in the 2014 NFL draft and failed to make the Rams roster, his jersey outsold many established football superstars. (His jersey for his new team, the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, was on sale for CA$139.95 almost as soon as the move was announced.)
But in the United States—where the female soccer players are more elite than the men and their success has helped to foster huge increases in girls’ participation in athletics—there’s also a question of whether the new jerseys are an indicator of earnest moves toward gender parity or merely a symbolic gesture from a company looking to expand its bid for dominance among female consumers. As Marc Bain pointed out in Quartz, Nike isn’t really focused on “men who might buy the women’s team jersey.” Instead, Bain writes, “the gesture should buy Nike good will among female shoppers.”
The company’s excuse for not selling such jerseys to men in the first place was ludicrous: It claimed that it didn’t want people to think the men’s team had won two championships; the women’s jerseys boast two stars above the crests in honor of their titles. That’s right—they respected the women’s accomplishments too much to make their jerseys in men’s sizes! I want to see Nike’s reversal here as a blow struck for equality or a sign of cultural shift around gender and sports. But you don’t have to look too far to be disappointed by evidence to the contrary. In Norway, which tops nearly every metric on gender parity and whose women’s soccer team is among the best in the world, Nike won’t even make a uniform in women’s sizes for the players on the women’s national team. The Norwegian team is offered only a “unisex” kit that is baggy and restricts players’ movements, which is pitiful on the part of the apparel company.
Even if this new move is simply a public relations or profit-seeking gesture, though, that doesn’t dismiss the possibility that Nike’s decision could yield a substantive impact in the world of women’s sports. Historically, soccer-related symbolism has had off-field implications for both good and bad. Perceived slights or actions on the pitch have wrought tangible, violent results and upsurges of xenophobic nationalism off the field. Most notable among these is still the racist responses to French star Zinedine Zidane, who was born in France to Algerian parents. His ejection from the 2006 World Cup Final for a now-infamous head-butt prompted such widespread and vicious anti-Arab rhetoric against him that even years later cultural critics like comedian Maz Jobrani and poet Claudia Rankine have spotlighted it.
But these sorts of symbols have also been flipped to at least try to create positive, tangible efforts to combat the same types of racism. In April 2014, FC Barcelona’s Dani Alves was hit during a match with a banana, long a popular projectile used by racist soccer fans to associate black and South American players with monkeys. Instead of protesting or shrugging it off, Alves picked up the banana and took a bite. Soon Twitter and Instagram were alight with gestures of solidarity in the form of images of legendary players from Neymar to Marta eating bananas—hashtagged with things like #somostodosmacacos (“we are all monkeys”) or #KickRacismOutofFootball. Shortly thereafter, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, organized a #SayNoToRacism selfie campaign to pick up on the momentum already underway. But after the incident, Alves dismissed the fight against racism in certain parts of Europe as “a lost cause” until nations and leagues alike are ready to get tough with real consequences for offenders.
Meanwhile, at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, what’s beneath the players’ feet will probably matter more than what’s on male fans’ backs. Last fall, a group of women’s players that included American superstar Wambach and top women’s players from other countries sued both the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA because unlike the men, the women were being asked to play in stadiums on artificial turf. Players said playing on turf presents greater risk of injury and disrupts the flow of the game, but the suit was ultimately withdrawn.
This upcoming Cup, which begins Saturday in Canada, will be held on turf. (In fact, Wambach has claimed that FIFA declined offers from companies to replace the turf for free—though it’s not clear exactly what happened.) Still, the dispute generated attention toward the some of the more entrenched and familiar elements of sexism in sports. This conversation was a particularly necessary one for soccer, given that its governing body was—until just this week, when he announced he was stepping down amid unprecedented and still-growing scandal—headed by Sepp Blatter, a man who in 2004 suggested women’s players wear tighter shorts to make their game more feminine (and popular).
Although the players withdrew their lawsuit, the dust-up has left its traces heading into the tournament—including a number of male athletes and fans galvanized by the women’s apparent lack of leverage with FIFA. Nike certainly hopes these folks are also in the market for jerseys—and other gear, too. “This team has a passionate group of both male and female fans,” Nike representative Brian Strong told me, “and we think this will add new energy to their support during an important World Cup summer and beyond.” And the company is not waiting for the World Cup to be over—or even to begin—before focusing on the “beyond.” It’s already featuring Morgan in a campaign for women’s Hypervenom cleats alongside Neymar, Wayne Rooney, and Danny Welbeck—the first time it’s designed such a collection specifically for women and marketed it with advertising featuring male and female athletes.
Meanwhile, video game maker EA Sports has announced that for the first time in franchise history, women will be featured as playable characters in FIFA 16. According to a press release, USWNT members Wambach, Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Sydney Leroux were “instrumental in the game’s development as they participated in in-depth, motion-capturing sessions to … authentically capture the realism, intensity, and passion of women’s soccer.”
In light of its most recent corruption scandal, FIFA might do well to take a page from the playbook of early activists for women’s suffrage, who argued that giving women the vote and greater political participation would benefit everyone because they would clean up a dirty process. Maybe Rapinoe could start branding her signature corner kicks as “Corners Against Corruption.”
In any event, despite having to surrender in the turf war, Wambach is hopeful about the future. In an ESPNW interview with Foudy, she recounted a recent meeting with FIFA’s Secretary General Jérôme Valcke (currently under a cloud of legal and media scrutiny for his own alleged role in bribery schemes): “He assured us that the Women’s World Cup would never be played on turf again. He assured us. He gave us his word. For me, that’s a win. For me, that’s progress.”
Now that FIFA President Sepp Blatter is resigning, a new era may be on the horizon. “I think you should run for the presidency [of FIFA],” Foudy enthusiastically told Wambach in the same video—a sentiment that surely would be shared by many (if not all) USWNT fans. Perhaps someday she’ll do just that. Right now, though, the quest for victory in Canada is her first priority. Maybe four years from now, women and men will be wearing jerseys with three stars over the crests and fighting over who gets the controller for the next round of FIFA 20.