Football fans* may have caught the furore a little while ago when two male sports commentators in England made derogatory remarks about a female assistant referee, implying that she would be incompetent, as well as mocking a female football club owner. I didn’t comment on that incident which ended up in a firing for both men but it got me thinking about the experience of being a female sports fan.
For some reason, many people (including some women) seem to believe that sports is a domain that should belong exclusively to men. This message is communicated both directly and indirectly: in conversations with people online & offline, in the kind of advertising aimed at sports fans, in the lack of opportunities for female professional players and in the lack of coverage they get.
On a personal level, I have encountered a hostility to a female presence (waitresses and servers exempted) in sports bars that can be very off-putting. You would think that choosing whether or not to watch a match in a public arena such as a pub should be a simple decision but I’ve found that not to be true. More commonly, the female fan gets stared at like a unicorn*. If she’s unlucky, she’ll get the guys openly wondering what she’s doing there and when told she’s there to see the match, they’ll stare at her in disbelief. Some will even go as far as to mock her presence. When everyone finally settles in to watch the match, she will have to contend with them assuming a lack of knowledge about the action taking place on screen. If she should mistakenly show too much emotion, at a missed goal opportunity for example, she attracts the stares again. Sometimes, she has to show off her familiarity with the teams, players e.t.c. before she wins others over enough to feel welcome in the crowd.
I’ve experienced all of the things mentioned at one time or another. Certainly, this has not happened every time I’ve been in that environment, but it’s happened enough for me to be wary and take steps against it e.g. by sitting in a more isolated corner if I’m there by myself. On days when I can’t be bothered to deal with all of that, I just stay indoors and watch my match in peace.
And yet I know that I’m not the only girl that follows the sports I like with great keenness. In fact, all my girl friends in high school were exactly like me. Football was as much a topic of conversation for us as hairstyles, boys, shopping and other more stereotypically girly things. Nowadays, when those friends are not around as much, I find that I have to hide my fandom more because outside of my family, it often generates weird reactions. My love of football becomes the ‘hobby that must not be mentioned’. Men more commonly act as if you need educating about the sport while women assume that you must be feigning an interest from being forced to watch matches to please the men in your life. Once they discover that your interest is real, they treat you like an oddity. I don’t participate in sports discussion forums so I have no idea what goes on there but I won’t be surprised to find that it’s the same.
All of these negatives are not enough to stop me from enjoying my football and other sports though, maybe because I’m already hooked. I can imagine that it could discourage others from further exploring a nascent interest in football. What I’d say is that if you persevere, you find eventually that people stop being shocked and even start listening to what you have to say. During the last world cup, I participated for the first time in live chats as matches were in progress and I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone was there to enjoy the matches and predictions. There were lots of guys involved but we had many females in there too and their contributions were equally well received. I didn’t get people challenging my knowledge even when I made mistakes. Being able to share matches with others like that really enhanced my enjoyment of the world cup.
In conclusion, I’d end by saying that as in many areas of life, football may seem unwelcoming to women but if you look closely enough, you’ll find that there are many spaces where you can indulge your passion with other like-minded people. Meanwhile, I look forward to the day when attitudes like those of the commentators referenced above are history.
*I mean soccer, for US people.
*I used ‘the’ here because often, you find only one or a handful of women in the gathering