Thursday, April 02, 2015

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

The chant rang out as the United States took on Russia at the IIHF Women's World Championship. During group play a couple of days ago, the US beat Russia 9-2. It was one of those performances where half of the ice still looked freshly zambonied after half a period of play. So the chant was not without good reason. But I did not participate. Not because I don’t enjoy chanting nationalistically with reckless abandon (who doesn’t really?), but because it’s hard to chant when you’re laughing.

Let me be clear, I was not laughing at the Russians. That would be mean. I was laughing because the chant did not come from a host of Americans in the incredibly sparse crowd, it did not come from the families of the players, or even from Team USA employees. The chants came from a group of maybe 50 Swedish schoolchildren.

When the US scored for the first time, the entire crowd of children erupted into cheers. I wasn’t prepared for the squeals of delight. I should have known. Swedish sporting events are filled with chants and songs and loud. Just filled with loud. It’s a safe space, apparently, to scream away the silence that permeates plenty of spaces in Swedish society. Like the elevator. These kids were clearly learning the ropes early. As the celebration continued, I noticed that these kids had homemade American flags. Paper stuck to a stick. Crayons? Markers? Paint? I don’t know. But the stars and stripes were visible. And then the chanting started. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! And it was in Swedish. Scores of Swedish children were chanting U-S-A! in Swedish. It was a magical moment.

As the game continued, Russia tried to show some life. They pulled within one leaving the US up 3-2. After the first goal, across the arena a Russian fan unfurled a flag adorned with the sickle and hammer. There it was, flapping in the cold arena air. But, because Swedes are great lovers and defenders of freedom and hate communism, the children broke into a chant again. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Also, correlation does not imply causation.

Clearly, these small freedom-loving Swedish children who save baby seals in their free time while eating bacon and petting bald eagles, willed Team USA to respond with six unanswered goals. The U-S-A! chants subsided, but the children screamed until the final seconds ticked away. And it was a good thing they did. Because the crowds were sparse. Very very sparse. This is elite hockey at a level that is hard to come by and there were maybe 350 people in the crowd. You could hear the players on the ice. That’s not a good thing.

If Team USA beats Russia 9-2 and nearly no one is around to see it, does it count in the standings?

Since heading back to the US and graduate school, I’ve immersed myself in an academic world that doesn’t always embrace athletics. I don’t watch sports like I used to. But that love is there. Somewhere. And sometimes I’m reminded why sports matter as I watch young men and women fight the NCAA for basic rights or listen as friends work locally, nationally, and even internationally to bring more attention and respect to women’s sports. I’ve watched how athletes have made a little kid’s day, I’ve watched as teams rallied around the cancer-stricken mother of a teammate, I’ve watched as sports have inspired children to work hard, try hard, fail, succeed, and realize that they can accomplish a whole lot. And then I’ve watched as former students have made millions of dollars playing professionally while others are struggling to get by in minor leagues or women’s professional leagues that don’t pay their players. I’ve watched as others willingly left the game to pursue other interests while others are racked by headaches and crippling injury forcing them to make life decisions that no 18, 19, 20-year-old should have to make. And I’ve watched them do so with grace and responsibility, something I wish that I were capable of at their age. In fact, I wish I were capable of such a demonstration of character at my age.

I’m reminded of why sports matter whenever I walk into a women’s sporting event. I’ve attended a handful of women’s hockey games. The University of Wisconsin-Madison hockey team does amazing work. I’ve taught and tutored several players, which makes me a bit biased, but I’m ok with that. They’re good. Very very good. When it comes down to it, they win championships, they send players to professional leagues, and they provide a solid number of players to various national teams around the world, most notably Canada and the US. Team USA could put an entire line-up on the ice with only former or current Badgers. The team pulls a decent crowd and has a strong following. They are one of only a couple of teams to play their home games in an arena dedicated to women’s hockey. Capacity of that arena? Two thousand two hundred and seventy-three. 2 273. The men’s arena has a capacity of 15 359. That means every game there are about 13 000 people who are missing out on the opportunity to watch elite athletes excel in a damn exciting sport.

That's the biggest crowd I saw in three days.
Team USA vs. Team Canada.
World Champions vs. Olympic Champions.
The reality is that men’s hockey brings in more money so the disparity in the arena size maybe isn’t surprising. Which is true for most sports. Of course, there are a whole host of reasons for that. Ticket prices. Sponsorships. TV deals. General interest. Systemic or institutionalized sexism. The list could go on. Whether it’s surprising or not, it’s a sort of catch-22 driven by money. Women’s sports won’t get more media exposure if there are no fans in the seats. Women’s sports won’t get more fans in the seats if they don’t get more media exposure. It’s a simplified explanation and one that does not come even close to explaining the disparities, but it’s a big part of the current landscape that sometimes results in the reigning world champion, Team USA, taking on the reigning Olympic champion, Team Canada, in front of a not-even-close-to-sold-out crowd at the World Championships in Malmö.

But this post took a strange turn from Swedish children cheering for Americans to gender disparities in sports. That’s because today, as hundreds of the best hockey players in the world are competing for the world championship in front of only hundreds of fans, Expressen revealed that Swedish channel TV4 will be the first channel in the world to broadcast an entire season of a professional women’s soccer league.

I don’t like soccer. That’s not the point. TV4 broadcasting games is a big deal. First-in-the-world big deal. Entire-season big deal. Worth-watching-because-it-matters big deal. So find a game, turn on the TV or buy a ticket and watch. Not because you feel guilted into it, but because the level of play is incredible and those women are doing things on the playing field and on the ice that you could only dream of.

Welcome to Sweden. And a reminder that sports matter. For everyone.

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