Like so many families across the eastern seaboard, I spent Memorial Day weekend on the sidelines watching my daughter play game after game in a soccer tournament. Unseasonably rainy and cold, with a gusty winds blowing across the soccer fields on Long Island, it was hardly idyllic conditions for spectating or playing, but the mood started out upbeat for parents and kids alike. The first game was relaxed and fun, despite the foul weather.
Things took a decidedly less jolly turn at the 6pm game on Saturday evening when our girls went 1-0 down within the first few minutes. It was clear then that they had an uphill battle ahead of them against a formidable opponent. My daughter, a physical and aggressive athlete, plays center back for her team and is often the last player between the opponent and her goalie. In those moments, she is left with three choices: foul the other player (a bona fide strategy in soccer, just like in basketball), win the ball from her opponent or accept she is beaten. Most often she will do one of the first two, which is what makes her and her fellow defenders good at their jobs — they rarely accept that they are beat.
My daughter is scrappy and fierce, right now one of the biggest and strongest players on the field, playing not unlike the powerful gale storm that was rolling through Long Island last weekend. For a shorthand (and consciously gendered) description of her style of play, you might say she plays like a boy. Which is all well and good, except to the male referees who officiate her games. She has spent all season being called for fouls that would never be called as fouls in a boys’ game. With every unfair call (by the way there are times when she most definitely deserves being called for a foul) it feels like the referees are passing a referendum in which they tell her: girls don’t play soccer this way.
Interestingly enough, when I asked my 18-year-old son about it, who is also a very physical player and who also played center back his entire career, he told me that the referees’ calls are irrespective of gender. He explained to me that referees make a judgment about you early in the game due to your size and aggressiveness, and they stick to that judgement for the rest of the game. Having played and watched soccer for 40 years, I hear what he’s saying, but my gut is telling me that in the case of my daughter, it’s about more than that. It’s about the fact that she’s a girl who plays like a boy.
In this particularly challenging game, the referee started calling fouls on my daughter almost immediately, some of which she deserved and some of which she didn’t. The opponents started to crush our team and as my daughter faced increasing pressure on defense, she played even more aggressively. Their domination and my daughter’s refusal to back down in the face of it, fueled a mania from their parents, reminiscent of rabid bettors at a cockfight, eventually inspiring them to demand the referee send my daughter off the field. In the face of it all, our girls never stopped trying even as the score line grew to a lopsided 4-0.
As her parent, the hardest moment of the game wasn’t the goals they let in. Rather, my heartbreak came when the referee called my daughter over to him, a middle aged man looming intimidatingly over her 13-year-old girl body, wagging his finger in her face. He warned her that if she committed another foul she’d get a yellow card. Thank God for my wonderful colleague and friend, Mary Pat Draddy, who is also a parent coach on the team. She shouted across the field, through the rain and the wind, “Don’t worry! You keep playing the way you’re playing!!!” And my daughter did. She kept fighting for every single ball, encouraging her teammates not to give up (even though it was clear the game was long lost).
The final whistle blew as the rain picked up speed and night descended early over the sodden fields. My daughter marched toward me, uniform soaked to her skin and muddy backpack dangling from her arm, and urgently said: “I need to get out of here.” We dragged ourselves to the parking lot, slid into the front seats of the car, peeled off soaking wet socks and turned the heat up high. And then, only then, my daughter burst into tears.
Every ounce of strength and fortitude she had shown during the game had been stripped away with her dirty socks, now lying crumpled on the floor of the car. She had withstood the parents’ taunts; she had faced up to the referee’s intimidation; she had remained optimistic in the face of a humiliating defeat. Now that was all gone. With tears streaming down her face, she shouted and swore and shouted some more. She decried the parents and referee, mystified and disgusted by how they had treated her. I listened and stroked her back, my fury slowly subsiding as she was finally able to express her own anger and hurt. And then she took a deep breath, gave herself a fresh ponytail, put on dry socks and we headed to Shake Shack.
So here’s the thing. My daughter is powerful, strong and aggressive. She even wears a headband that says “Beast” on it when she plays soccer. She is a fierce force who came out of the womb that way. We didn’t parent her toward ferocity, we simply got out of her path and let her unleash the natural power she holds. Except, what I see on the soccer field, week in and week out, is that our world is still uncomfortable with a fierce female. To me, the referee last weekend’s game and the referees all season who’ve been calling her for fouls that were not fouls, don’t know what to do with her strength.
I am so afraid that the pressure from the world around her will ultimately drain my daughter of her natural born power; afraid these older men in heinous polyester, yellow jerseys are like kryptonite to her audacious determination. I am terrified that one day, due to a referee’s bad call or an opposing parent’s taunt, she will walk off the field and never come back. I’m nauseous at the idea of her saying to herself: “Maybe they’re right. I should be less aggressive.” I never want her to question the potential in her strength and the magic in her ferocity.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m imagining what I see when I watch the referees’ reactions to my daughter on the field. Am I being too sensitive? Am I overreacting? Maybe my son is right and it’s the same for athletes of any gender. But I don’t think I am imagining it. I’ve been a female athlete for too many years and worked in this field for too long not to trust my gut on this one. These referees can’t handle what my daughter brings onto the field because it doesn’t fit their narrative of how a girl should play soccer.
I’m not sure what I can do to protect her because the truth is, the days of my being her human forcefield are quickly waning. So what is my role? Should I have marched onto that field and told the referee to step away from my daughter. As much as I wanted to, the answer is no. Nowadays, it’s really about how much I can help strengthen her from within so that she can be her own forcefield in those moments. It’s about building up her powers of perception to understand what’s happening and see that she can keep on keeping on. It’s about supporting her enough so that she faces up to a referee making unfair calls and keeps playing her game. It’s about encouraging her enough so that she has so much belief in her own power she never questions whether it’s too much.
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