When my high school soccer team played in the state finals our coach was Ann Cernicek. Cernicek and her sister, Molly, had decorated college careers and helped push the wave that carried U.S. women’s soccer to global prominence. Nonetheless, her presence on the sidelines of the boys’ championship was remarkable, all the more so because she was eight-months pregnant at the time.
Coach Cernicek has been on my mind during the run-up to the World Cup, where Brazilian women will shape the competition—and be shaped by it—as never before. People like to say that the political fortunes of Dilma Rousseff, the nation’s first female president, rest in the hands of the men’s team. If they win the Cup, she’ll be re-elected. If not, she stands no chance.
If the Seleção doesn’t win, some may also grumble that the roster didn’t include arguably the best soccer player ever. Marta Vieira da Silva (known simply as “Marta”) has won or finished second as FIFA’s women’s Player of the Year an amazing nine times. Like countless other extraordinary female athletes, Marta has drawn attention both for her otherworldly skills and things that have nothing to do with them, all while challenging widespread expectations about gender and sports.
During the Cup we can expect the kind of imagery and division of labor that seems to mark every big sport event. Barely-clothed women will present awards (FIFA’s notoriously sexist president already drew criticism for the staging of the draw); at least one coach will ban “wives and girlfriends” from the team hotel; and the press will ogle female fans and print sensationalist accounts of prostitution and “sex in the tropics,” even while Brazil (like the U.S.) struggles to crack down on sex trafficking.
It’s still too early to tell what Dilma’s presidency will mean for women’s rights, writ large, but there’s little indication that even she can bring meaningful change to the world of big-money sports. Marta and groups like GuerreirasProject have campaigned tirelessly for gender justice, funding, and respect for women’s soccer in Brazil, whose supremely talented female squad is perennially crippled by meager government support. Whether or not sponsorship evolves in Brazil, Marta’s impact is undeniable, evident in her blog, which is full of inspiring messages not only from young women seeking guidance, sending good wishes, or recounting how Marta changed their lives, but also from boys and men who write for myriad reasons. Marcio posted a message asking if he and his boyfriend, both homesick, could get together with her in Sweden, where she plays for a club team. Kenedy, age 14, wanted advice about how to help his sisters launch successful careers. José logged in just to state the obvious, leaving behind a short, straightforward message: “Best player in the world.”
As in Brazil, the future of women’s rights, gender justice, sports, and politics all hang in the balance here in the U.S. Many in the press have already anointed Hillary as our first female president. Meanwhile, the bloated, corrupt NCAA—a body that, like it or not, my fellow academics and I are impossibly entangled with—is simultaneously enmeshed in an overwhelming crisis of sexual violence on campus and challenged by the heady, complex prospects of “student-athlete” unionization, a project that holds tantalizing possibilities but also potentially disastrous results for women’s athletics. As these stories play out, we will do well to think hard about our own relationship with spectacular sporting events abroad and close to home and to pay attention to Marta, Dilma, and less-known trailblazers like Cernicek, all of whom have more than a few lessons to teach us all.