This piece was originally published as an op-ed in The Brown Daily Herald. The original can be found here.
A few weeks ago, I played in a soccer game in which I was the only woman playing. When I walked into the gym and saw four or five extremely tall, muscular men warming up on the other side of the field, I was a little intimidated. As a 5-foot-3-inch, 140-pound woman, I wasn’t keen to go into tackles against men twice my size. Compounding the physical risk of injury is the fact that every time I step onto the field to play coed soccer, I am cognizant of being “the girl.” That feeling only gets worse when the size disparity between me and everyone else is huge. Unfortunately, most athletic spaces are profoundly unwelcoming for women.
A couple of minutes after the whistle blew, signaling the start of the game, I played a nice volley. One opponent looked at me with a surprised expression and said something like, “Wow, you have skills!” This type of shocked compliment happens in at least half of the coed games I play in, and it never fails to insult me. I have never once heard a player compliment a male opponent with such surprise. Clearly, many opponents expect me to be bad simply because I am a girl.
“Unfortunately, most athletic spaces are profoundly unwelcoming for women.”
The first half proceeded — we scored first, and our opponents followed up with a goal of their own. We were more skilled, but they used their size and strength to their advantage. Just before halftime, they scored a second goal, and my team’s competitive drive kicked in. The intensity of the game started to ratchet up, with more and more physical play. At one point, when I was trying to defend an opponent who was around 6-feet-8-inches, he pushed out his arm. I skidded three feet and almost fell. After that, I made sure to brace myself and go into every tackle with my entire body. Any soccer player can tell you that tackling halfheartedly leads to injury, and going in 100 percent is self-preservation when playing against people so much larger than me.
The whistle blew for halftime, and my team gathered to regroup and strategize. On my way back from getting water, the opponent that almost pushed me over approached me and said out of the blue, “You can’t be both nice and cute.” Taken aback and pretty sure I had heard him wrong, I reply, “Yes, I can.” Still processing his statement, I listened mutely while he amended that maybe I’m not nice after all, with the way that I was pushing him in the first half. I’m not sure what happened next. Before I turned around and walked away from him, I may have sputtered something about him being 12 feet tall and me literally bouncing off of him when trying to tackle him during the game. Thinking back on it, there are so many things that I wish I had said. So I am going to say them now, to all the guys I play soccer with.
I don’t play soccer to find a man. I don’t want to flirt with you. I just want to have fun playing the sport that I love. Athletic culture is male-centric, and every time I step on the field with guys I feel like I don’t belong. Calling me diminutive words like “nice” and “cute” and flirting with me in this space tells me that I am just a nice, cute woman, not a fierce athlete and a worthy opponent or teammate. That said, there is an obvious physical difference between my stature and yours. In a pick-up or intramural game, there is no reason for you to overpower me just because you can. I want you to respect me and play against me like you would any other opponent who is smaller than you, without any extra force or flirting.
“I don’t play soccer to find a man. I don’t want to flirt with you. I just want to have fun playing the sport that I love.”
Toward the end of the game, we pushed extra attackers forward. They scored on the counterattack before we got a goal back, making the score three to two. Hoping to tie it up, I subbed in for the goalie to join in on the offense when we got the ball. The same opponent who flirted with me at halftime saw me in the goal and screamed to his team, “Everyone shoot!” clearly expecting me to fail. Angry, I made eye contact with him and asked, “Why, cause I’m a girl?” He didn’t reply. Until I made a save, that is, and he told me, “You got lucky.”
I don’t care that we lost the game. I care that coed sporting spaces are still so male-dominated, that just by being a woman I feel threatened every time I step onto the field. I hate that I have to prove that I belong in a game, when any man has that privilege by default, and that some call me “lucky” because they can’t admit that I am good. I wish that opponents would see me as an athlete, not as a woman and thus a sexual object. I am sad that my athletic female friends refuse to play coed sports because they expect injuries and disrespectful treatment.
I refuse to let these barriers keep me from playing the sport that I love. If I think about them too much, I can’t enjoy myself, so I usually ignore the unequal treatment and focus on having fun. But sometimes, like that night, my joy in the game is overpowered by anger and pain. So I ask you, on the soccer field, to treat me like you would anyone else. Because I can be nice and powerful, cute and skilled, a woman and an athlete. I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise.