They say you play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.
This is especially true during the World Cup when the world’s greatest players exchange their club symbols for the crest of their home countries. The streets of Lyon, France last summer were coloured in these crests and their matching flags. I, myself, bought a US jersey for this event.
Growing up, I had two role models: Carla Overbeck and Julie Foudy. The former, a defender and the latter, a midfielder. Both had worn the captain band. They were crucial parts of the US national team. They were my inspiration. I’d spend time cutting letters and hot-glueing them to the backs of jerseys to dress up as my favourite players for Purim. They were names I was proud to wear, even though most, if not all, my friends didn’t know who they were.
Which is why I found myself drawn to the names on the back of jerseys in Lyon. Who did these fans find inspirational? Which players were they as proud to wear on their back as the crest proudly worn on the front?
I saw Morgan, Le Sommer, Sinclair, Lloyd and so many others. But as I was looking, I became intrigued not by the names themselves but rather by who was wearing them. The first man I saw wearing an (Alex) Morgan jersey made me smile. The boy wearing (Lindsay) Horan on his back was cute. But then I kept seeing more and more men and boys wearing female players’ names. Imagine 6’3” (1.90 m) men with tattoo sleeves and ponytails wearing these shirts. They were definitely not women’s sizes which made it obvious that they had specifically bought the shirts for themselves to wear. They weren’t borrowing it from their wives or friends for this one-time event. They took pride in the name on the front, surely, but they also admired the names on the back.
Why did I find this intriguing?
Well, probably because I’d gotten used to the use of the term “female athletes.” This term seems to imply that a female athlete is different from a male athlete (who, by the way, gets called just “athlete”). But, this term also seems to add a level of exclusivity – as if her being female, means she can only inspire other females, athletes or otherwise.
But at the Women’s World Cup, and any sporting event really, they are athletes, not specifically female athletes. They represent our countries and yes, we want them to play for the name on the front, but, what I saw in Lyon, is that anyone can find inspiration from the name on the back. For me growing up, it was important to see female athletes – to know women’s soccer exists. It was empowering, as I think it is still today. But it can also be empowering for young boys. Even for men. This was an international sporting event where the athletes happened to all be female. But they were and will continue to be an inspiration: as athletes in top physical form, as team members performing as a unit, and as mental masters who don’t crack under pressure. Each player brings her own set of skills and approach to this setting, something that is translatable to our everyday life. Which is why we continue to buy jerseys with a name on the back.
You see, while this was exciting for me, seeing female athletes having their names worn by fans, it should be exciting for us all. It’s not something we see every day and I can assure you there are still those out there who refuse to drop the “female” in “female athletes.” In doing so, they’re missing out but so are we. When we open our eyes to see beyond gender, we find an even greater pool to choose from for inspiration and empowerment. We’re always looking for role models, no matter the field. When we find them, that’s when we’re eager and proudly wear their name, be they female or otherwise.