Last month, a story about a young girl pursuing her dreams in America caught the attention of the women’s football community, Megan Cleary looks at the consequences and reaction…
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Petite with short dark hair, Mili sat shyly next her older sister who was trying to explain to the local Nebraskan news station that they had tried to show the tournament organizers Mili’s insurance card.
Her team, the Omaha Azzuri Cachorros, had made it into the finals, in large part thanks to Mili. Yet, despite the legal evidence of her gender the eight year old along with her entire team was disqualified right before the championship game because Mili looked too much like a boy.
While her insurance card stated clearly that Mili was a female, the Springfield Soccer Club tournament organizers refused to reevaluate their decision.
The immediate aftermath was a mixture of confusion and anger from local clubs to big name athletes. Mili herself was frustrated to tears.
During a local interview she made it clear, “Just because I look like a boy doesn’t mean I am a boy”. Within days of the news breaking International soccer star Mia Hamm had invited her personally to join her soccer camp.
Encouraging messages poured in from other big name stars and news anchors and sports hosts expressed their outrage. Yet the fact remains that in June of 2017, a little girl who could prove she was female was disqualified on the grounds that she didn’t look female enough.
The tournament passed and her club never had the chance to take home the title, but the incident did lead the Nebraska State Soccer Association to release the following statement:
“While Nebraska State Soccer did not oversee the Springfield Tournament, we recognize that our core values were simply not present this past weekend at this tournament and we apologize to this young girl, her family and her soccer club for this unfortunate misunderstanding.
“We believe that this needs to be a learning moment for everyone involved with soccer in our state and are working directly with our clubs and tournament officials to ensure that this does not happen again.”
This particular incident is a perfect illustration of the state of soccer and acceptance in the United States.
Although officially a strong stance against discrimination and intolerance is taken, immediate official follow through on any of those incidents to correct errors and make things right is difficult, if not completely rare.
A more recent example of this would be The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) who completely ignored their own policies on how to deal with racist or discriminatory behavior during the July 9th match between Mexico and El Salvador.
Throughout the match, fans supporting the Mexican National Team began to blatantly use the controversial puto chant. The term puto basically translates to male prostitute, but is often used the same way that gay was popularly used to mean something “stupid”. It is widely considered a homophobic term, meant to mock and belittle its target.
According to CONCACAF’s own protocol for disparaging slurs several things should have happened to discourage fans from using the term. The first three steps, clearly written in their policy, include the public being asked to stop the offensive language.
If the language persisted the referee had the authority to suspend the game until the public stopped the chant. If it continued the referee is supposed to suspend the match all together. As tough as the protocol sounds, it’s almost impossible to follow.
Suspending or even delaying a match is costly. Beyond sponsors and paying stadium workers, getting fans re-ticketed and finding a new date that works for both teams is a tall task.
The protocol itself is so unlikely to be followed it’s almost impressive it was put into print. While the Mexican National Team has been fined over eight times for their fans use of puto, it has not deterred its use, partially because fans themselves are not paying the fine.
Without accountability, or a true threat of accountability, it becomes easy for intolerance to persist in sports.
Yet, while intolerance is still very much present in American soccer (across the continent), the steps that have been taken to promote acceptance are worthy of recognition.
In an effort to highlight the struggles of LGBT athletes, US Soccer notably changed their uniforms to sport a rainbow in celebration of Pride Month.
They worked in association with the You Can Play Project, an organization that seeks, “to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.”
The uniforms received high praise; however, it didn’t take long for some controversy to surround the decision. One of the more notable moments came when Jaelene Hinkle, current defender for the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL, set off a firestorm by withdrawing from the United States Women’s Soccer Team roster for “personal reasons”.
It was widely believed that Hinkle, a self-identified Christian, withdrew because of US Soccer’s uniforms celebrating Pride Month. Hinkle’s statements on Twitter relating to gay rights have always appeared to show a lack of support, with her pinned tweet being a quote that expresses a lack of interest in what others think of her views with her own words “unashamed” at the bottom.
Yet she has always walked the line in her personal comments, almost reluctant to directly state what she believes about the LGBT community. In the end it simply will never be clear why she didn’t play unless she chooses to clarify. However, the fact that US Soccer went on without her makes its own statement.
Along with US Soccer, the American Outlaws, the official fan club of both the US Women’s and Men’s National Soccer Teams, have expressed their support of the June uniforms as well as eliminating derogatory language and actions from the fan side of the equation.
Kellen Christensen, president of the Portland chapter of American Outlaws (AO PDX) directly commented on the controversy surrounding Hinkle stating, “I respect that she has the right to withdraw from the roster. That being said, American Outlaws has an ethos of inclusiveness; should her decision to withdraw truly be based upon US Soccer’s celebration of Pride Month, it greatly disappoints me.”
In general, more fans, athletes and organizations have come to surround and support the idea of acceptance rather than intolerance, and that is an impactful message. Reaction to the uniforms included those who had been personally affected by the lack of tolerance towards LGBT athletes in the past.
One fan posted a picture of the US Men’s team walking out in their uniforms saying, “I hid in the closet all 12 years I played. Young athletes all over the USA will see this and know it’s ok to be themselves. This matters.”
Intolerance is still a large part of our everyday existence in the US, yet the tide is changing. Twelve years ago rainbows would not be seen on professional team jerseys in support of the LGBT community.
Twelve years ago, Mili’s story may have never gotten out. Twelve years ago athletes could not openly be themselves. While not everyone agrees and they are certainly not perfect, US Soccer is taking the steps to be a positive part of that change by trying to put acceptance and tolerance at the forefront of their agenda.
You can follow Megan on Twitter at @mcmbegs