I stood a few rows behind the goal in Vancouver this summer when Carli Lloyd scored her hat trick in the United States Women’s National Team 5-2 World Cup win over Japan. The crowd was large, loud and star-spangled. While the USA was dominant, Carli was transcendent. Her game, especially 20 minutes in the first half, was the greatest individual performance in USA team sports history. It will likely be the most incredible and memorable sporting achievement I will witness. Like many fans, I want a jersey with LLOYD across the back.
But I can’t have one. Jerseys for the women’s team are not sold to men.
The jerseys for the men’s and the women’s teams are similar, with one major difference. When a team wins the World Cup, a star is added above the team’s crest, forever. The current women’s jersey has three stars above the crest: one each for 1991, 1999 and 2015. The men’s, of course, has none. This summer, prior to the World Cup, the women’s jerseys in men’s sizes — then with two stars — were available for purchase. Subsequent to their victory, Nike announced that the three-star version would be available in a men’s cut as well. However, after selling out of the pre-order, these orders were canceled. (Nike has explained that it doesn’t sell men’s cuts of the women’s starred jerseys out of fear that it would be interpreted as a false claim that the men’s team won those stars through World Cup victories.)
Soccer fandom is about pageantry. What you choose to wear is as critical as playing drums, waving flags and singing chants. Selecting jerseys, which cost more than $100 apiece, requires careful deliberation. You make a statement by bearing a jersey with the name of an upstart player, an all-time great or a pun. Because they’re made from fitted sports material, jerseys are cut differently for men and women. Nike does offer a unisex T-shirt available with three stars on the front and the names of different women players on the back. But any soccer fan knows that these $25 T-shirts are nothing compared the real jerseys, the equivalent of having a commemorative World Series T-shirt shot out of a cannon when you really want a button-up Kansas City Royals Eric Hosmer uniform.
The unavailability of women’s team jerseys for men defies logic. At any women’s game, you see the familiar mix of hipsters and bros that have become a vibrant part of the MLS and men’s fandom. These men and boys, who made up 61 percent of the 13.5 million viewers who tuned in for the women’s 2011 World Cup final, are there to support a great soccer team, regardless of the sex of the players on the field. In a 6-0 victory in San Antonio last week, I saw that same mix of fans. None of the men, however, wore the jersey of the team that they were there to see.
Sports are fraught with gender equality issues that go far beyond my inability to procure a jersey. FIFA treats the women’s tournament different than the men’s, not least of which with the use of turf fields — loathed by players for an increased risk of injury — in Canada. The men get grass. Even U.S. Soccer does not require grass fields for the women; a few weeks ago, the players cancelled a game on their Victory Tour in Hawaii over an unsuitable turf field. Female soccer players also endure plenty of indignities from the sport’s governing body. FIFA President Sepp Blatter suggested in 2004 that women could “play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” and helpfully suggested “tighter shorts.” When the women were presented with the World Cup trophy, the dais was full of identical female models, like some sort of Robert Palmer video.
Nevertheless, there has been progress. Plenty of American men admire Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams and Katie Ledecky, not because they are “good for a girl,” but because they are brilliant athletes. The public still focuses more on a female athlete’s appearance or personal relationships than it does a typical male athlete, and a fan will not single-handedly desexualize culture, journalism or advertising. The best an individual fan can do is let his money talk by choosing what games to attend or apparel to wear. Nike should keep up.
In October, the Women’s National Team visited the White House for their World Cup win. A 13-year-old girl named Ayla introduced President Obama. She had written a letter to him during the World Cup, telling a story about her brother saying that boys were “so much better at soccer than girls.” In her letter, she wrote that it made her mad “that people do not treat girls equally.” The president agreed with and complimented Ayla, and gently poked fun at the girl’s brother, calling the moment “payback.” The team gave the president a jersey with “Obama 44” on the back.
I feel sorry for Ayla’s brother. In many ways, I was just like him as a kid. But boys with less-than-informed opinions about girls grow up. When they do, it should be easy to support whichever sports they like, men’s or women’s. In four years, Ayla, her brother and I should all be able to wear the jersey of the team we love as we watch our women’s team earn its fourth star.