by Maggie Mertens, contributing columnist
Last Sunday’s OL Reign game ended in a 2-1 win against rivals the Portland Thorns. The match was significant for a few reasons. It was the first match the Reign had won against the Thorns in four meetings. It also ended an 11-game win streak for Portland, handed them their first loss at Providence Park in 602 days, and marked the first OL Reign win of the 2021 regular season.
But perhaps most importantly, it featured something we don’t see nearly enough of in women’s sports: epic trash talk.
U.S. Women’s National Team superstar Megan Rapinoe blew kisses and flashed her broad grin to jeering Portland fans after she scored on a gorgeously arching free kick 10 minutes into the game.
After the ball bounced into the left side of the net behind goalkeeper Adrianna Franch’s reach, Rapinoe headed to the end of the field where the Riveters — the Thorns’ raucous and passionate supporters — were assembled. Even at 15% capacity, the Riveters had made themselves known, which felt a bit like a return to normal after a pandemic-shortened season played to empty seats in 2020. And Rapinoe leaned into the moment. The louder fans booed her taunts, the happier she was.
“Obviously the Thorns fans need no introduction, they’re incredible. They have one big problem, though: it’s that they love me, so it’s really difficult for them to cheer against me,” Rapinoe said in a post game press conference. “So when I scored, I had to go right over and really talk my shit. They didn’t know what to do and then finally someone gave me a big double middle fingers up and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ That’s the kind of rivalry that we want.”
And this trash talk was a breakthrough. I’ve reported on women’s leagues for years and often hear concerns that women’s teams don’t inspire the same level of fan intensity. Trash talking, swagger, and rivalries are the lifeblood of fan fervor. But for too long, double standards of player etiquette have kept women athletes from their full, boastful potential.
It’s no secret that women athletes are paid less and receive far less investment, media attention, and sponsorship deals. The few who do break through usually fit a tidy narrative as straight, white wives and mothers. In other words, women who society likes to lift up for being good “role models” rather than celebrate for their playing prowess or competitive nature.
This leads to a kind of sanitized portrayal of women athletes and women’s sports teams. And fans are often thought of as den mothers monitoring for bad behavior. They must all be friends! You can’t dislike a rival team when they’re all women athletes too! We’re all just here to have fun!
These ideas are not just false, they echo larger sexist tropes emphasizing female composure and likeability while also serving to make the whole enterprise seem, well, kind of boring.
Nevermind that the behavior of infamous male athlete trash talkers, like Gary Payton, John McEnroe, Richard Sherman, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (to name a few) have never kept them from signing huge contracts and endorsement deals. Or that you turn on any men’s game and see them getting in the faces of their opponents, or the referees, or gloating to fans at away games, with nary a negative comment from the media. We understand that, for men, this kind of behavior is a part of the game. But we’ve held women athletes to a different standard of propriety for so long that it’s affected the growth potential of women’s sports.
Or consider how women athletes are covered by the media — when they are covered at all. A recent study showed that in 2019, women athletes were covered on television news and highlight shows, including ESPN’s SportsCenter, just 5.4% of the time. This is up, but only barely, from the 5% of airtime women athletes received from the same programs in 1989 — thirty years prior. The same study showed that while women athletes were often sexualized or outright joked about when the study began in the 1980s and 1990s, by the 2000s they were mostly presented as glossy, idealized role models. And their status as wives, mothers or girlfriends was often the focus of the coverage, not their competitive athleticism.
Though overall respect for the athletes has improved today, Cheryl Cooky, one of the study’s authors, told me recently that the problem now is that women’s sports are often framed as boring. “There are these patterns in coverage that … uphold the myth that women’s sports aren’t as exciting or interesting or that women athletes aren’t as talented, gifted, competent, or dominant as men,” she said. “That sort of dull and bland and matter-of-fact coverage conveys and communicates to viewers that women’s sports are boring.”
This is why Rapinoe’s trash talk in Portland is so remarkable. The Cascadia rivalry has been traditionally one of the hottest ones in women’s sports. With the pandemic (and maybe a cross-team appreciation for national team stars, as Rapinoe has alluded), it has cooled in recent years. But Rapinoe was ready to fan the flames again in her post-game comments last week. “You know, Thorns are always assholes. Everyone hates them, right? That’s the general vibe.” She said, “They’re always good. They’ve got the best stadium, they’ve got the best fans. You know, they always have incredible talent on the field. So everybody’s always going for you …”
Rapinoe — who has shown that being her own feisty, competitive, and out self can be just as marketable as the perfect role model female athletes of yore — knows drama sells.
So here she is doing her part to amp it up on the NWSL field, pushing the limits of what it means to be a woman athlete and forcing new narratives onto the game that sports media can’t help but cover.
“I love all the shit-talking. I hope all the social media managers are going wild on every team … I always think it’s fun, all the little side narratives and sideshow[s],” she added. “That’s kind of what keeps all the fans entertained and I think will kind of take us to the next level as this league continues to grow.”
Let that be a reminder to all the sports media still framing these women as boring: The intense, competitive, dramatic storylines are right here for the taking.
Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
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