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Malherbe ’26: Women’s sports faces problems beyond building viewership

Content warning: This column describes instances of sexual assault

How much do you know about soccer? Depending on who you are, the answer will vary wildly, but I imagine a considerable number of people would say “a lot!” What if I asked how much you know about women’s soccer? The number of answers might decrease significantly. It may not come as a surprise that women’s sports get less attention in popular culture. However, I raise these questions because women’s soccer recently became a hot topic in global news in a way it rarely gets to be, but the reason stems from issues that might not be as well known.

If you aren’t aware, after the Spanish women’s soccer team won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in August, the President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales, grabbed and kissed star Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso on her mouth without her consent on live television. This prompted widespread criticism and calls for Rubiales to resign, as well as investigations into other allegations of misogyny and assault against him and the team’s head coach, Jorge Vilda. You would assume that this might cause Rubiales to immediately be removed from his position, right? Wrong. Rubiales not only refused to resign, but the federation as a whole accused Hermoso of lying about all her claims and threatened to take legal action against her. It took boycotting and criticism from players across the world, including from male players, as well as intervention from the Spanish government, before Rubiales finally resigned, with Vilda fired shortly after. It’s scary to think that if this hadn’t become such a big story, if the incident wasn’t televised live, that the federation would’ve simply stuck to siding with Rubiales and had Hermoso punished for calling him out on his behavior. It has also shed light on the deeper issue here: Women’s sports are not only neglected, but also a breeding ground for the exploitation and degradation of the women involved.

This incident was not isolated. There are countless stories of female athletes facing astonishing misogyny. Other Spanish soccer team members have since come out about the “many decades (of) systematic discrimination” that preceded the incident, with reports that the federation was threatening to fine them up to €30,000 or even ban them from playing for their clubs to force them out of their recent boycott. Beyond the Spanish team, two dozen members of the Venezuelan national women’s soccer team accused their former coach of sexual abuse. The Zambian women’s soccer team head coach has also been accused of sexual misconduct, particularly pressuring players to have sex with him to stay on the team. A former defender for the English women’s team described how a coach “scored all the players out of 10 on their looks”. And a Swedish goalkeeper described similar non-consensual behavior around her body, while also pointing out the discrepancy in resources offered to men’s versus women’s teams. 

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Even beyond the interior workings of these women’s teams, misogyny runs rampant in the culture around both women’s sports. The media’s general treatment of women’s sports can also be shocking, exemplified by an incident earlier this year when a BBC reporter asked the Moroccan women’s team captain if her teammates were gay at a public news conference, even while acknowledging that homosexuality is illegal in Morocco. Even here at Brown, where our women’s soccer and volleyball teams have emerged as perennial contenders in the Ivy League and beyond, the men’s football game against Harvard is still by far the most notable sporting event of the year. 

So, why is this happening? Well, besides the obvious answer of societal misogyny in general, a clear theme is the dominance of men in these spaces. Besides a lack of interest and viewership in women’s sports, there is also a distinct lack of diversity in the leadership of women’s teams. A staggering 20 of the 32 teams at the Women’s World Cup were coached by men, and yet this still represented a “significantly higher proportion” of female coaches than in “most other sports”. This is true both amongst the adult professional teams and the elite youth clubs. More than 85% of the top executives of Elite Club National League (which the Washington Post describes as “the pinnacle of girls’ soccer in the United States”) are men. These statistics are alarming. While there doesn’t necessarily have to be a gendered aspect to coaching a sport like soccer, the disproportionate gender divide in leadership means that the women and young girls entering these sports are entering male-dominated spaces.

Of course, women in leadership positions can perpetuate misogyny too, and in the case of the Spanish team it was a female coach who called up the players so they’d end their boycott. The notion of girlboss feminism has become something of a meme in recent years, but the ideas of women being complicit in exploitative systems is very much a reality. Replacing the men in these leadership positions wouldn’t cure the industry of all misogyny. However, it should at the very least cause the overwhelming cases of sexual assault to decrease. That said, there is more we can do as individuals too.

As we’ve seen with the Rubiales case, major media attention not only made the case an exception, but also potentially led to its relatively happy ending. But the Zambian case is still unresolved, with the accused head coach still happily sitting in his position. I don’t doubt that a partial reason for this is a lack of the attention and public outcry that the Rubiales case received. As I said, the Spanish federation was set on sticking by Rubiales and punishing Hermoso until, suddenly, they weren’t — in part because they received enough public backlash to embarrass them into making him resign. If all women’s sports got the amount of support and attention as the Spanish women’s soccer team received recently, this might cause an even bigger move towards a healthy culture than silent changes in leadership would.

This brings me back to Brown. As much as it may seem like a mere matter of principles to support our women’s teams as much as our male ones, I think these examples prove that it has the power to do a lot more. There is a clear culture of misogyny surrounding sports in general that we are all responsible for dispelling, and one of the best (and easiest) ways to do that would be to support the incredible women athletes at Brown. Our very own women’s soccer team claimed their third Ivy League title in a row last year, something that has only been done three times before in the league’s history. I’d say that calls for a lot more support and attention than a football team that has lost 13 games in a row against Harvard

Paulie Malherbe ’26 can be reached at paulie_malherbe@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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