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How Abby Wambach made me change the way I loved soccer

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On Abby Wambach and the hall of fame: when you’re an icon and a human being at the same time

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Hall of Fame inductee Abby Wambach former member of USA team... Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Abby Wambach is joining the National Soccer Hall of Fame. If asked about it 10 years ago, I would have given my unabashed approval, complete with emphatically ticking off her long list of achievements on my fingers. Today, there is still no doubt that Wambach belongs in the hall of fame based on her work on the field and the way she helped push the USWNT into the limelight. But my feelings about Wambach have gotten more complex over time, colored by learning more about her, with a dash of never-meet-your-heroes.

Wambach is someone who’s been on my mind as her hall of fame induction approaches, along with the current discussion of “cancel culture,” or as some of us like to call it, asking that people who make mistakes or do bad things face consequences. When I was younger, and more prone to immediate and unflinching defense of the things I liked, I saw things as more binary. Either someone was worthy of having fans or they weren’t. Either they were good or they were bad. And as an extension of this on/off state of mind, I sometimes had to do some mental gymnastics to justify to myself why I could continue being a fan of someone despite knowing negative things about them. Fandom can be a deeply emotional place, where people find community and an outlet for their expression, but also where they conflate what they like with who they are as people.

To a certain extent, what you like does have something to say about your personality. If you like, for example, a comedian who says racist and homophobic things, then it’s probably justifiable for people infer certain things about what you’re willing to tolerate. But that’s also what makes getting too entrenched as a fan dangerous - if what you like says something about who you are, then what does it mean if what you like is bad, or offensive, or even just unappealing to other people? Sometimes fans take criticism of their fandom personally, whether they should or not, and so when you learn your favorite has done something wrong, like getting a DUI, the temptation is there to try and justify away why it’s not so bad or why it’s acceptable in this particular instance. You’re not a bad person, so you wouldn’t like bad things, and so the thing you like has to be good.

The DUI example is pertinent; if you read Wambach’s autobiography, she went into unsparing detail about the darker days of her life, when she had a pill addiction and problems with alcohol. Possibly one of the darkest parts of the book is when she describes Sydney Leroux receiving a text message about her, and Leroux admitting that her first thought was she was being notified Wambach had overdosed; likewise, in one of her least impressive moments, Wambach received a DUI in 2016. By then I had come quite a ways from my early days of happily sitting at her altar, soured by the way she seemed to be overstaying her career with the WNT and her xenophobic comments about dual nationals (dubbed “foreign guys” by Wambach) in 2015, comments which she has never directly apologized for despite being given the opportunity to do so.

At the same time, I believe there should be room for people to learn and grow. Some things are worth immediate and irrevocable cancellation - committing sexual assault, for example - but there has to be space for people to make mistakes, own them, do their best to make up for them, and be better people. There’s a middle ground between stan-for-life and dead-to-me, where people can exist as who they are, no more, no less.

This is complicated when we talk about celebrities, and in Abby’s particular case, someone who is often held up and holds herself up as a role model. There’s certainly stricter confines around accountability and responsibility when someone takes on a mantle - and if Wambach is going to be selling a book about women embracing and expressing their power, she has certainly taken on a mantle - but the idea that once you become a public figure, you lose all of the comforts afforded a human being is part of the problem of turning people into icons in the first place. There are parts of Wambach that I like, and parts that I think are still, as the kids are saying these days, problematic, and I think as the years pass by, it’s easier to reconcile that all these things can exist inside one person. I can say that Wambach’s career accomplishments make her a shoe-in for the soccer hall of fame, but that there are things about her that are rather unsavory. People who like Wambach aren’t better or worse than people who don’t like her, based solely on that criterion.

This isn’t an argument that achievements on the field somehow balance out the bad things a player does in their life. And to reiterate, there are some things that you can’t just say are part of the good and bad inherent to everyone so live and let live, because those things are heinous enough that they should follow you for the rest of your life, or are so damaging that the need to protect vulnerable people from repugnant behavior warrants severe consequences for that behavior. But it is an attempt to unravel the history of how I’ve engaged with being a fan, and how that is constantly shifting.

Personally, Wambach’s lack of apology on the record for her xenophobic comments has made me wary of her when she talks about intersectionality in her new role as a Wolfpack ambassador, but I want to hope that she can hear criticism about that issue, digest it, and change. I don’t know if that means my relationship with soccer fandom is maturing, or if I just don’t have the same mental energy I once did. I do think the ways in which I approach loving the game and appreciating the players has changed, and I’ve become a little more wary of going all-in emotionally. I have an easier time letting go of the picture I have in my head of who players are to account for new information. I hope that it helps me keep learning, and keep questioning myself and my motives and how I shape narratives, and I hope it continues to improve the soccer coverage here at AfXI.

As for Abby Wambach and the hall of fame, perhaps the best thing she did on the field was score goals for her country, and the best thing she did off of it was teach us not to get so invested in our heroes that we lose sight of what’s really important.