For every person praising Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympics to protect her mental and physical health, there’s a douche calling her a coward or a traitor. For every person who thanked Naomi Osaka for being open about her own mental health struggles, there was one calling her difficult or a drama queen. These two women, like every athlete, don’t owe you anything.
Fulfilling fan entitlement isn’t part of their job description
Across the sporting world, there are fans who, because they cheer for a player, team or athlete, think they are owed something by them. Maybe it’s a world class performance from Biles, or a selfie from Alex Morgan. The world in which fans get angry with women’s football players for not stopping to sign every autograph is the same in which one of the greatest athletes of all times [Biles] can be accused of being too mentally weak for competitive sport.
For those of us who watch sport, be it gymnastics, women’s football or anything and everything in between, there can be a sense that we deserve something from those we watch, especially if we’re paying for the pleasure. Footballers, like all athletes, stop being human and become creatures created for our own entertainment, we ignore their frailties and demand they continue to perform for us long after the whistle has gone.
Around England, come rain or shine, win or lose; fans will gather around the fences and hoardings that encase WSL pitches, gleefully thrusting programmes at exhausted players. Most of the stars of the league will do a full lap of the perimeter, signing every page until their wrists cramp, plastering a smile across their faces for each selfie. The women’s game is still in its professional infancy and the pageantry from the players is still very much expected but the competition on the pitch is growing and their lives have begun to rotate even faster around the sport.
These aren’t part-timers signing a few autographs and pausing for a handful of selfies after a match, these are professional athletes who might have just lost a crunch game. These are footballers who will want to wash the match off and switch to recovery mode as soon as they can. For many, there is still the willingness and enjoyment in engaging with fans after matches but the sense has shifted from something they get to do to something they have to do.
Boundaries are allowed and should be respected
It wasn’t so very long ago that I found myself at a match, patiently waiting for a popular player to finish her impromptu signing session so I could riffle through a quick post-match interview. The player in question forced to apologise in earnest to a fan who desperately wanted a memento: her boots. Blushing, she apologised. She didn’t have many pairs and with no sponsorship deal, couldn’t afford to give them away. A strange altercation that should have been a one-off, I knew it wasn’t, having walked past a pair of teenage girls talking about how they were going to ask a player for her shirt or gloves at a different match.
When we ask players to shrug off defeats and paint a fake smile across their lips for a selfie or all but try to undress them on the sidelines, we become no better than those who criticise Biles for prioritising her own wellbeing over our enjoyment or another medal for Team USA.
Be it Biles, Osaka, Morgan or Lucy Bronze, they are humans first and foremost with all the same frailties as the rest of us and they deserve no less respect than anyone else. They are individuals whose jobs put them in the public eye, but their autonomy is their own and no one owns them.
As women’s football continues to push into the professional sphere, the direct interactions fans have with players will inevitably be reduced and better policed by their clubs. And there are undoubtedly fans who will find that a hard pill to swallow but those who play the sport, whilst grateful for those who cheer them on, don’t owe you shit.