Women are rad. Female athletes are any number of superlatives but why do they always have to be trailblazers? Can’t we go one tournament without talk of inspiring a generation?
Before we start, it is worth noting that there are indeed players out there who are happy to be called trailblazers and hold the idea of being a role model in high regard because so many grew up without women’s football in the limelight and as such, without having (m)any female footballers to imitate or idolise. Even now, if you ask the majority of players about those they looked to growing up, they’ll list off male footballers - with some notable exceptions. Pro players know they’re being watched, not just by engrossed fans or those dreaming of their own professional careers but of those with half any eye on anything women’s sports, ready and eager to tear it apart.
Unquestionably, there are players who are inspiring, not just those who’ve had their hard luck stories to overcome to get to a point of thriving but even just players who ball the hell out. There are others who it’s hard not to be inspired by, like Kaiya McCullough and all of her activism, or those who’ve simply been victims of coaching abusive and come out to share their stories to see wrongs finally righted.
Across the spectrum of women’s sports, there are athletes who are simply, individually, inspiring; those at the top of their game like Iga Swiatek or Simone Biles who raise the bar for the whole sport, those who use their platforms to push for positive social change, or even just the queer athletes who are happy to live their authentic lives. It’s hard not to be inspired by athletes, male and female alike, but it’s the painting of entire sports with the trailblazer or role model brush that strikes a hollow note, a disordinate chord.
Stop trying to make them an “inspiration” and just let them be footballers, it’s broken through to condescension by this point— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) June 15, 2022
Take the current England team who have all but been asked, not just to actively inspire a generation of girls to get into the sport but to change opinions and break through centuries of misogyny, to show boys that girls are just as good as them, and to show countless fathers of daughters that there’s nothing wrong with their little princesses playing football. They’re tasked to do this whilst still playing in a tournament, with all the added pressures of being the hosts, trying to justify the vast sums of money The FA has poured into the women’s game in England.
It’s a question asked, or an obligation forced on every female athlete, to defend their entire gender whilst playing the sport they love. Visibility remains key in so many areas, sometimes it’s just about being a black footballer or a queer basketball player on tv; just being there for all to see is all the inspiration needed. Sometimes a person can choose to use their platform and inspire as a by-product but it shouldn’t be the first goal, and it should never be foisted upon anyone, the weight of burden only increasing through gender and racial minorities.
By all means, be inspired by athletes because they’re world class or they’re out and proud or are trying to make a change in the world, but stop telling female athletes their job comes with the added role of being a role model or trailblazer.
Sometimes it’s just about kicking a damn ball.