Open Net: Sports culture is for everyone
HELEN AIKENHEAD // FEATURES EDITOR
I have a very clear memory of when I first read the announcement that my favourite hockey player, Charline Labonté, had retired late last September. It hit me hard that I wouldn’t see her play any more games with Les Canadiennes or see her win a fifth gold medal representing team Canada at the upcoming Olympics. Although I was upset in the moment, it also reminded me how remarkable it is, and how grateful I am, to have witnessed a career like hers. Labonté played a huge role in solidifying my appreciation for hockey, and I’ll forever consider her as one of my all-time favourite athletes.
The weight of that announcement felt to me like something significant, so it came as a bit of a blow when the reaction from the friend I entrusted with how I felt about it was “Oh, I didn’t think you really liked hockey.” The thing is, I love it, but it’s reactions like that that keep me pretty quiet about my interest. More often than not, those reactions are followed by an onslaught of interrogative questions that feel like some sort of trivia night that you didn’t sign up for and that never ends.
There is no one-way to be a sports fan. But in my experience, there is only one accepted way to be a female sports fan. It seems to me that for you to be taken seriously you need to be involved in several fantasy leagues, defy the laws of time and space to watch every single game that’s ever aired, and be able to recite all of your favourite players’ stats by heart.
I’m not saying that all women who enjoy sports have had the same experience or that some women don’t love the statistical aspect. I’m also not insinuating that it’s only men who react this way, or that men and women are the only people involved in discussions of sport. I can only say what I’ve experienced, and that is a burden of expertise being a prerequisite in proving yourself as a sports fan. This is different from friendly discussions about your favourite teams or asking if you caught the last game, this is the palpable sense of being tested and having to prove yourself. No friendly question has ever started with “Oh yeah? Well…”
For me, what I love most about sports has never been found in the stats alone, but in the culture that surrounds them. In both their platform for political conversation and the community they build, sports provide some of the most poignant looks into our society. So when your love of a game is tested, or rather, reduced to one small part of this multi-faceted universe of culture, it can be pretty damn frustrating.
I read recently that sports have such deep-seated roots in militarism and nationalism – two historically male-centred constructs – and that this is where the idea of sports being a man’s world came from. And now, such a long history has made it difficult for the idea of sport and gender to be separated. If that’s the case, then I can only assume that somewhere among the mess of toxic messages thrown at young boys and men is the message that they need to preserve the exclusivity of sport.
These androcentric roots are everywhere in sport. Using a modifier to say “women’s hockey,” whereas men’s divisions are generally just referred to as hockey is just one example and perhaps the most obvious. To some, that may seem small, but really, it comes loaded with the historical context of insinuated inferiority. When I first started paying more attention to hockey through a cultural lens rather than just one of athleticism, that’s when I really fell for it. It was as if everything I loved about sport culture had been put into this one beautiful game and exemplified. There is such a rich background to the development of professional women’s leagues that continue today. Up until last year, the women playing in the CWHL weren’t even paid, they truly just love the game. Now that they are paid, many of them still need other jobs to supplement that pay – an idea unheard of in a league like the NHL – because the sports industry still places such disproportionate value into men’s hockey.
We’re going through a considerably political period, I don’t need to tell you that. I also don’t need to tell you that sports have, throughout history, been a part of other periods such as this, and played their roles then too. Yet, now more than ever, I really do believe that something has shifted that’s allowed for sports to be taken seriously as vessels for productive social commentary.
In an Olympic year, it’s even more exciting. Sports culture is amplified to unparalleled levels while everyone gets in the spirit of cheering on their favourite athletes. There’s always a game or event to watch, and media dedicates more time to the conversations rising out of sport culture. And usually, there’s a bit of a time-out on the interrogations in proving you’re a sports fan. The national team is getting settled in PyeongChang this week and I’m getting ready to cheer them on. And although this year it won’t be Labonté guarding the net, I know there’s still so much to look forward to. Because in the world of sports, there always is.