The Thing at a Girls’ Soccer Match that Made Me Furious

Once a student of Mr. Hung’s, always a student of Mr. Hung’s, I tell my students. No matter how many years into the future, and no matter the reason, I want my students to know that they can always reach out to me – whether that’s just to say hi, to ask for advice about college majors, to review mathy stuff we talked about once upon a time, or to request a letter of recommendation, et cetera. College and young adulthood can be exciting times, but also discouraging ones, too, so it’s part of my commitment to my former students that if they ever want to talk about anything, even if it’s years or decades into the future, I’ll be here for them.

I also try to support my former students in their ongoing endeavors, an extension of trying to attend their games, performances, and exhibitions back when I was their teacher. A couple of days ago, I had the chance to see some of my former students at a soccer match because the game was being played at a site that was sort of on the way home from my current teaching job. It was a tense playoff game between two of the top girls’ soccer teams in Southern California, and though the end result for my former students was a very tough loss in a sudden death round of penalty kicks, I was still delighted to be there to cheer, clap, and chant for them, as well as to chat and catch up a bit after the game.

One thing at the game really, really disturbed me, though. That’s putting it mildly, actually. It made me soooooooo frickin’ mad. There were boys at the game supporting the opposing team by harassing, in inappropriate and even sexual terms, my former students’ team. If that weren’t horrendous enough, there were also adults nearby, even ones connected with the opposing school, who didn’t stop it.

Maybe these grown-ups didn’t notice the bad behavior. But it’s so basic – everyone who works for a school, regardless of whether they teach or coach or counsel or lead the entire staff, should step up and make sure that their students treat their opponents with class. I don’t give a flying fish that it’s not in their official job descriptions. It only takes a few seconds to walk over and tell students to cut it out and to show more respect. We who work in education must be committed not just to doing our contractual roles, but also to helping young people become quality human beings, even on unexpected occasions.

What happened to my former students’ team is actually a problem across the country. There doesn’t seem to be much statistical research to tell us how often high school girl athletes experience sexual harassment from fans in the bleachers. But anecdotally, there are stories everywhere.

One school in Vermont has been addressing the issue directly. A little more than a year ago, Hartford High School’s girls’ soccer team responded to a torrent of sexualized comments from opposing fans by walking off the pitch, led by their coaches. (It’s similar to what some professional European soccer teams have done when their Black or African players have encountered racist abuse from the stands.) The school’s boys’ team, student body, and the wider community rallied behind the girls, and the school put out this amazing statement (and please read it all the way to the end):

Hartford’s strong response to fan-based sexual harassment makes me think of how some schools spring into action when there is racist harassment at their games. Schools should respond to sexual harassment from the bleachers with the same energy as they would if it were racist harassment. Of course, I don’t mean in an identical way, but rather, in a similar way – with the same urgency and sustained focus.

I don’t have any new ideas as to how to solve the underlying big-picture issues of bro culture and toxic masculinity. But I do know that daughters in our society who compete athletically should be able to play without catcalls, objectification, and body-shaming. It’s up to us grown-ups to make sure our sports places are safe spaces. The girls deserve nothing less!