The US exit from the Olympics took many people by surprise, and incited more than a few social media firestorms. There were complaints about coaching decisions, arguments about Hope Solo’s comments, and quite a bit of general consternation about the state of US tactics and style.
But the loss also inspired something wonderful, a moment of genuine human compassion which showed off everything that’s good about sports fandom in an age of social media. I’m talking, of course, about #DogsForChristen.
It started off here:
Before long, similar posts were flooding in, with the hashtag briefly trending in a number of US cities.
We’re so used to hearing invective, harsh words, attacks. Fans love players who are performing, and shower them with insults as soon as things turn sour. And in a media landscape that prioritizes the shocking, it’s all the worst comments that rise to the top. But against all that, we get #DogsForChristen.
There’s nothing particularly complicated here. Press loves dogs. US Soccer fans love Press, and wanted to show her that they’re still on her side. And there’s almost literally no better way to communicate earnest care than with dogs. Your dog doesn’t care if you missed a penalty or had a bad day or work or anything else; she’s there for you no matter what.
The point of these tweets isn’t to drown out the rest of the conversation. We can and should talk about the tactics and the coaching decisions and everything else. But players aren’t just their image, and they aren’t just their performance. And that’s something that’s all too easy to lose track of. So in those conversations, we should also remember that everyone involved, on both sides of the screen, is a human being—no less and no more.
The perils of intimacy
That’s actually more complicated than it might seem, because fandom is often performed on a weird knife’s edge of false intimacy. As long as there have been sports, fans have convinced themselves that their favorite stars loved them back, only to feel betrayed when they refused to sign an autograph at a restaurant, or left for a new city as a free agent. But in the age of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook there are infinitely more vectors for those feelings to travel down. When a player is only a few taps of the phone away, the sense of genuine personal connection is uncomfortably easy to cultivate. And while the negative consequences of this sort of faux intimacy can be overstated, it does sometimes veer toward the uncomfortable or even unpleasant (with harassment as the all-too-common endpoint).
But #DogsForChristen shows that it doesn’t need to be like that. There’s no aggrandizement in it, no expectation of reward, no grand gesture. It just says “I see your pain. I understand it, at least a little bit. And it’s valid. But there’s still a lot of reasons to smile, too.”
It’s quietly, delightfully, human.
But would we respond the same way to a man?
This is a fair question, and one that provokes some understandable uneasiness. Isn’t this a form of coddling, a kind of infantilization? Aren’t we doing Press a disservice to treat her as an object of sympathy rather than purely as an athlete?
The answer, emphatically, is no.
Fans of women’s sports often struggle against a media landscape that often treats women primarily as bundles of emotions and only secondarily as athletes. They are rightly sensitive to accusations that women can’t be ‘real’ athletes, or that fans of women’s sports aren’t ‘real’ fans. So there’s an understandable impulse to doubt anything which suggests that women’s sports might operate in different ways than men’s, because we’re all too familiar with the ways that ‘different’ inevitably becomes coded as inferior.
But one of the wonderful things about women’s sports communities is their thoughtfulness, their willingness to regard existing systems as malleable rather than fixed, and their commitment to taking the good parts of sports fandom without necessarily accepting all the bad parts.
Is Press being treated differently than a man in the same situation would be? Probably. But that’s a good thing! Because one of the worst element of many sports cultures is their tendency to reinscribe the worst forms of masculinity, the ones which mock the importance of self-care, which see all forms of weakness as humiliating, which regard any deviation from the norm as evidence of personal failure. Those negative tendencies are by no means universal to any fan culture, but they are especially muted in many women’s sports communities, filled as they are with people all too familiar with the toxic implications of those ideals. And that’s something we should celebrate, not something we should fear.
So yes, let’s retain our critical faculties. And let’s make sure to not let stories like this be the only way that people think about women in sports. But we also shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our frailties. #DogsForChristen absolutely doesn’t imply that Press is deficient. It simply acknowledges the sense of hurt that comes from a tough loss, and offers a little bit of warmth on a cold day. It’s a tiny sliver of human generosity, a demonstration that we are all each other’s keepers. The American sports landscape needs more stuff like this, not less.