Sometime during the run-up to the 1996 Presidential election, a Republican political advisor named Alex Castellanos told a reporter from the Washington Post that incumbent Bill Clinton was going after a newly identified demographic of American voters called “soccer moms.” Middle-class, suburban, and constantly on the go in her loaded Dodge Caravan, the Soccer Mom represented a burgeoning group of swing voters key to the outcome of the election. Soccer Moms were family-first, possibly affluent, generally moderate, not necessarily assured of voting lockstep with their husbands, and therefore totally up for grabs. In other words, Soccer Moms were America’s political future.
The ‘96 election set in motion a series of events that culminates with this writing. After more than 15 years and the loss of countless hairs while watching the good name of soccer being dragged through the mud as part of a phrase that sums up everything soccer isn’t supposed to be, I’ve been compelled to lash out against this ruinous phrase.
I detest the Soccer Mom.
No, that’s not right. I detest the phrase “Soccer Mom.” I hate what the phrase “Soccer Mom” has come to imply. I hate the careless willy-nilly usage of it. I hate the laziness inherent in its application. I hate the idea that in the United States of America, the phrase “soccer mom” has been appropriated to mean (almost exclusively) white, middle-to-upper class, suburban women with children who may or not play soccer. I hate that the phrase paints with broad strokes an entire group while simultaneously leaving out multiple millions of mothers with soccer-playing children who don’t meet the very narrow definition concocted by a few political strategists. Why should that subset of a subset be the only women graced with the title “Soccer Mom”?
More than anything, I rue that the the aspect of suburban life used to identify the demographic is soccer. Not because I don’t like that there’s a group of women marked by their connection to the sport, even though not all of the women so haphazardly labelled “Soccer Mom” are actually, in fact, soccer moms, but because the phrase, by virtue of who it has come to mean, embodies so much of what’s wrong with soccer’s place in American culture.
The Soccer Mom, as she is portrayed, is a mythical creature concocted by political operatives and subsequently co-opted by pop culture. Soccer moms, without the political or demographic overtones, are not universally anything save for moms who have kids who play soccer. Actual soccer moms don’t even have to drive their kids to practice to qualify as soccer moms. They certainly don’t have to be white, affluent, live in the suburbs, or represent a specific type of American woman.
Back in 1996, no one was really sure what a Soccer Mom was, at least in the context meant by Castellanos. Stripped of all socioeconomic trappings, the phrase is self-explanatory. But in the arena of American politics, there was significant disagreement over just what constituted the fabled Soccer Mom demographic. Were Soccer Moms affluent housewives with time to spare and a laser focus on kids and family? Were they working moms shuttling kids to and from soccer practice while juggling a job and stretching every family dollar? Or were they something in between, both professional and domestic?
Jacob Weisberg addressed the problem of the the Soccer Mom label for Slate in October of ‘96, just before the election and when Soccer Mom fever was at its height. First, the issues with pinning down just what a Soccer Mom was all about.
Who exactly, we must ask, are these soccer moms who hold the nation’s fate in their hands? “They can be found,’” a CNN correspondent informs us, “shuttling the kids to practice in minivans, nervously pacing the sidelines, juggling the demands of family and career.” Well naturally, but what sort of women take their kids to soccer practice? According to one South Carolina paper, soccer mom is “a well-heeled super-parent whose primary mission in life is to do too much for her children. She got on a waiting list early for the right day-care center, sent junior to Montessori, started violin lessons at 5, private school the same year and, the next year—soccer.” According to the Rocky Mountain News, however, soccer mom is “financially stressed.” Opinion is similarly divided on her employment status. In the view of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, soccer mom is a career woman who has “temporarily taken up child rearing.” According to the Buffalo News, however, she is “balancing the demands of work and family.” The consensus seems to be that soccer moms are some subset of middle-class, white suburban women. They “care about their kids” (as opposed, presumably, to urban “rap moms” who do not), and they are incredibly busy. If you can’t find a soccer mom for your story, don’t worry. Part of the shtick is that she hasn’t got time to talk to reporters.”
Weisberg was writing from a political perspective on the application of the label, but the size of the supposed key demographic presages the problems with the later creep of the phrase into popular culture. Now that — 15 years later — “Soccer Mom” has fully transitioned from a name for a specific voting bloc to mainstream label for any white, un-hip, suburban mother, the disproportionate impact it has had on the image of soccer is a gut-shot to those of us who know the sport is much more than carpools and orange slices (and wishes more of America would wake up to that fact).
Narrowly defined as married, college-educated, suburban women with school-age children, soccer moms constitute only 4 percent or 5 percent of the electorate. Broadly defined as suburban white women with school-age kids, they add up to 11 percent or 12 percent. But then, as Hickman points out, that 12 percent covers both working-class women who live in two-bedroom ramblers and professionals in Westchester County with inherited wealth. As voters, these women have little in common from election to election.
It was a cruel stroke of fate that the rise of Soccer Moms, as small a group as they proved to be, came just as professional soccer in the United States was getting a fresh start with the launch of MLS. It can’t be a coincidence that Major League Soccer wasted so many years marketing almost exclusively to families, and specifically to Soccer Moms (the presumed gatekeeper of the entertainment dollar), just as the nation became enraptured with the possibility that these women would determine the outcome of a presidential election. Pro soccer was already behind the eight ball thanks to the lily-white image of the game (an image earned honestly over two decades of soccer’s failure to catch on anywhere but suburbia). Falling into the trap of selling the sport counter to the its intrinsic nature as a game of passion and commitment set the American league back by as much as a generation.
Without the Soccer Mom craze of ‘96, MLS might have corrected its course much sooner. If it weren’t for Soccer Moms, or more accurately the attachment of soccer to their image, who knows where MLS might be. Bigger than NASCAR, I bet. Definitely bigger than NASCAR.
In 2012, “soccer mom” gets attached to stories about 40-something suburbanite women running brothels in New York, and counts as an archetype into which the knocked-up member of the Jersey Shore cast should fit perfectly. The phrase is a catch-all that only involves soccer tangentially; mostly it’s about the placid, affluent, prosaic existence white women in the suburbs—if we believe what media tell us—can’t help but live. The madam running the brothel is labelled a “Soccer Mom” in headlines because the phrase is code for “boring, family-focused, and middle-class.” It makes the story that much more shocking. Taking her kids to soccer practice and running a brothel? Gasp!
Even the English transfer the phrase without the usual translation of the word “soccer” into “football” because “soccer mom” is idiomatic. A Soccer Mom might be a soccer mom, technically just a mother with soccer-playing kids, but she’s also a certain type of American woman. The phrase conveys that message even to a non-American readership.
Like so many other women throughout history, Soccer Moms are relieved of their individuality en masse and without consultation. The media defines them by their kids and by their kids’ activities, around which their lives supposedly orbit. Soccer Mom therefore isn’t a descriptor, it’s a borderline insult. It’s marginalization through labeling. It implies groupthink.
From a soccer perspective, there’s not much that sums up the sport’s image problem in America better than the phrase “Soccer Mom.” It’s is loaded with connotations that run directly counter to soccer’s natural populist character. It fully expresses — because the perceived affluence of a Soccer Mom has apparently settled in the upper-middle-class range, judging by contemporary media usage — just how upside-down access to the sport in the United States has been over the last four decades. Now that Soccer Moms are viewed as women of privilege (which makes their kids children of privilege), the phrase further exacerbates soccer’s image as a sport for rich white suburbanites. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to be successful. But that’s not what soccer is, and it’s certainly not how I want to the country at large to view it.
Soccer is the people’s game. Soccer Moms are not the people.
I’d like to talk to Alex Castellanos. I’d like to ask him why he and his fellow Republican strategists had to go and tarnish soccer’s good name like that back in ‘96. Yes, the suburban soccer boom was in full swing in the mid-90s, but there were so many other ways to go. What about “minivan mom” (alliteration!) or a singular personification like “Susie Suburbia” (in the great tradition of Joe Sixpack)? If it’s necessary to boil millions of individual American women down into one catchy phrase, both would provide the same sort of easy identification.
Soccer is an innocent bystander in all of this. The phrase “Soccer Mom” likely explains the militant nature of so many of the “football not soccer” zealots pinging around the internet. For them, “soccer” is irrevocably linked with the Soccer Mom and her insipid existence of suburban banality. Can we blame them for wanting to separate the sport they love from the painfully square image of the oblivious mom and her recreational soccer-playing kids?
Meanwhile, mainstream American sports fans look down their noses at a game they see as juvenile. To the aforementioned Joe Sixpack, soccer is exercise masquerading as sport, with shrieking, over-bearing, self-involved, oblivious women pacing the sideline exhorting little Johnny to “kick it in the goal!” while wearing t-shirts with their son’s or daughter’s picture on them. Thanks, Soccer Mom.
It turns out Soccer Moms were hardly America’s political future. They still pop up as a voting demographic occasionally, but they are now much more influential in the world of marketing. Sometime shortly after the ‘96 election, the Soccer Mom stopped being a sought-after voter and became a coveted consumer. Everything from automobiles to cereal was advertised to appeal to the mythical “Soccer Mom”. Despite many companies (particular the car companies) abandoning Soccer Mom-focused campaigns in an effort to become more hip in the middle part of the last decade, the Soccer Mom, with all of her presumed attributes, remains the target for many American advertisers.
In fact, Major League Soccer still makes it a point to market to Soccer Moms, although on a much lower level than they did back in the early days of the league. As much as that pains me, I see the wisdom in it. Soccer Moms exist, as least in the strictest definition of the word, and it seems natural for a local professional soccer club to try and connect with them and convince them to spend a family night out at the soccer park. As long as there are supporters singing behind the goal and MLS doesn’t revert to it’s family-friendly past, I can handle giving the Soccer Mom a smidgen of attention.
Of course, the phrase is so loaded with coded meanings now that no woman should want to self-identify as a Soccer Mom. Clubs should be careful about invoking it. The phrase conjures up images that don’t do the sport in America any favors, and it presents suburban motherhood as an exercise in waiting hand-and-foot on one’s children. It presumes a supreme lack of individuality. It colors soccer as the sport of privilege, indirectly alienating the bulk of the American population who should be most inclined play and watch.
In 1996, political commentators had trouble locking in on the exact definition of the phrase. In 2012, we know exactly what it means because society at large has collectively chosen to give the Soccer Mom a stereotypical identity.
And I hate it. Begone, Soccer Mom.
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