Bleachers Full of Women: Why words matter, part 2

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Read part one of “Why words matter” on the Timbers Army here.

Some bad soccer games feel like they’ll never end. And so do some bad aspects of soccer games.

The latter culprit recently — once again — has been a certain Mexican chant. The Copa America Centenario has seen, and very much heard, the old chant, which makes use of what is considered to be a homophobic slur that translates to “male prostitute,” pop up like a whack-a-mole despite a long while of criticism, activism, and even the team’s own campaign against it this past March.

This battle has started to seem Sisyphean; even FIFA, who are paradoxically responsible for awarding the World Cup to the notoriously homophobic nations of Russia and Qatar, fining the national team over $20,000 over the chant in January did not derail it. If anything, the New York Times reported that some might have begun chanting it “with a little more gusto” after the backlash, “in defiance over the criticism.” It’s come to the point that Univision has begun running a disclaimer before all Mexican national team games that warns fans of possible, or probable, offensive language.

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But the rock need not always roll back down the hill, and the times in which change has been implemented serve as especially important motivational reminders when activists’ arms begin to get tired of pushing. Take a recent incident within Minnesota United FC’s Dark Clouds for example.

In 2011, Cristiano Dias signed with the team. That same year, his defensive solidity rocketed Minnesota to their first and only NASL championship, as well as himself into their supporters’ hearts. Unfortunately, the chant the Dark Clouds created for him was not as pretty as the season’s end. It went: “Oh Cristiano, you are the love of my life. Oh Cristiano, I’d let you shag my wife.”

Dark Clouds member Anna Freeburg was the first to step up against a chant that she might not have been directly uncomfortable with but one she said “[didn’t] seem right.” Not only was it assuming the chanters would be all straight men — since it is unlikely, in this cultural landscape, that the writers were assuming only gay women — which inherently ignores the existence of a lot of female members, it took the wife’s ability to consent out of the picture entirely.

“I’m married,” Freeburg said. “And my husband can’t tell me whom to shag.”

If this also sounds familiar to the debate over the Timbers Army chant it’s because it is — not just in content, with the attempt to stop further marginalization of minority groups, as with the Mexico chant as well, but in one of the fundamental arguments. What any sort of contested words — whether in chant form, tweet form, spoken, or otherwise — boil down to is intent versus impact. It is hopefully relatively safe to assume that whomever wrote the Dark Clouds chant is not advocating for sexual assault, and similarly those who continue to chant That Mexican Chant argue that their translation of the word is simply “coward” and not the other, offensive possibility. However, it is important to remember that the writer or tweeter or speaker only gets to determine their intent.

Unfortunately, because of this ideological clash, debates over chants begin to mimic one of the very core ideals of chanting: being louder than the opposition. Sometimes this manifests as conversationally drowning out someone’s explanation of why they’ve been offended with enough repetitions of “that’s not how I meant it” or a curter “you shouldn’t be.” The age-old “get over it” has often made its appearance in this context as well.

Other times, this manifests literally. After a male friend in the supporters group came up with an alternate lyric — “shag me twice” in place of “shag my wife” — Freeburg took it upon herself to implement this into the group’s gameday routine. She would go up to the front of the Dark Clouds section and chant loudly, holding up two fingers to try and get people to hear what she was saying.

But because most people direct their attention to either the game or the capo, it was slow to get the ball rolling on Freeburg’s suggested change. However, there was also the issue of differing opinions. Although Freeburg admits that “there wasn’t a real pushback,” she remembers some responses being more along the lines of “‘No, this is how we’ve always sung it, I’m not going to change my habits right now’ rather than ‘no, that’s a stupid change, why would we do that?’” Either way, it meant that things weren’t changing immediately. Nothing ever does.

The change started slowly. At first, Freeburg said that she thought she could see “people join[ing] in, they just weren’t standing up and shouting.” And then, about a year later, the capos leading the chants caught on to what Freeburg was doing and began leading the group with the updated chant. Soon after, the group changed the chant in the songbook that they print for games.

It is such dedication and determination that has made any aspect of culture evolve. The Mexican chant has certainly not been amended in only a year, but at the very least each new international tournament featuring El Tri has brought with it a little more condemnation and a little more outrage. A snowball that looks far more likely to eventually, finally flatten offense than to slowly melt away.