We freaked out when the roster was announced yesterday and we noticed she was missing. (And I mean “we;” me and Carolyn Duthie.) It took hours for the explanation to come, but when it did it was good. Canadian women’s soccer journalist Sandra Prusina reported that Fleming is staying in school but will join the senior women for an invitational tournament in Brazil starting December 9.
Who can blame her? Fleming is in Grade 12 and expected to play for UCLA in the next NCAA women’s soccer season. However, women’s soccer is not football: you can’t snatch a full-ride scholarship with a fractional GPA and a bogus major. You have to be a bona fide student, and Fleming’s missed more class than a juvenile delinquent. Focusing on the Women’s World Cup during the middle of exam season is tough enough; how about two-week trips to Cyprus and China, or friendlies across western Canada and the US, all in Grade 11? It’s not like she can shrug off scholastics for a lucrative professional career; there are no professional women’s soccer clubs in Canada and those in the United States don’t pay well. Even marquee NWSL players paid by the Canadian Soccer Association earn McDonald’s wages, and an ordinary office worker’s salary will get you on a list of the ten highest-paid women’s soccer stars. Careers are short, and benefits aren’t great, and to start a family you quite literally have to retire.
So yes, Jessie Fleming, please take a week now and again to do your homework. Your teammates did and they turned out all right.
Many Canadian female internationals have honest four-year degrees, but often in sports-related subjects. After their playing careers they go into coaching or physiotherapy. Others enter the sports media: as with many men below the international level, soccer is what they know and they stick to it. However, this is not the rule, and I wonder how many of the world’s major teams have been as well-rounded as the Canadian soccer women. For example, until earlier this month Selenia Iacchelli and Emily Zurrer operated a food truck in Vancouver. Selling frozen yogurt out of a van sounds goofy but few professional athletes have such humble side businesses; Zurrer has a degree in advertising, for heaven’s sakes, and how much less of a prototypical jock can you be? Well, you can be Erin McLeod, who not only has an advertising degree from Penn State herself but is a professional artist when not busy being the best money goalkeeper in the world.
Diana Matheson, the beating heart of Canada’s midfield, has a bachelor’s in economics from Princeton, which has led to many “microeconomist” jokes over the years. Melissa Tancredi holds three degrees and memorably missed almost a year of games to finish up a doctorate in chiropractic. Stephanie Labbé has a degree in Early Childhood Development and Education, Shelina Zadorsky’s is in psychology. Kadeisha Buchanan, already one of the ten best female defenders alive, is an honours student in criminology at West Virginia. According to Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford, Fleming aims to study science or engineering at UCLA, hopefully bringing a little STEM rigour to what has been a very soft-science-focused locker room.
Among former players, Dr. Clare Rustad (45 caps from 2000 to 2008; scored against Brazil at Commonwealth Stadium in 2002) had a BSc in molecular biology from Washington during her playing days and is now a real doctor. (Christine Sinclair is also a doctor, but an honourary one; her real degree is in biology from the University of Portland.) Silvana Burtini, a former national player of the year and the third-most-capped Canadian of all time, is a police officer and holds the British Columbia Police Award of Valour. Countless former Canadian national teamers have gone on to productive careers outside soccer, from advertising to yoga. After all, they had to.
This is because of an unequal system. Elite athletes who, if they had penises, could count on prosperous careers and six-figure salaries instead spend their glory days with one eye on the future. Elite male athletes doing well in school have an “insurance policy;” for a top female player, like the rest of us, it’s necessary to put food on the table. Only your Sinclairs and Alex Morgans will earn enough as players to save for retirement, and full-time coaching gigs are very thin on the ground. Their performance as athletes suffers, for nobody does two things at once perfectly, and adds to the stress of their lives. It’s unavoidable economics, and not even unfair, but it’s the way it is.
However, speaking strictly as a fan, there is a bright side. The Canadian women’s soccer team is embraced by those who, like your humble correspondent, stand quite outside the mainstream of women’s sport. It’s not just the usual platitudes about girls being inspired and these women work so hard and they’ve proven they belong etc. etc. ad nauseum, it’s that our national teamers are genuinely interesting people. Your average top athlete got there by being so consumed by his sport that he was able to succeed in the most cutthroat environment in the civilized world; there’s no time to develop a personality, and if one does come through it’s usually bad or boring. An NHL player can become a cult favourite with a sense of humour that’s tiresome and derivative at an office party.
Our women are a cut above. We can relate to them on a personal level. While you can’t get to know a professional athlete from afar, any fan young or old can see there is someone there to know. Catch them outside the bubble of an active player and they can be interesting company. Journalists like talking to them (though it’s not always reciprocated). Even Sinclair, who’s spent twenty years learning to mouth platitudes on demand to microphone-wielding strangers, flashes genuine personality to the world just often enough to notice. They’re people, with varying interests and intellects and ideas. We like people! We want the athletes we cheer for to be people, and because we cheer for them and spend so much money on them we create a system where those athletes become automatons under constant pressure to suppress whatever glimmers of positive individuality they may possess. It is destructive, and self-defeating, and unavoidable.
Canadian women’s soccer has not yet reached that point. Let us be grateful, and let us be glad when Jessie Fleming hits the books like any other 17-year-old, just as we are when her shots hit the target.