2020 has been a year full of the unexpected. When the NWSL Challenge Cup was announced my skepticism that the event would happen at all or that if it did happen it would be successful was pretty high. Between the play on the pitch being a lot better than I thought it might be and there being just less injuries than many people feared there would be, the event has been pretty successful in terms of soccer so far. Mostly.
What I didn’t predict before the event began; the role the national anthem would play in the framing of the event and the explosion in non-Stans talking about Stans.
When the league decided to play the national anthem in front of empty stadiums it put players in the position to kneel or not, and took a moment used as a last chance for some ads to run and instead made it one of the more watched for moments. When Rory Dames says after the first match that part of the reason his team did not play as well was because of the emotions surrounding the conversation before the national anthem, that puts the media in a position where we have to ask questions. Both to the players who both knelt and didn’t.
By and large we have been unable to get answers to those questions. So without direct answers from the players, we’re left having to speculate about motivations and reasons for kneeling or not because we're not given access to ask the questions and to get the answers from the players.
There are a million miles between the Stans who are criticizing the players who they like enough to have in their social media username and the Stans upset that media, fans, and other Stans are criticizing players to stand for the anthem. And the difference, the space between those two positions, points to a larger underlying issue that is rarely talked about but is omnipresent.
Women's soccer has for a long time been a sport driven by a cult of personality. Fans that have stuck with the team, both Stans and not, almost universally care about the personalities around the sport and on the teams. One of the byproducts of so little money, in comparison with men's sports, is the use of players' personalities and focusing on girls and young women as the default for the marketing campaigns.
We've had over 35 years of the “cult of personality” style marketing happening around the United States women's national team. Because in that time clubs and leagues have come and gone, we're currently on the third iteration in the NWSL. Fans by and large have latched onto their favorite national teamer and used them to decide which clubs to support. Which has created some amount of fair-weather fandom for those clubs when a player retires or is traded or is away on national team duty.
But unlike the two prior leagues, the WUSA and WPS, the NWSL has been around now for eight seasons. Well, seven seasons and a Challenge Cup. Which means that some of that cult of personality has moved both from national team players to league players and to teams in the league. And in that shift we have a new age of Stan culture that the NWSL now has to figure out how to manage.
We should stop for a moment and talk about Stans and the differences between Stan groups. When I say Stans, which is a subset of fan culture and cannot be used interchangeably with fans, there are three camps as far as I see it.
The Joyful Stan - Usually a teenager, but not always, who is just enjoying a thing in the way teenagers do which sometimes is a little messy.
The Colloquial Stan - Someone who uses the term to mean super fan but otherwise has no real stanlike qualities.
The Marshall Mathers LP Stan - Somebody who is so wrapped up in believing that the person that they Stan is worthy of it that reason leaves the picture.
The Joyful Stan
The group that I actually don't think is a problem is the one that most often comes to mind of the people in their 30's when they think of Stans.
Do they treat the league more like a TV show than sports sometimes? Yes. They can sometimes invent plot lines that they want to be true because of the tropes they know from other media. But they also treat the league with enough respect to know that what it does matters because the league is important. And what the league does has an impact past its own little bubble. They've also grown up, the bulk of them who are in their mid to late teens and early 20's, in a time where a lot of them are thinking more critically about the world around them than people did at their age 20 years ago. They've grown up during an age of more instability, less security and more problems that go from small to catastrophic in the blink of an eye.
Their function is basically to be word-of-mouth to get other young people engaging in the NWSL who might not think sports is for them. Or who might think all sports fans are straight, white men in their 30’s who they aren’t comfortable with. Most of the time this group is pretty good at self policing each other and staying out of the more toxic behavior. Yes, they act like kids but they are kids. And they are engaging in a thing that they could grow up loving and pass on to their future kids one day. Which has always been the dream of women’s sports.
The Colloquial Stan
The second group, I would venture to guess most people who call themselves Stans, fall in here - who use the term basically to mean super fan. It's not really an actual group of people but just how people use the word in colloquially. It's a term that is thrown around without almost any of the negative context meant to be attached to it. An internet short hand if you will.
The Orlando Pride Twitter account has used the term exactly like this for the entirety of the Challenge Cup. They are taking on a term that they know their fans have some basis of our relationship to and they're hoping that it’s an enjoyable one. The term isn't meant to have any thoughts of the more unsavory side of the term.
The Marshall Mathers LP Stan
I am old enough to remember when the song “Stan” came out on the Marshall Mathers LP. The song is as good today as it was then. And I would argue that it launched the idea of what a Stan is into the popular culture for people who are now in their 30's.
These are the fans who look up where players live using government records or who try to figure out what time of day they go to a specific coffee shop so they can follow the player and see what they are up to. They are also the ones who tend to do most of the online harassment both to Joyful Stans and people in the media who don’t share their views on the athletes they Stan.
Most of the people who have a problem with something like Orlando using the term Stan in their Twitter handle or the CBS All Access broadcast bringing up Twitter accounts that are named after the playground next to the field, or the ambulance, or the sun glare, tend to have an issue with it because they don't think that Stans should be viewed in a positive light.
The Joyful Stans are behaving organically because that’s how they tend to engage with this sport and the media around them. While so often the Marshall Mathers LP Stans co-opt a lot of what the Joyful Stans build, taking bits for their own and making it as toxic as we’ve seen it to be, and playing in their sandbox without minding the mess they are making along the way. And because the term Stan applies in our culture to both young and old, fanatical in service of enjoyment and in harassment, it’s not shocking that some don’t understand why Orlando would ever use the term or why highlighting Twitter handles on a CBS All Access broadcast makes some wince.
It is true that Stans of all stripes have been talking about the national anthem and that by and large these two groups, who most people will lump into one category, see things very differently from each other. So often on Twitter it’s the Marshall Mathers LP Stans of the athletes who are standing for the anthem who don't want to think that a person that they have spent hundreds or thousands of hours thinking about positively as someone who doesn’t share fundamental values that they do. And instead of thinking critically about what it means that that athlete doesn't share those values, they often try to shut down the conversation to make themselves feel more comfortable. Or the Marshall Mathers LP Stans themselves don’t think kneeling is important anyway. And the Joyful Stans seemingly are the ones who are much more comfortable with somebody that they truly enjoy being De-Stanned because their attitude more closely resembles “well this athlete isn’t who I thought so it’s time to move on”.
Words change meaning and the word Stan doesn’t mean in 2020 what it meant in 2000. Using it today isn’t always pejorative as it has mostly been in the past. Instead of calling the people who do harmful and toxic behavior Stans as a pejorative, their behavior should be called harmful or abusive or toxic as that's what it is. Lumping people who make funny usernames out of athletes' 'ship' names in with people who commit serious online harassment does everyone a disservice.
The NWSL has the incredible good fortune to have a pool of younger fans, older fans and Joyful Stans alike that are becoming used to the idea of a league that will be around year over year. Even in the middle of a pandemic they're playing soccer and they're doing better than most thought possible. But it has to be careful it's not sending the message to some of the Marshall Mathers LP Stans that acting like a Joyful Stan will get you public attention from the league on CBS or the official NWSL twitter account lest Pandora’s Box is forever opened.