Ombudsman: The debate over SoccerWire.com’s coverage of the Huffman-Wambach wedding

It’s not often that two teammates on a major professional sports team get married – so rare, in fact, that it would appear to many to be an inherently noteworthy event for those who cover and consume the sport.

And yet, the realities of modern America and its complex approach to sexual identity ensure that such an occasion would be seen by the public as far more than just two co-workers falling in love. That’s because, most team sports being gender-separated (and relatively conservative to boot), it would also mean that two pro athletes had openly acknowledged their homosexuality in addition to their choice of life partner.

That kind of revelation is a deeply personal decision, one that remains explosive in a world where culture wars and religious beliefs make sexuality a flashpoint topic for millions. The number of openly gay male athletes remains depressingly small in the face of rampant, sometimes violent, homophobia and while the picture is somewhat less imposing in women’s sports, many players take a more guarded approach to matters of the heart than their heterosexual counterparts.

These and many other factors were broached among members of the SoccerWire.com staff last month when we learned of Abby Wambach and Sarah Huffman‘s Oct. 5 wedding and debated – like other publications surely did, too – whether this event was worthy of news coverage on our site.

First of all: What do sexuality, love, commitment and marriage have to do with soccer? Do the love lives of male athletes undergo this level of scrutiny from the media?

There’s certainly a large gray area here, but after careful thought and wide-ranging consultation with members of the women’s soccer and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities, we elected to cover this momentous event. The duo’s relationship is well-established and well-known in women’s soccer circles, and they have made little effort to hide it over the years, from flirtatious messages and photos together on social media to red-carpet appearances complete with commitment rings and public displays of affection.

[ +Soccer luminaries gather as WNY Flash teammates Abby Wambach, Sarah Huffman marry in Hawai’i ]

Their wedding registry website – headlined by both their full names – was publicly accessible, meaning that anyone could go see their choices of linens, kitchen appliances and other household goods, though a site set up to provide information to the wedding’s attendees required a password for entry beyond its greeting page.

Yet while Huffman explicitly acknowledged her sexual orientation over the summer when announcing her support of Athlete Ally, an organization which works to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports, Wambach has never “officially” come out despite widespread perceptions that such an announcement would be a mere formality.

Many thus believe any discussion of her orientation is out of bounds until she broaches the topic herself. Over the weekend a FOX Soccer blog post about the wedding drew negative comments from some readers offended by what they called tabloidish, “not really anyone’s business” and even “totally creepy and journalistically irresponsible” content. (Even though it pales in comparison to TMZ’s coverage.)

“I am sure people would be interested in reading about it,” said one member of our staff, “but they [Huffman and Wambach] haven’t shown any interest in talking about it and it has nothing to do with soccer.

“I’m personally not really interested in focusing on anyone’s personal life…Unless Abby and Sarah start talking about it, I think it would be very gossipy and not the right tone for a serious soccer site.”

But another member of our editorial staff felt that it “would be putting blinders on” not to report on clear public evidence of a marriage between two pro teammates, one of whom just happens to be one of the best on earth to ever play the game.

“Two players on the same team getting married is news,” went the argument. “It’s happening, they’re teammates, they’ve been together for years (dating back to the Freedom). Nothing wrong with it.

“To not acknowledge the dynamics of how relationships can affect a team’s chemistry would be ignoring very real issues coaches have to deal with as part of the job. If there were co-ed professional teams and a female reigning world player of the year married a world-class male teammate, it would be reported on without any question, so what’s the problem here?”

It remains to be seen whether the marriage could have any effect on the Flash’s team chemistry, though given their long history together and the high esteem in which they are held by their teammates, it seems unlikely.

It may be worth noting here that LA Galaxy winger Robbie Rogers, the only openly gay male pro player in the United States and one of only a scant few in the world, received sweeping support from fans, fellow players and other members of the soccer community when he revealed his orientation earlier this year, and was persuaded to resume his career.

Perhaps the closest thing this situation has to a precedent is the 2005 marriage of Nick Rimando, a professional goalkeeper and U.S. Men’s National Team member, to former pro women’s player Jacqui Little in a ceremony presided over by Ben Olsen, Rimando’s D.C. United teammate at the time. That unusual occasion drew coverage from the Washington, D.C.-area sports media, and thus eventually national awareness among the soccer community.

But homosexuality remains a sensitive and, in some quarters, even taboo topic. So I reached out to a close friend who works for a LGBT rights advocacy group, who caught up on the Huffman-Wambach relationship (cheekily dubbed “Huffbach” by some fans) via a few quick internet searches and saw little reason for a soccer media outlet to dodge the topic.

“I think if they really wanted it to be completely private they wouldn’t have an accessible registry,” said my friend, who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter. “Maybe she [Wambach] doesn’t like labels, so she’s not going to say that she’s lesbian, or gay or bi, but she’s not hiding anything.”

After this and other conversations with figures in the women’s soccer community as well as a few hours of internet social media research, it became eminently clear to me that Huffman and Wambach’s relationship is and has been serious, well-established and long-running.

It has overcome obstacles like distance and time-sucking career obligations in addition to love’s usual challenges, and is more than worthy of celebration among their many dedicated fans as well as the close friends and family who took part in what was surely a beautiful ceremony in Hawai’i (and documented their trip heavily via their tweets, Instagram photos and Vine videos).

In fact, many of those fans have been aware of the wedding for months and have been discussing it among themselves online. Those who are more conscious of the happy couple’s playing abilities than their sexual identities have no less right to the knowledge of its existence, even if Wambach exercises her right not to speak publicly of it.

Based on the information I’ve gathered, I believe Wambach is open about her identity to those close to her, and leaves her most dedicated fans with no doubts even as she eschews dramatic statements or “revelations.”

And as our society, slowly but surely, continues the movement towards a world in which sexual and gender orientation matters no more than a player’s left- or right-footedness – a goal both these women passionately espouse – I also believe we can and should recognize and commemorate the official crafting of their lifelong bond without shame, fear or recriminations.

Congratulations, Abby and Sarah.

By | October 8, 2013 | 21 Comments | Tags: , , , ,

Comments

  1. Michelle says:

    This was a debate? I say congrats to Abby & Sarah, long life and happiness!

  2. Josie says:

    I think it is completely reasonable to report on their wedding.

    I think Abby Wambach has put the press in a very unfair position by asking their silence – implied asking for their silence – while, at the same time, asking for complete acceptance as a couple when not in the public eye.

    And that is a double standard that is asking the press to shoulder.

    I say this as a lesbian, btw.

  3. LC says:

    This is a terrific article. It sheds light on the process of responsible media outlets when dealing with circumstances like this. I totally respect and understand SoccerWire’s decision to cover the wedding and think that they made an ethical, well-reasoned decision based on the information available.

  4. BlitzSpiele says:

    I think Boehm did a good job trying to corroborate the story, but unfortunately none of his sources would go on the record. The one thing that Boehm probably should have done is to confirm whether a marriage license was issued to the couple.

    Finally, to all the naysayers complaining about outing Abby–if a person gets married it is a public record and it is a public declaration.

  5. Western MD Soccer Coach says:

    I really don’t care if Abby is marrying her girlfriend or not. I also don’t think it is unreasonable for a news organization to do a soft news piece saying that they got married. Would I like to see an article that focuses on interpersonal relationships impacting a team and how a coach these days has to deal with those relationships? Yes, and hopefully Abby and Sarah would comment because of their unique situation.

  6. Jason says:

    While I do agree that this story is noteworthy and is perfectly fine to be published by an organization covering soccer or sports, I don’t think the Fox article was about the marriage of two talented professional athletes from the same team. From everything I can tell, the SoccerWire article was written professionally and was respectful of the player’s personal lives. The article was not overly intrusive or using the story as an excuse to show pictures of female athletes as objects of sexual attention.
    The Fox article, on the other hand, read exactly like a tabloid and was not even about the wedding. That article barely even addressed the people it was covering as athletes and more than half of it was pictures meant to garner clicks because, according to Fox Sports, a woman is more valuable for her body than for her athletic talent.
    I think this is a problem in a lot of the coverage of women’s sports and it needs to be addressed. If you want to write an article about the wedding of two athletes, that’s fine with me but don’t throw together what is essentially a photo album meant to sell these people’s bodies and call it sports reporting.

  7. Jess says:

    I’ve never understood why Abby’s chosen to remain [publicly, at least] in the closet.

    Has anyone inquired into whether Abby is covered by one of those infamous “morality clauses” in any of her endorsement contracts? That’s the only reason I can think of for why this Abby hasn’t explicitly come out.

  8. AR says:

    “Robbie Rogers….received sweeping support from fans, fellow players and other members of the soccer community *when he revealed* his orientation earlier this year.”

    When HE revealed.

    HE revealed.

    Doesn’t say when the media revealed, does it? See how it works?

    • Tim Wason says:

      Perfect!

      Yes, “See how it works?” and “HE revealed”.

    • Charles Boehm says:

      Phrases like “how it works” and “these are the rules” suggest that there is a mandatory ritual or process by which someone in AW’s situation relates to the world around her.

      But she’s not necessarily playing by those “rules,” and the couple’s handling of the wedding shows that.

      I think you’re waiting – and demanding that others wait – on a statement that’s not coming. That reality was made clear to SoccerWire.com, so we proceeded with the story.

      • Petm says:

        Want to know what rules she’s playing by? You have to ask her. You didn’t.

        You seem to be under the delusion that you had the right to make the decision for her. You didn’t. Wambach and Huffman refused to confirm or comment on any story about their wedding. Wambach has refused to discuss her sexuality when asked in interviews. That alone tells you you’re wrong.

        Self-righteous pretensions, shoddy journalism and lack of ethics at play here.

        • Charles Boehm says:

          Thanks for your comment, and for saying what you think. SoccerWire.com did communicate with sources close to Wambach and while I can’t share any of that on the record, we were given ample information confirming the facts of the situation. There’s no shame or secrecy surrounding this wedding, other than basic steps that world-famous celebrities have to take for security and so forth.

          If you can’t see that this event was public knowledge, you’re being willfully ignorant of reality, which is fine, except that you’re also demanding that the rest of the world follow suit, which isn’t.

  9. Jane Beech says:

    I didn’t see any of this sort of debate when Lauren Cheney got married. In fact, it was mentioned numerous times on National TV and every single broadcast following her marriage to her NBA husband. What’s the problem? Why doesn’t everyone stop walking on egg shells when it comes to sexual orientation.

    • KS33 says:

      Because the player in question, Wambach, has never come out to the public. She has not announced to the entire world ‘Yes, I am a gay woman.” She has chosen to keep her sexuality to herself, which is her right, and that private choice should be respected. Outing her without her permission is wrong.

      You cannot report about this wedding without publicly outing Wambach. That is the problem.

      • Jane says:

        As far as I know, Cheney never announced that she was heterosexual either. If everyone would stop tip toeing around the issue, it’s no longer an issue. Two people got married. Congratulations is pretty much all that needs to be said about it.

  10. AR says:

    Would this have been written about if it was a MLS player (man) marrying a NWSL player (woman) if the couple had refused to discuss it publicly? Maybe by a local newspaper as a soft feature, but only if they talked about it. National websites doubtfully would bother writing about it. Seems like a double standard of both gender and sexual orientation.

    • Joe+G says:

      If all their teammates discussed it and posted evidence of the event and there was a trail of information leading people to the event, yes.

  11. Tim Wason says:

    In all your research before printing the story, did it just slightly occur to you to ask Abby and Sarah if they wanted the marriage publicized? No, you just said it’s a story (some people) might want to read (to perhaps vastly different reactions). Without asking them straight up what they wanted to do, all I see from you is inherent selfishness of the press for news. And a selfish political agenda to boot.

    No one who is connected to women’s soccer is remotely surprised, but that’s not the point– you jumped in and printed something that courtesy, under the circumstances, should have been asked of the people being reported about. Would you be a little steamed if someone did the same thing to you?

    I hope Abby and Sarah are blissfully happy, but your thought-less actions don’t make a great statement about you or your magazine. Get off your damned horse and think really carefully about what you have done. I smell that foul “Right of the Press”, which is just selfishness made public.

    Nevertheless I hope all is well for the two really important people in the story (no, it’s not you and your magazine), and everyone outside of soccer have grown up enough so the news passes away happily into acceptance and respect, and Abby and Sarah have a wonderful life together.

    • DK says:

      Tim,

      With all due respect, I disagree with your argument.

      I can understand why Sarah Huffman and Abby Wambach wouldn’t be happy about their wedding being covered without their permission. However, if they truly wanted to keep it to themselves, they wouldn’t have sent out Tweets, Instagrams, Vines, and whatever else Social Media was used at the event.

      Simply put, once it’s on the internet, that’s permission for people to report on it.

      Abby Wambach should never have to come out and say that she’s LGBT, just like we don’t make heterosexual athletes tell us their orientation. But if she gets married in a ceremony and puts it online, then it’s my opinion that it can be covered just like any other mega-athlete participating in an event.

      Congrats to the newly weds! Hopefully they’ll have a long, happy, and prosperous life together.

      • AR says:

        “But if she gets married in a ceremony and puts it online, then it’s my opinion that it can be covered just like any other mega-athlete participating in an event.”

        See that’s where you’re wrong. She did NOT get married online. She did not put her ceremony online. She did not use any form of social media to discuss or share the actual wedding ceremony. There have been no photos, no videos, and no evidence published of a ceremony. Guests have not shared any photos of the actual wedding event. The subjects were not interviewed and the refused comment. You have no evidence.

  12. AnnaY says:

    While I ended up mostly agreeing with the thoughtful analysis in this post, I do disagree with what this staffer expressed:

    “If there were co-ed professional teams and a female reigning world player of the year married a world-class male teammate, it would be reported on without any question, so what’s the problem here?”

    That’s a bit of false equivalence, because heterosexual couples do not face the same problems as same-sex couples and the issue of same-sex marriage is much more fraught. Heterosexual couples don’t have to first come out and reveal that they may be something that certain parts of society find objectionable before they marry. So reporting on a same-sex marriage where one of the parties has not explicitly come out definitely does deserve more thought and consideration than just reporting on a heterosexual marriage. But I think you gave the issue the due consideration it deserved.

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