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After the USA Women's World Cup soccer team flamed out in the final minutes, I noticed a very different sort of response from ordinary people and from the media.  I expected lots of disappointed criticism, be it online or in person.  In a game that was the USA's to lose, there would seem to have been much to go around.  However, after the shock of the defeat had worn off, most people complimented the team for reaching the final and for its courage.  This warm graciousness is extremely unfamiliar with me, so much so that it appears utterly foreign.  It was fascinating to observe, on one level, even though it could not be more out-of-bounds with my own emotional response.    

I grew up watching college football, if not in person, then on television.  Unfavorable outcomes were greeted with instant outrage, and sometimes with frustrated profanity.  The performance of the coaches and players both were soundly criticized.  Though it may not classify as good sportsmanship, I have been known to boo my own team sometimes when it has failed on the gridiron.  No one I know would ever respond to a loss without venting about a quarterback who throws interceptions, or a running back that can't seem to hold the ball without fumbling.  Expectations are high, but this is what is known by everyone involved going in to each and every game.  Every game might as well be conducted like a matter of life or death, and is played like it.  

Am I observing a fundamental difference in attitudes in men's and women's sports here?  Are women's sports a kinder, gentler standard?  Pleasantries aside, two very crucial problems led to a complete breakdown on the field.  For one, the USA played too conservatively towards the end, intending to run out the clock.  This left Japan open for three or four dangerous, direct shots on goal.  Japan had never had such opportunities before in the entire game, and so the odds were in its favor to convert eventually with so many chances.  The second faux paus was highly questionable late game substitutions, pulling out an experienced player or two for fresh legs.  This would have been a successful strategy had the game not gone into penalty kicks.  However, it meant that players who had yet to limber up and were cold off the bench missed three consecutive penalty kicks during the shoot out.  That is almost unpardonably awful play, regardless of the context, and unheard of in a team with that much skill.

Had this been a men's contest, one could be sure that these salient points would have been discussed and over-analyzed.  Try though I might, it is difficult for me not feel a compulsion to pin the blame where the blame needs to be.  Our society must expect brutal, unforgiving competition from men in ways that it does not from women. I say this gingerly, but I felt like the reactions of some fans to the loss resembled consoling a crying child.  Based on my own upbringing, this was coddling or infantilizing behavior.  Are women still being protected from the world in ways men never would be?  Do we still try to, in paternalist style, spare women from the danger of the immediate environment?  Women I've known are much tougher than that.  They'd never want anyone's sympathy.  Or am I reading the situation entirely wrong as someone who was socialized as a man?  I will gladly accept correction if it leads to greater understanding.  

In a post of a couple weeks ago, I questioned whether women's sports needed to resemble men's sports on any level.  I return to that query today.  We know that gender isn't nearly as easy to isolate as we think, but there is a certain standard of play and conduct common to women's sports that is uncommon to men's sports.  The issue then becomes precisely what it is and is not.  Without resorting to essentialist arguments, how do we define what should stay and what should change?  Perhaps some may argue that there is an aspect of civilized play here that has never existed in the intensity of men's sports.  But for men like me who are used to ripping apart the performance of any favorite team, we would find it difficult to not come crashing down on any faulty aspect of a game.

The most commonly invoked cliche in this circumstance comes from sportswriter Grantland Rice.  Writing in 1908 like the contemporary of Rudyard Kipling that he was, Rice observed,

For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game

I must admit I have never known good sportsmanship in reality, believing it instead to be something like a bipartisan political climate or post-racial society.  Any argument made about basic purity in women's sports must be sure not to romanticize femininity.  These same sorts of arguments kept women shielded from direct contact with men in a past epoch.  Should we form specific strategies to put women's athletics on par with their brethren, we will find ourselves examining complicated social structures.  These may be superficially rooted in gender but their tendrils extend well beyond.  I have fought and will continue to fight for gender equality, but I cannot say I believe the two are the same, nor would be the same even on that blessed day that the playing field is finally leveled for once and for all.

Originally posted to cabaretic on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 06:08 AM PDT.

Also republished by The Wide World of Sports.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (0+ / 0-)

    I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, some one else would lead you out. - Eugene Debs.

    by cabaretic on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 06:08:01 AM PDT

  •  What's the problem? They choked. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GoGoGoEverton, dougymi

    It happens in sports - to both boys and girls. (shrug)

    There are plenty of differences between boys and girls, but susceptibility to choking isn't one of them.


    Kevin dropped his ice cream and blames Obama? He's gone hamsher!

    by punditician on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 06:11:37 AM PDT

  •  The US men's team gets slayed because (0+ / 0-)

    they struggle through the group stages mostly by making dumb mistakes, then get out-coached and lose in the round of 16 or the quarters.

    The WWC team made the FINALS, they waaaay outplayed Japan and were it not for the horseshoe that the Japanese team all had in their boots, would've won the game in real time 4-1 at least.

    IMO, the respect deserved was paid by the media.

    "However, I don't think that critiquing one precludes praising the other" - The Troubador

    by GoGoGoEverton on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 06:17:57 AM PDT

    •  The US men's team gets beaten... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lordcopper

      ...because the best male athletes in the US don't go into soccer, and we don't have a culture that rewards male soccer players for going beyond college to become the best in the world. In the US, if you're a man who has athletic talent at the high school or college level, and you aspire to make money at it, unless you have a deep love of soccer or an inherent skill for the game (and sometimes even despite that), you're going to go into football or basketball or baseball or hockey.

      In Europe and Latin America the culture is different. The best male athletes go into club soccer then into the leagues. There's money there.

      If the highest-caliber all-around athletes in the four major sports in the US had spent their entire childhood and young adulthood playing soccer instead of their respective sports, the USA would be as much a powerhouse in soccer as we are in basketball, baseball, and hockey. (We don't win every tournament in those sports, but we're always a projected final-4 team and a force to be reckoned with—even in baseball, where our best American MLB players don't play internationally.)

      In women's soccer, (a) the culture isn't there as much in Europe or Latin America, because of the prominence of men's leagues, so women's soccer is comparatively ignored, and (b) in the US, there aren't really a whole lot of avenues available for an athletically-talented woman, particularly if she's not tall enough to play WNBA ball.

  •  (psst... you're double-posted.) (n/t) (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, radmul, Catte Nappe
  •  Reposted to the Wide World of Sports! (0+ / 0-)
      If you like sports talk, please follow The Wide World of Sports, the Daily Kos group for sports enthusiasts! If you'd like to write about sports, please shoot JamesGG or Edge PA a message and you'll be added.
  •  I think its lack of familiarity with the sport (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, Loge

    Most people don't have the in-depth knowledge of professional soccer/futbol to really get into the over-analysis of this match.  Nor do we have long running story lines of US or Japan's Women's Soccer struggles..past Women's World Cup classic matches, etc

    THe best the media could do t hype this was "The US won before!  Can they do it again?" cross-posted with "Japan suffers from post-Tsunami trauma...could a championship bring hope to the Nation?"  ... meh.

    We have a longer history of the men's sports we know.  You mention college football where every conference game is a the latest chapter in decades of hate-filled grudge matches against a traditional foe.

    Besides, we all KNOW football, baseball, basketball etc.  

    I think its more this familiarity and not gender bias.  To wit I would point to two examples: 1) Men's Olympic sports get treated with the same mixture of passing-curiosity and genteel sportsmanship because we all don't know the ins and outs of competitive Speed Skating, Platform Diving, the 1250 Track and field events, etc  2) Tennis is a sport where men and women both have long traditions (and, other then number of sets in 4 tournaments per year, the rules are identical) and analysis is equally over-wrought in a Djokovic or Nadal match as it is in a Sharapova or WIlliams Sister match.

    Красота спасет мир --F. Dostoevsky

    by Wisper on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 08:23:36 AM PDT

    •  Yeah, the WWC final (0+ / 0-)

      brings in casual fans, who don't live or die on the fortunes of the team.  I'm a soccer fan (though I didn't watch the womens' matches until the Brazil game) and I was furious at the missed chances in the first half.  I didn't let the fact that they were women stop me from cursing at the tv or jumping up and down when they scored.  

      I think, as well, a lot of people thought if the U.S. couldn't win it would be nice if Japan did.  This view strikes me as trivializing real problems, but at least unlike the New Orleans Saints, the victory for the people of Japan didn't require a publicly financed stadium reconstruction.  

      "This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind[.]" -- Robert F. Kennedy

      by Loge on Mon Jul 18, 2011 at 09:45:00 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It was not 'theirs to win' (0+ / 0-)

    That really irritates me.

    Any sports fan knows the game is not "yours" until clock runs out, final buzzer sounds, last out recorded, etc.

    The US scored, Japan tied. The US scored in OT, Japan tied.

    The game went to penalty kicks. It was either team's game to win and Japan did better.

    I think there is too much entitlement in the "it was theirs to win", you know, we're American, we're #1, no one can beat us in fair competition, to do so either they cheat or we screw up.

    Two great teams. One a little bit better.

    I think most people just recognized that.

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