June 11 marked the debut of the U.S. Women’s National Team to the 2019 World Cup stage. The defending champs began group play against Thailand, a team nobody expected to do well and who eventually lost 13–0—an unheard of loss in the World Cup competition.
“9-0!” I announced to my husband after Megan Rapinoe scored her first goal of the match.
“Wow—are they going to get backlash for running up the score?”
“No,” I replied quickly. “Not during the World Cup.”
Boy, was I wrong.
It started with criticism of the score itself—viewers were incredibly uncomfortable with such a lopsided win. Many felt it was unsportsmanlike to continue to score against the 34th ranked Thai team during a game the United States would clearly win, and by the time Rapinoe exuberantly celebrated the team’s ninth goal it was clear they had no intention of taking their foot off the gas. Of course, this criticism is misinformed; it ignores several facts that add context to both the game against Thailand and women’s soccer in general.We are not calibrated to the sight of a woman displaying unapologetic physical prowess.
First, during this stage of competition, goal differentials are important, as they frequently act as tiebreakers and affect seeding during the knockout rounds. While nobody expected the United States to be truly tested until after the group stage, that does not make group matches inconsequential. On the contrary, every goal scored had the potential to impact the outcome of the entire competition.
Second, athletes are competing for individual accolades that not only have the potential to positively impact one’s resume, but which could also lead to lucrative endorsement deals. Especially in light of the pay gap between men and women soccer players, such deals can be central to a female soccer player’s career.
And third, 28 USWNT players are using the occasion of the 2019 World Cup—a rare time in which millions of viewers will be paying attention to the sport—to sue the U.S. Soccer Federation for intentional gender discrimination. The lawsuit not only brings to light the well documented (and infamously written off) pay gap between the organization’s male and female employees, but it also points to the drastically different conditions women are positioned to endure—most notably the utilization of turf fields, which cause more injuries and general wear on an athlete’s body. The timing of this lawsuit is strategic; the filing athletes know they are unlikely to get all they are asking for to begin with, and they are even less likely to affect change when the world returns to its shameful indifference toward women’s sports. The fact that the USWNT scored more World Cup goals during one game than the men have in all games since 2006 combined makes a statement; we would be remiss to let that statement be drowned out by cries of “unsportsmanlike conduct!” during what should be the most competitive level of play in all of women’s soccer.
Eventually, analysts began to rightly point to these factors, as well as recognizing how disrespectful it would have been to the Thai team if the U.S. players decided instead to take it easy on them. Consequently, critics began to shift their attention from to the score itself to the team’s celebrations after each goal.
For example, ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman said this of the game: “0.0 problem with the score line as this is THE tournament BUT celebrating goals (like #9) leaves a sour taste in my mouth like many of you. Curious to see if anyone apologizes for this post-game.”
He later added, “Imagine a Thai player going studs up late in the game due to ‘group celebrations’ when the score is completely out of reach?! Again, no problem with the scoreline, as those of you who can read see below.”
Twellman’s criticism was just a sampling of a larger trend. The consensus was clear: score if you must, but do so quietly—politely. It’s a notion we selectively champion throughout athletic competitions, the enforcement of which is arbitrary and often biased, and one which merits interrogation in this particular situation.
While on its surface the expectation of meekness seems benign at worse, we cannot ignore the larger context in which these criticisms are being raised. There has long been a double-standard between men’s and women’s sports that not only impacts equal pay and playing conditions, but which informs the larger culture surrounding women’s sports—namely that we have historically ignored them; when we do pay attention to them, it tends to be during world competitions like the World Cup or the Olympics, both of which happen infrequently, and both of which entail as many human interest stories as athletic play-by-plays. As a result, we have upheld the most popular of our female athletes as saintly role models from whom we expect mentorship, quiet leadership, and general meekness, a litmus test we do not require similarly positioned male athletes to pass. When Michael Phelps’s personal life hit rock bottom in the public eye, we shrugged our shoulders and pointed to his medals. When Hope Solo made a spectacle of herself, we practically ousted her from the game. We expect female athletes to not only uphold this demeanor off the field, but during the heat of competition as well.
For example, in 1999 when Brandi Chastain slid to her knees and ripped off her jersey in celebration of the second World Cup win for the United States, the media and public alike lambasted her for such an inappropriate display—inappropriate despite the fact that men strike similar poses all the time for much lesser reasons. More recently, Serena Williams was fined for speaking disrespectfully to an umpire, while her male counterparts have not been subjected to similar standards.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that critics of the USWNT celebrations wouldn’t also take issue with men celebrating similarly. In the sports realm, there is a long-documented history of criticism of showmanship in baseball; for years, celebrations in football were entirely disallowed; and one of the more common refrains among sports fans in general is “win like you’ve done it before.” Generally speaking, humility is an attribute we like to sporadically require of all athletes. That said, we would be naïve to ignore the possibility that our perception of traditional gender roles has made our criticism of the USWNT quick and harsh. It is certainly possible—I think even likely—that we are not calibrated to the sight of a woman displaying unapologetic physical prowess. And, as a result, an exuberant 13–0 win was more disconcerting than it would have been had the competitors been male.
After all, Twellman’s tweets included two sentiments reflective of unhealthy attitudes toward women. First, in the wake of his own discomfort, he expected a female apology: “Curious to see if anyone apologizes for this post-game.” Second, he attempted to leverage Thailand’s potential volatile reaction (which they did not, in fact, have) for “good” behavior: “Imagine a Thai player going studs up late in the game due to ‘group celebrations’ when the score is completely out of reach?!”
Ultimately, the debate boils down to a simple question: Are athletic competitors responsible for safeguarding the feelings of their opponents? Their spectators? Does the athlete’s gender influence the answer? These are questions to wrestle with as we sort out the expectations we have upon athletes in general and women competitors specifically.
The USWNT made history on that Tuesday; they beat their opponents by a greater margin than has ever been seen in any World Cup before. Unlike the United States Men’s National Team, that did not even qualify for last year’s World Cup, the women made a dominant premiere that certainly bodes well for the rest of the tournament. And yet, the biggest topic of conversation has been whether or not they acted politely enough. This, in itself, is symptomatic of yet another gender disparity in soccer worldwide.
Since their thorough defeat of Thailand, the U.S. women have soundly defeated both Chile and Sweden to secure first place in their pool, and they scraped out a win against Spain in the first round of the knockouts. Ironically enough, this success positions the team to face off against France, one of the most formidable teams in the competition, in the quarterfinals. It very well may have benefitted the United States to sandbag their game against Sweden, which would have given them perhaps a clearer path to the title. And yet, nobody seriously expected the USWNT to do this; they have always been characterized as a team that doesn’t let up, for better or for worse. That was the team they were while playing Thailand, and that was the team they continued to be in their match against Sweden. So far, the U.S. women have shown themselves to be the most dominant team in this competition, a fact that should inspire pride and interest in the nation. One thing is for sure, for the rest of the U.S. team’s showing in the 2019 World Cup, all eyes will be on this team; may it be with watchful pride and bated interest, as it should be.