Free at last: letting women’s sports grow up

Just as the Japanese team began celebrating its victory in the Women’s World Cup on Sunday, soothing Tweets sprang forth to summarize the impact of the gallant U.S. runners-up. One declared that “little girls everywhere win today,” while another proudly proclaimed the Americans “role models for all.”

Except that these two individuals — it should be noted that they are prominent women sports journalists — were Tweeting like it was 1999.

Then there was a leading women’s sports activist opportunistically Tweeting about how “Title IX Rules!” although the success of American women’s soccer, as I wrote here on Saturday, is attributable to other factors as well.

Fortunately, these responses were not very commonplace. For they completely missed the point about why this World Cup turned on Americans.

Ever since that glorious summer 12 years ago, women activists and sportswriters have fed us a steady party line about the designated beneficiaries of the ” ’99ers” and their legacy. The apple-cheeked “ponytailed hooligans” of America finally had grown-up women to look up to. Feminist advocates had a Woodstock-like event to validate their work, embodied in the “cloth symbol of Title IX’s success” deemed to be Brandi Chastain’s black sports bra.

But the persistence of this sunny, preadolescent point of view also has made it difficult in the years since to mature in how we look at women’s sports. Especially team sports that are a relatively new thing when it comes to spectator appeal.

The prevailing message of 1999 made it clear that women’s sports, and women’s soccer, was all about young girls being inspired by their adult “role models” who once upon a time were “Title IX babies” themselves. Indeed, this is how the Women’s United Soccer Association was marketed, and while this wasn’t the only reason the league folded after just three seasons, it was a major miscalculation.

Its successor, Women’s Professional Soccer, launched in 2009 trying to reach out to an adult, and even male, audience, and there indeed were men hoping for this to happen, for no other reason than to cheer on edgy U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo:

“For some reason, people want to think that we’re girls next door, who all get along and go shopping at the mall together. Treat us like professional athletes.”

For the last week or so in Germany, they and plenty other men and women did exactly that, thrilled to comeback wins over Brazil and France that fed into a familiar American sports narrative. The U.S. team also resonated with real, adult, human storylines, from the internal banishment of one of its stars at the last World Cup to digging out a last-ditch playoff win to qualify for this one.

Yet the relentless preaching by sports feminists that women athletes are paragons of virtue, unsullied by filthy lucre and bereft of competing personalities, always finds a bullhorn. Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times hands it over to Donna Lopiano, who clucks uncritically about why females athletes rule, and men just have cooties, apparently:

“Money breeds corruption, money breeds laziness and arrogance, all those things you don’t like to see in your star athletes. You are less likely to see that in the women’s games, where there is a lot more sense of appreciation than privilege.”

Has it ever occurred to Lopiano that Solo, Abby Wambach and other WPS stars labor in a fledgling league with no better options, and not because of her ideal of glorified amateurism? Does she really think that women would maintain their humility if they were making some truly big bucks?

This smugness also insults men’s teams with superstars and high payrolls that still embody everything she idealizes about women. Since we’re dealing with soccer here, Dr. Lopiano, meet FC Barcelona.

Just entertain me

The notion that women athletes can catch on with the larger public because of their supposed female rectitude and status as “role models” has proven to be a faulty one. In the moments after the World Cup final, the basketball blogger Bethlehem Shoals summed up the weariness of feminist lecturing:

“Guys, both teams came away with a moral victory here. And that’s what women’s sports are all about, right? Teaching values?”

But most of the post-mortems were refreshingly dogma-free. The soccer blogger Brian Phillips, writing for Slate, polishes off the cross from Megan Rapinoe:

“But the real good news for American women’s soccer is cultural. Thanks to the catharsis of the Brazil game and their careening progress through the tournament, the team managed to capture the nation’s attention without ever having to be a symbol for anything. Unlike the 1999 team, this year’s American women weren’t serving as role models for a nation’s daughters or nurturing a country through a presidential crisis. They weren’t offering a corrective counterexample to the greedy/childish/immoral superstars playing men’s sports. They were just more or less kicking ass, as dramatically and unpredictably as possible. Yes, the Obamas watched the game and the TV commentators loved the team’s determination and chemistry, but the Americans were charismatic in part because they were at least a little edgy. If I had a daughter who acted like Hope Solo, I’d be terrified, which is exactly why I love Hope Solo.”

As I wrote last week, this team captivated simply because it entertained. No more so than in the final, as gut-wrenching as the outcome was on our shores:

“It had everything. It lifted you and crushed you and wore you out. Over 90 tense minutes of regular time and 30 tenser minutes of extra time it went. Anxiety, exhilaration, jubilation, despair. Every emotion bloomed and bottomed. The nerves of an entire sports season felt compressed into a few hours on one July day.

“The game was over, then it wasn’t. The game was over again, then it wasn’t again. Momentum would arrive and get ripped away like a rug. Finally it came down to penalty kicks—always a cruel solution—and Japan prevailed.”

Now the arguments — all in the name of equality — are whether the Americans “choked,” and whether those who say no aren’t giving them kid-glove treatment because they’re women.

I’ll let my friend Clarence Gaines make the case that there is honor in losing and point out one final thing:

Welcome to the arena, ladies. For better or worse, expect more of the same. Plenty more.

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One Comment

  1. Burn
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Great Links. I’m not a serious soccer fan but followed the World Cup and found it entertaining. I thought the US Team received unbelievably fawning media coverage throughout for a squad that was already rated number one in the world and who many expected to win the cup if Germany was ousted.

    “Choked” is a harsh term. One of the toughest you can toss at a true competitor. I can’t say if it is “fair” to say they choked when they lost to Japan or not, but the truth is that if a U.S. Men’s team had lost under the same circumstances the media would have been all over them for choking and the men would have accepted that judgement as being true. That doesn’t seem fair or equal to me, but I imagine it is OK with some.

    I like Hope Solo. The Camera and Nike also like her. She has a big mouth which is fine if she can back it up with her play. Unfortunately at a time when she should have proven her pedigree as one of the best goalkeepers in the women’s game she is badly out-played by a virtually unknown Japanese keeper. I saw very little in the media that went after Solo for her poor play. She also comes off as pretty disingenuous in the video above when she “educates” Letterman about how great they played in the loss to Japan. Pretty tough to swallow. We’ve all played with people that would rather quote the stats sheets than the final score. Nice try but sports doesn’t work that way. I don’t know if that type of rationalization is becoming more common in sports today or not. I hope not.

    I hope the women’s professional league stays afloat. It’s going to be tough at around 2,000 attendees per contest. I don’t think they have a cohesive plan to market the sport or the league. A classic example of the confusion that exists in women’s soccer is evident in the video. I’m all for people being individuals but have you ever seen an interview in which two US National Team members appeared to be from more different places? It’s fine for the individualism thing. Not so fine for any effort someone might be making to present the sport / team in a strategic way. It will work through college due to Title IX, etc. It won’t work in the real business world because when it comes to spending their own money most people don’t really care about “movements”. As you say, they want to be entertained.