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.”
“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.”
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.