Why the Controversy Over the U.S. Women's Soccer Team's Winning Celebration Is Total BS
Women have been downplaying their strengths for way too long.
I’m not a huge soccer fan. I have so much respect for the insane amount of training that the sport requires, but watching the game doesn’t really do it for me. Yet, when I heard about the controversy surrounding the celebrations of the U.S. Women's National Soccer team during their first game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup against Thailand, my interest piqued.
ICYMI, the team made waves with its 13-0 victory. They were the first team ever (men's or women's) to score 13 goals in a World Cup game, making history with the largest margin, according to The New York Times. But it wasn't just the score that ruffled feathers–it was the way they won, too. The players were jubilant with every goal, celebrating together once the ball hit the net causing many critics (ahem, haters) to disparage their behavior, calling it unsportsmanlike.
“For me, it’s disrespectful," said former Canadian soccer player and TSN World Cup commentator, Kaylyn Kyle after the game. "Hats off to Thailand for holding their head high.” Kyle also said that while the World Cup is the venue to assume a take-no-prisoners approach to competing, the U.S. team should have put a stop to their passionate celebrations once they reached 8-0. (Related: Alex Morgan Loves Playing Like a Girl)
Needless to say, this grinds my gears.
First, as a former player, Kyle of all people knows about the hard work and sacrifices required of a pro athlete to reach the upper echelon of competition. This alone is worth glory and acknowledgment no matter if you never make it past the first round. Second, much of the U.S. Women's team is involved a wildly public lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for alleged gender discrimination, focusing mainly on the glaring difference in payment for the men's and women's teams.
Each goal was another exclamation of their value and worth to the organization that has maligned their abilities, despite top rankings and Olympic medals. And perhaps, what adds insult to injury, the women's national team has been heads and shoulders above their male counterparts. According to Vox, members of the female team can make around 40 percent of what the male players earn–they commonly pull in around $3,600 per game compared to male players earning around $5,000. In 2015, Vox reports, the U.S. women's team was awarded $1.7 million for winning the women's World Cup–the U.S. men's team received a $5.4 million bonus–after losing in the 16th round of the 2014 World Cup.
But, what really irks me: What kind of message do these condemnations of celebrations and the U.S. Soccer Federation's dysmorphic pay send to the next generation of female athletes? Or really, girls passionate about anything, whether it be painting, physics, or business?
"It’s wonderful to be a professional athlete and feel fulfilled, but at the same time, what sort of legacy do you want to leave?” said Alex Morgan, one of the stars of the U.S. women's national soccer team, to The New York Times. Morgan scored five of the 13 goals against Thailand. “I had this dream of being a professional soccer player, and I never knew it entailed being a role model, being an inspiration, standing up for things I believe in, standing up for gender equality."
In sports, in the board room, or in the classroom, girls–and minorities–have been told to make themselves small in order to allow others (namely, white boys and men) to feel competent and big. To give others space for personal development and growth, while stunting their own in the process. The lawsuit and the team's unapologetic enthusiasms send a message that disrupts the status quo where girls, women, and minorities start–and often, play the entire game–at a disadvantage. If we try to bring attention to any of these imbalances, we are corrected through shaming, criticism, or even violence in the worst cases. Even Kyle reportedly received death threats after her comments on the U.S. team's behavior. (Related: Influencers Are Supporting Nike's Decision to Feature Plus-Size Mannequins After Backlash)
As an “older” Millennial, traditional gender role lessons were reinforced in school. I learned that being a lady necessitated remaining quiet, humble, and demure: cross your legs, don’t call out, and downplay your skills. Meanwhile, in many cases, girls who followed the rules and raised their hands while waiting to share their responses were overshadowed by rowdy boys who interrupted and derailed the class.
Fortunately, at home, my parents lauded the talents that my sister and I possessed (art for her, swimming for me) and fostered growth in areas that were more challenging. We were constantly told that it’s okay to be super skilled at one thing and not fabulous at another. That we are not only defined by our strengths but more often than not, our weaknesses–and how we handle failure. We were brought up to dream big and my parents bent over backward to try to make those big dreams happen. (Thanks for chauffeuring me to alllll the swim practices, especially in the dead of winter, guys).
This is not a privilege every girl has. Outside of school and immediate households, society at large serves as an amorphous parent that's hard to pin down, but omnipresent nonetheless. We are educated by our cultures, especially by the media, and especially now. Many are tuning into coverage of a championship for a sport they love only to hear that you shouldn’t celebrate your goals after you hit a certain number. Translation: Mute your passions and your skills so as to adhere to a patriarchal standard of what a woman should be allowed to accomplish. Spoiler alert: Women are damn talented and it’s time we stop apologizing for it. Anything you can do, I can do while bleeding.
According to Bleacher Report, Jill Ellis, the women’s U.S. soccer coach, put it succinctly, “If this was 10-0 in a men’s World Cup, are we getting the same questions?”
Witnessing a woman succeed and relish in that hard-earned accomplishment is uncomfortable, for many. It’s messy and inconvenient–it doesn’t fit into a pre-ordained box. It feels like a masculine trait. Thanks to the feminists and barrier-breakers who have paved the way, we feel like we can be anything we want, but society snaps back, telling us our goals need to be kept within reason. You can crack the glass ceiling, but you won't shatter it. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and thank goodness for them. In addition to Morgan and her teammates, Cardi B, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Amy Schumer among others have proven that with enough gumption and drive, you can achieve your dream–and run a victory lap once you do.
But despite these inspiring examples, there's still an overwhelming amount of factors pulling other women down.
There’s been a lot swirling regarding women and their role in sport recently. Olympian and all-around badass Alysia Montaño penned an op-ed for the New York Times, blasting the way some shoe brands handle (or really, don't handle) maternity leave for their female pro athletes, causing them often to compete throughout their pregnancies and return to training earlier than their doctors recommend.
Plus, the International Association of Athletics Federation (the IAAF aka the top track and field organization) tried to ban running sensation, Caster Semenya from competing unless she took hormones to lower her natural testosterone levels. Who set the standard of appropriate native testosterone levels in female athletes? Wouldn’t that be called an advantage or “gift” for male athletes? (Related: Aly Raisman Shares the Letter She Wasn't Allowed to Read at Larry Nassar's Trial)
This goes back to the celebrations of the women’s U.S. soccer team–and ultimately, Kyle’s remarks. She is not entirely to blame, of course–Kyle is entitled to her opinion. If anything, we need more conversations surrounding these topics in order to examine the current reality and spark change.
My question is this: Where did Kyle learn that “good behavior” needs to fall into a specific bucket? She, like most other women, has absorbed the same messages that have flooded our collective female-identifying psyche from early in life. If you are taught to believe that our successes can only reach so far–and your celebrations of them can only be demonstrated in one way–you will ultimately abbreviate your skills, expectations, and skew your opinions of those who challenge it. IMO, her comments have the air of a lifetime of being taught that there’s a pigeon-holed approach to feeling proud of yourself.
The lessons behind good sportsmanship are invaluable. You learn how to win and lose with grace and applaud your opponent regardless of the game’s outcome. Morgan did just that. After her incredible performance, she comforted a Thai player at the completion of the match. Other members of the U.S. national team congratulated Thai players.
It’s an exciting time to be a woman. We are finally garnering well-deserved attention for our vast contributions to society, and for the unseen efforts that we do without accolades or acknowledgment. Whether the U.S. Women's National Soccer team intended to be role models, they're doing a mighty fine job IMHO. Keep it up ladies, I'll be cheering for you!