Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: For U.S. women's soccer team, a choke of big-time proportions

They choked. I mean that as a compliment.

The U.S. women's soccer team gagged in Sunday's World Cup final. It wasn't that they "didn't finish." It wasn't that they "put in a great effort" and just came up short.

No. The top-ranked team in the world -- a 2-to-1 betting favorite to beat Japan -- had two late leads and blew 'em, took penalty kicks and missed 'em. The Americans, who'd never lost in 25 previous matches against a team they dwarfed in size and skill, were mere minutes away from victory twice and gave it away, then whiffed at their chance at PK salvation.

That's a choke.

Granted, this is not a very nice word to use. But we should feel empowered to use it. We should feel obligated to use it. Because you know who should want to see that word written, spoken and tweeted from coast to coast this week? The U.S. women's soccer team.

It would mean that they'd arrived.

Apparently, they have not. And the people who are telling them they have not arrived are the same ones who have masqueraded as their biggest allies: the national media.

The producers and writers who had their glowing, "changing the face of the sport" features ready to go as the U.S. led this match wimped out the moment things went bad. Suddenly, the event became not about national glory or legitimizing a sport to the U.S. masses, those story lines we've seen trotted out the past two weeks. It wasn't about creating American champions whom little Suzy could look up to when she's dribbling in her back yard.

It became all about the team's "great effort," as though these were T-ball players chasing ladybugs in between swings.

The rare criticisms of U.S. mistakes came with more sugar-coating than a two-pound bag of M&Ms.

One NBC.com columnist wrote, "The U.S. women deserve a few gentle noogies today."

How condescending is that? Silly little women, giving up the lead like that. Oh, well. Here's a quick hair tussle, and off you go. See you in four years!

As for missing three straight penalty kicks -- a seemingly inexcusable sin -- well, that doesn't deserve our scorn either, according to a columnist with The Washington Post. After all, there was pressure. "I'd defy any viewer or critic to hold up under the same circumstances," she wrote.

Wow. So that's our standard now? How we would have fared in the same spot?

So if LeBron James misses a breakaway dunk that would win the NBA title, we're supposed to say, "Hey, man. Go easy on him. I can't even touch the rim." Or if Rory McIlroy shanks a drive on the 18th hole at Augusta, we're supposed to compare it with the last time we teed off at Ole Monterey?

We revere athletes because they can do things we cannot. That goes for women's soccer players, too. Or at least it should.

Either you cover this thing like a big-time event or you don't. Either choice is fair; just don't downshift based on results. You want women's sports to get an equal shake from fans? Great. You start by treating them as you would other big-time sports -- in victory or defeat.

Sports passion is measured by how bad it hurts to lose just as much as how good it feels to win. It's easy to dress in an American flag T-shirt and head to the bar once every four years, have a few drinks and watch the match. That's not passion; that's socializing. Yet so often, it's packaged and sold as the former.

It's easy to flip on the TV and scream for two minutes as Michael Phelps tries to break a swimming record. But that's not passion, either. That's taking in a drive-by spectacle.

No, passion is hanging on every play. It's getting elated when things go well and frustrated when they don't. It's holding a parade when the Americans win it all and holding them accountable when they fall short as heavy favorites. It's having the guts to use real words, not patronizing ones, to describe what happens.

The next time people tell you women's soccer deserves a better foothold in this country, ask them if the U.S. choked in the 2011 World Cup final.

If they say yes, you'll know they believe what they're preaching.

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