The USWNT, Arrogance and Our National Double Standard

photo of us national women's soccer team squad 2019 world cup

I love the U.S. Women’s national soccer team. 

My infatuation is rooted in my youth. I grew up with soccer, in a small Maine town where the school population and budget were too small to support a football team. My three brothers played, and the teams regularly won regional and state titles. And I reveled in every second my daughter played on her high school team. 

But I love the World Cup-winning “USWNT” for more reasons than my love of the sport. Let’s start with their controversial confidence.

Advantage Arrogance

The strengths of the U.S. team have been praised by many including Maya Salam in yesterday’s New York Times. But what about the criticism from those who call the team arrogant instead of confident, successful and driven? Much of the criticism refers directly to the team’s enthusiastic celebrations upon scoring goal after goal.

Let’s be real here: The U.S. national soccer team should be allowed a degree of arrogance, and the freedom to celebrate, considering their achievements. A professional sports match is an adrenaline-fueled performance and physical displays of emotion come with the territory.

The debate takes me back to my days doing PR for the USS Constitution Museum in Boston. The director was a non-nonsense, demanding, strong and smart woman. Behind her back, the words bossy and bitchy were tossed around. This irritated me to no end, because I knew a man with the same management style would be called a confident and results-driven leader.

I live in New England, home to the American football team everyone loves to hate: the Patriots. To outsiders, the sheer number of wins stacked up by the team translates into arrogance somehow, as if the mere act of winning gives you an attitude. 

copyright free photo new england patriots football

Still, does anyone really expect the Pats to apologize for being so good, or to bring anything less than their best to the gridiron? Should the USWNT apologize for winning? You don’t expect that behavior in men’s sports, and you certainly don’t see it in the business world, because it is ridiculous, especially in America where we regularly celebrate a winning, independent spirit.

Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed? Of course. Personally, I like to see any team, high school or professional, celebrate wildly as deserved but stop short of being disrespectful to the other team and their fans. Where exactly is that line? It’s easily found if players on the field or court simply remember that there are kids who look up to to them sitting in the stands.

Double Fault

Anyway, the real question shouldn’t be “Did the women’s team act arrogantly by over-celebrating?” It should be “Why can’t women celebrate the same way men do?” Once we’ve achieved parity on that, then we can debate what level and style of celebration is acceptable, from women and men.

In the meantime, when professional male soccer players score goals, they strut, they dance, they disrobe, they posture, and they slide on their knees as if coming in for a giant hug from the entire world. (Check out this video of the top 10 goal celebrations that got players kicked out of the game.)

Why are those behaviors considered cute when similar or more likely more subdued celebrations from female players are called unseemly?

My first memorable experience with the gender-based double standard was as a teen, when my mother didn’t “trust me” (my opinion at the time) to sleep over at a friend’s house when days before she’d let my brother stay at his friend’s. I realize now her concern was partly for my safety, but it rankles me to this day.

I recently waged my own war against a double standard in my household. After years of training my children to burp with mouths closed, I found myself surrounded by the vibrant, open-mouthed belches of my boyfriend and his adult sons. The amount of grief I got when I decided to meet fire with fire and burp as loudly as they did would have been humorous but for the underlying double standard. In the end, I was victorious, winning the right not to be criticized for the same behavior they display daily. A small victory of dubious value, but a victory nonetheless.

And I once convinced the local newspaper to stop referring to the school sports teams as the Stags and the Lady Stags. They agreed that all are Stags, but one is the boys’ soccer team and the other is the girls’ soccer team, and changed their reporting accordingly. (Yes, I get the irony here that the mascot being applied in a gender-neutral way is actually the name of a male animal.)

Final Set

Back to a more impressive subject, the USWNT: Overall, the U.S. women’s soccer team members have been stellar role models for American girls whose sense of self is still forming. They’ve shown what hard work can accomplish and that women can be as good as, and in some cases better than, the men.

Sadly, I expect at least one team member will be tarnished in the coming weeks as critics who like to see the mighty fall look for chinks in their armor. 

And that, at least, is a national characteristic with no double standard: Both men and women at the top of their game are regularly attacked by naysayers, who come in both male and female form. 

So there’s that. 

Note: Pardon the tennis lingo in the subheads. I couldn’t think of soccer terms that worked.