Perhaps you watched the game. Elite women athletes thrashing the competition. A team of women athletes who had the best odds of winning the entire tournament. And despite being the favorites, the women celebrated with a level of exuberance that stirred a wide range of reactions from fans, journalists, and athletes. Along with television viewers whose peak physical accomplishment of the day ranges from bending into a half squat to turn on the grill to re-enacting a chest fly workout by opening up both refrigerator doors 10 times. Consider this quote from the executive director of the tournament:
I don’t think it’s a good promotion of sport values. If they celebrate in the changing room, that’s one thing, but not in public. We will investigate what happened.
Serious accusations require serious scrutiny of the evidence.
In case you missed the game, let me give a little background. The event only happens every four years. The best women athletes train for four years for this, to be on the biggest stage. Talk about delay of gratification. Consider how many hours have been spent training. Certainly over 20,000 hours of formal practices and extra training, which equates to working out every waking moment for 833 days. I couldn’t do it. I suspect few of you could do it. Consider how much money their families spent from childhood to adulthood, with the small prospect of a payoff. My twin daughters are only 12 and their younger sister is 6, and I’ve spent over $10,000 to support their athletic career — and they are merely good, with no expectations of playing in college, much less a scholarship and becoming a professional athlete. The parents of these elite athletes probably spent over $100,000 — and in some cases, lived on the fringes of poverty to support the passion projects of their daughters. Noble. Stupid. Virtuous. Insane in the membrane. All are true. And then there are the physical injuries that these athletes worked through. The social events and relationships passed up, often with conflicting feelings. Any semblance of work-life balance is a rarity at the highest levels.
With that background, let’s return to the controversial game. Mere minutes after scoring, the women celebrated. Enthusiastically. They jumped into each other’s arms. They screamed. They roamed at full speed with their arms out, imitating jet planes. They acted like……athletes. In every movie. In the vast majority of major athletic events — the Super Bowl, The World Series, The National Basketball Association Championship, March Madness. These women athletes behaved just like every other athlete in the biggest game.
Except a big chunk of the world were pissed. A large minority of online reader criticized the players’ celebratory behavior, some of them on sexist or nationalistic grounds.
If others celebrated like this, the comments here would be completed different. Everyone would be saying how inappropriate and classless these actions were.
Classless act. Even beer league players have more class.
Oh wait, you thought I was talking about the Record breaking June 11, 2019 Women’s World Cup Soccer Team? Nope. I’m referring to the Canadian Women’s Ice Hockey Team in the 2010 Winter Olympics. It was the 4th time that women’s ice hockey was an official sport. The Canadian team crushed Switzerland 10–1 in the first round, thrashed Sweden 13–1 in the second round, blitzkrieged Finland 5–0 in the semifinal, and then finally, won the gold medal with a 2–0 pouncing of the United States. Some people were angry at the women. Why? Because they had the nerve to return to the arena after the game, hang out together at center ice, and with champagne bottles in hand, swigged, laughed, screamed, and sprayed alcohol on each other. It was inappropriate. It was disgusting. It was…like virtually every other team of (male) athletes winning the biggest game in their respective sport.
The difference between the Canadian Ice Hockey Team of 2010 and the USA World Cup Soccer Team of 2019, and the super bowl, and the world series, and the NBA championship, and march madness is twofold. First, it only happens every four years. Imagine how the best football, baseball, and basketball players in the United States had to wait three extra years to battle the competition for a chance at the title of being the best. Second, as much as I wish I didn’t have to say this, we are talking about women and a conversation about potential sex differences is required — if only to say that upon looking at the evidence, these elite women athletes were treated no differently than their male comrades.
I was surprised at the public outcry after watching the Women’s USA World Cup Soccer Team win their first game of 2019 with a 13–0 win. This is the highest level tournament in the world. These athletes are playing against consenting adults who waited their whole lives to reach this level of competition. The World Cup rules are adamant, the amount of goals a team scores is factored into the equation if there is a tie. How many goals you score could matter in determining whether you advances to the next level. You are supposed to increase the goal differential as much as possible. Everyone did their job.
You know who did not complain? The Thailand team. Because they knew the odds. They worked hard. And now FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the sport’s international governing body) received a wake up call that will benefit Thailand. Insufficient monetary resources and infrastructure allocated to the non top teams leads to lopsided games. Hook up Thailand with equivalent training grounds as any other team. A loss now might help them later. My colleague at George Mason University, Dr. Andrew Gilbert pointed out an illustrative example of this point. Japan lost 145–17 to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup in 1995. A world cup that was won by South Africa. Fast forward 20 years later to the 2015 Rugby World Cup and you can probably guess what happened: Japan beat South Africa. Be on the lookout for young women Thai soccer players with a surge of national pride who will be working out in the next few months and years so they perform much better in a few World Cups….
Dr. Lisa Edwards and her colleagues at Cardiff Metropolitan University and St. Francis Xavier University explored double standards following the Canadian Women’s gold medal victory in the 2010 Winter Olympics. What they found is that the women followed a behavioral script that has existed for decades in person and on television for how teams celebrate. Their behavior did not differ, only their sex. And a close look at the sports psychology research literature shows that women are treated differently than men in non-random ways. Upon dissecting 769 media article passages for Gold Medal winning USA women’s teams and 63 hours of television coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is clear that more statements irrelevant to sports such as the physical attractiveness of players, the fashion outfits of players, and what their personality is like emerges when the media covers women athletes. And this extra commentary about what is appropriate or inappropriate occurs at greater frequency for traditionally masculine sports such as soccer.
So if your gut instincts tell you there is something fishy and unfair about the response and coverage to the current USA Women’s World Cup Soccer Team, you’re right. Because your grandparents, parents, and even you, have seen this all before. It is only now, with a more powerful lens to notice sex-based differences are we paying careful attention. No apologies needed, for the athletes or those bestowing judgment upon them. Just know that the bias is real. Try to keep it in check next time.
Dr. Todd Kashdan is a Professor of psychology and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University and the author of Curious? and The Upside of Your Dark Side.
Jones, R., Murrell, A. J., & Jackson, J. (1999). Pretty versus powerful in the sports pages: Print media coverage of US women’s Olympic gold medal winning teams. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 23(2), 183–192.
MacArthur, P. J., Angelini, J. R., Billings, A. C., & Smith, L. R. (2016). The dwindling Winter Olympic divide between male and female athletes: The NBC broadcast network’s primetime coverage of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Sport in Society, 19(10), 1556–1572.