Let’s Celebrate This Run By The USWNT Right Alongside Them
It’s 9 a.m. Saturday morning and your five players are loading onto the bus with the sleep still in their eyes. With your record currently sitting at 0–5 and an hour-long bus ride ahead, energy is expectedly low. Being freshmen basketball, few details are known about the upcoming opponents except for the fact that the school’s website lists them as being 4–1. I would be safe in saying that the outlook for Ben Affleck as Batman was more gracious than the one for this game.
Throughout the bus ride, two players remain in a heated discussion about Riverdale, two pick back up where they left off with their interrupted sleep, and one player stares into the distance with earbuds in, presumably listening to Lil Uzi Vert pine about all his friends being dead. Unfortunately for you, your team’s chances of winning are closer to Lil Uzi Vert’s friends than you’d like to admit.
After watching the opposing team in warmups, it’s confirmed that unless one of your players bought a lot of 2K VC and upgraded their offensive abilities, you are most likely ending this game 0–6. You are no Eric Taylor, so there is no way clear eyes or full hearts are turning the tide here. No amount of pomp or circumstance in the form of a pre-game speech can change anything, so you opt for the standard — if not cliche — “we are focusing on improvement” and “looking for teachable moments to help us grow as a player” tropes. This is a situation that every seasoned coach has experienced. The hopeless feeling that no matter how well your players execute or over-perform, the opposition is just too skilled for it to be a true competition.
What does it feel like to be on the other end of that scenario?
With the United States Women’s National Team’s record-breaking 13–0 rout of Thailand, the debate on how best to respect your opponent while winning has been brought to the forefront of the Twitterverse and beyond. With many high-profile pundits and athletes, as well as every armchair quarterback who has fingers, sounding off, everyone seems to have an opinion on how to “win with class.”
It should not come as a shock that the media devoured this “story.” Whether you are a die-hard fan of soccer or a casual viewer, everybody knows that the World Cup is the mountain a majority of players crave to climb. You can soapbox the importance of club team achievements all you want, but how many times has someone came to Messi’s aid with his GOAT-worthy Barcelona stats after his Argentine squad squanders another chance for glory? Bueller? That’s what I thought. The pressure that comes with representing your country on the international stage means that every moment of your performance is magnified in the public eye.
While this “win with class” debate has led to some encouraging discussion, like the above conversation between LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye and former USMNT’er Maurice Edu, it has also led to a cacophony of noise and all-caps bullheadedness that want to paint these incidents as black-and-white pictures that have one “correct” answer. The hardest thing for a lot of people to grasp when it comes to the unwritten rules of sports is that context truly is queen. How you handle your fourth grade youth baseball team while up ten on your opponent is going to be drastically different from how Jill Ellis handles her World Cup squad who are competing at the pinnacle of their sport.
Unfortunately, I am not an omniscient being and I do not hold all the answers. What I am, though, is a coach who has been on both sides of this scenario. I am approaching my fifth year of coaching baseball, basketball, and football year round. Throughout my tenure as a high school girls basketball coach, I have experienced a 1–12 freshman team that had five girls on the squad, a 22–0 junior varsity team that I was lucky enough to get to be with for a year, and everything in between. This has put me in a unique position to understand both the dejectedness of receiving a good ass-kicking and the synergy of a blowout victory where everything seems to bounce your way.
The idea of needing to “win with class” is always present when I am approaching a large victory, and I have had many stressful conversations with my own conscience about how to not come off like an asshole to the losing party. In regards to how to truly “win with class,” people have to understand that there is no perfect way to do so, because you cannot control how others are going to digest what you do. This lack of control is hard for a lot of people to grasp, but the acceptance of such things can help quiet the noise.
Let’s take out the portion of the critics who think that 13 goals was a disrespectful amount of goals to pile on an opponent in the World Cup (because the pen is mightier than the sword so I am able to make hypotheticals). For those that argue that Team USA disrespected Thailand by celebrating their goals throughout the entire match, let me pose a question. Which celebration was inherently disrespectful to the point of such public outcry? It’s not like Sam Mewis went over to the Thailand bench and gave them a few DX crotch chops for good measure. Post-goal celebrations have become such a cultural phenomenon that they often get more shine than the goal itself.
Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp gained praise for his “creativity” when he went full on Mr. Socko after scoring a goal against Norwich City. Joel Campbell began sucking his thumb and stuffed the ball into his shirt, parading around like he was pregnant, after scoring against Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup and was called inventive, if not eccentric. Iceland’s Stjarnan F.C. is virally known for their overly choreographed celebrations, including their post goal Human Toilet. Amongst these, and other celebrations that garner praise, you are telling me Alex Morgan counting to five to signify her World Cup Record tying fifth goal is disrespectful to the nation of Thailand? Get out of here.
“But, but, but… Megan Rapinoe disrespected the game of soccer itself after the team’s ninth goal by jubilantly helicoptering around and sliding towards her teammates, mocking Ashlyn Harris’ bad knees, calling back to an inside joke between teammates,” you say? Yeah, and Ronaldo shows his “passion” and “heart” when he rips his shirt off and flexes his 24 pack to the masses.
How would you react if the dream you had grinded for four years to achieve had finally became a reality? Each member of the USWNT has sacrificed months away from their family and friends, dealt with underfunded working conditions in the National Women’s Soccer League and other women’s professional leagues, put massive stress on their body and mind by pushing both to the physical limits, as well as numerous sacrifices specific to each player that we can never know without being in their shoes.
The beauty of sports is that it is always more than numbers in a box score. The fifth goal by Alex Morgan can be viewed as an instance of kicking someone when they’re down, or it can be appreciated for a record breaking moment that is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and dedication to her craft. How you take it is up to you. All I know is, Thailand Coach Nuengruethai Sathongwien didn’t seem to have a problem with the USWNT’s actions on the field, so why are you so upset?
During my third year of coaching, I had an athlete who was the epitome of infectious enthusiasm. Shooting her teammates with imaginary bow and arrows when they make a three? Check. Imitating a fire horn when our team is on a run? Check. She was the first person to congratulate a teammate and the first to bring the energy of the gym up when we were having a bad day. As a young coach, I struggled at times with this because I perceived some of the things she was doing as being potentially disrespectful to our opponents. After a game in which we won by 30+ points, I briefly told the opposing coach that I would talk to her if he believed some of her celebrations crossed a line of disrespect. He responded that doing so was unnecessary and that he would kill to have an athlete that brought that much energy to his team.
This exchange helped me come to grips with the fact that the only thing coaches and teams can do is what they feel is best for their team and their representation of how the sport should be played. The rest of the world is going to perceive their actions how they will, based off of their own personal background and belief system.
The USWNT’s opening match set the tone for the tournament. The defending champs are here to earn a fourth star above their crest and if you disagree with how they go about doing so, Carli Lloyd offers you a consolation golf clap. The bigger question I pose in regards to this “debate” is how, in the day and age of instant communication, are we still spitting venom towards trite issues when we could be having a discussion about actual issues within the sport?
Why do the majority of players in the NWSL have to get host families and second jobs just to live? How can the Argentine Football Association let their women’s team be so criminally underfunded that the squad had to go on strike just to earn minimal wages, regularly scheduled matches, and a training staff? How has FIFA allowed the women’s side of the game to be so ignored by a majority of national federations that the disparity between nations leads to matches like the 13–0 rout of Thailand in their biggest competition?
Something I want to urge you to do when discussing this “controversial” topic is to think for yourself. Watch the games. Watch the celebrations. Watch the players and coaches speak about the moment. Watch commentary on both sides of the argument. Look into the background of the people involved. Read reactions and thought pieces until it’s 3 a.m. and you’re cursing yourself for wasting away the hours on your phone.
But please, form your own opinion and be willing to engage in thoughtful discussion with the other side. Being able to do so with something as inconsequential as whether athletes should celebrate after kicking the leather ball into the big open net for the 13th time might just help you train yourself to engage in respectful discourse when an actual controversial topic is brought up in your life.
Bryce Phillips is a new contributor to the staff in the realm of everything sports and popular culture. You can follow him on Twitter here.