by Sarah Spain (courtesy of ESPN.com)
As the United States women’s soccer team glides down Broadway atop its buses in Wednesday’s ticker-tape parade, you can expect to see plenty of the signature swagger. Alex Morgan twerking, Allie Long hyping the crowd, Kelley O’Hara unleashing a barbaric yawp into the ear of every teammate, and Ashlyn Harris posting all of it to her Instagram story. And, of course, a purple-haired Megan Rapinoe doing her now-iconic “Come at me, bro” stance to a sea of fans doing the same, like so many mirrors reflected back at her.
Wednesday’s relatively rare occurrence — female athletes sitting atop the sporting world — happens to fall on the 20th anniversary of another iconic moment for women’s sports: Brandi Chastain’s sports bra celebration capping off the 1999 USWNT World Cup victory.
Before Rapinoe’s eagle arms or Morgan’s spot of tea, Chastain was captured in a moment of unfiltered, unabashed, spontaneous joy. Seconds after burying the 1999 World Cup-winning penalty kick, she was on her knees, arms flexed in celebration, her just-removed jersey clutched in hand, black sports bra exposed, abs rippling. A crowd of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl and millions more around the world watched as Chastain and her teammates, equal parts overjoyed and relieved, reveled in having bet on themselves and won, demanding bigger stadiums and delivering on the crowds, believing in their own greatness and then going out and proving it.
Like Morgan and Rapinoe during this World Cup run, Chastain received some criticism for her now-iconic display.
“What I explain to people is, imagine the moment you created as a kid in the playground many, many times — where you have the last shot and the clock is ticking down and the crowd goes wild,” Chastain told Deadspin in 2015. “Maybe in the playground you jump up in the air or pump your fists. But to do this in real life: the emotion and the energy and the electricity and the crowd — it was insanity because I wasn’t really in control. It was just a spontaneous expression to a wonderful moment, but a moment that was a lifetime in building.”
It’s rare to see male athletes called out for celebrating too much or offending sensibilities. Most people understand that balancing the mental, physical, psychological and strategic elements of a game in the very biggest moments is more than enough, without also asking athletes to consider WWEPD (What Would Emily Post Do?). And most understand that a flashy goal or a hard-fought win calls for instantaneous, over-the-top exaltation, not a curtsy.
Sure, some criticisms of the USWNT were inspired by the social or political issues outspoken members of the team have tackled or by a general distaste for American success, but too many critics seemed motivated by gender stereotypes and expectations.
Said Morgan of the heat she got for her (very clever, many-layered!) tea-sipping celebration, “I feel that there is some sort of double standard for females in sports to feel like we have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate but not too much.”
Last year, when the French won the men’s World Cup, the team’s celebration couldn’t be contained to the field or locker room — the players burst into their coach’s postgame news conference, spraying beer and champagne all over him (and the reporters) and jumping on the table. “They’re young and happy, can you blame them for wanting to party?” was the accepted refrain at the time. Can you imagine the pearl-clutching if Rapinoe, Morgan and the rest of the American women did the same?
Of course, sports isn’t the only place where many adopt a “boys will be boys” mentality that allows for boys and men to act as they like, while the behavior of girls and women is policed. Antiquated ideas plague women in every workplace, whether it’s a boardroom or the pitch. Don’t be bold, brash or confident — you might be seen as a b—-.
Well, as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey once said, “B—-es get stuff done.” Like winning the World Cup and making damn sure the world is watching.
And that’s the hard truth of it all: The very things that earn female players criticism, in 1999 and 20 years later, are the things that make headlines and highlight shows. And they’re the very things that make so many of us love them. They put on a show. They remind us that when you’ve spent a lifetime working toward a goal and you get on that stage and fulfill every dream you’ve ever had, it feels damn good. It makes you wanna celebrate. And scream. And pose. And rip your shirt off. It makes you want to show the world you’re worth watching, and cheering for, and paying attention to. And paying, period.
Both this year’s team and that 1999 squad proved, with their unity off the field and dominance on it, that sometimes if you aren’t offered something, you just have to go and take it. In the case of the USWNT — and most women in sports — what isn’t offered is money, attention, support, publicity and the chance to own the collective interest of sports fans. While the top 24 women’s teams in the world battled for the biggest trophy in the sport, posters for a weeks-old men’s rugby tournament lined the French subway system instead of World Cup promotions. And men’s national soccer teams prepped for not just one but two major international tournament finals scheduled for the same day as the Women’s World Cup final.
It is in spite of these obstacles, put in front of them by the very institutions and organizations meant to lift them up, these women shined. While some were busy looking for offenses, in the form of celebrations or flag etiquette, the USWNT was showing us how to win as a team — after the final, Morgan repeated a common refrain from throughout the tournament: “22 of my best friends and me, winning the World Cup.” The players showed us how to be leaders — Rapinoe spent her post-victory news conference challenging FIFA to support and improve women’s leagues around the world. And they showed us how to be selfless — suing their own federation just a few months before the tournament to fight for the next generation of players.
This team dominated under the pressure of expectation and in the shadow of political criticism. This team saw the chance to change not just the future of women’s soccer, but the future of all women’s sports, and the players rose to the occasion in the most inspiring way possible: unapologetically. After drawing criticism for celebrating too much in the team’s first game against Thailand, Morgan and Carli Lloyd didn’t shrink; Lloyd clapped back with a sly “golf clap” against Chile, and Morgan showed all the haters “that’s the tea” against England. When Rapinoe was attacked for saying she wouldn’t go to the White House if they won, she doubled down with words and backed it up with goals. Perhaps unlike the past, there was no need to worry about this team changing in the face of outrage — no matter the judgment, the players persisted.
And the celebrating has persisted, too. Thanks to social media we’ve been able to watch a victory lap the likes of which we usually only see after a Stanley Cup win. Just since Sunday they’ve danced on the bar in Lyon, popped bottles of Ace of Spades on the jet ride home, cooled off with a rooftop pool party in New York and cruised by the Statue of Liberty on a magnificent yacht. To paraphrase Harris on several of her Instagram dispatches: They deserve this.
From Sam Mewis rapping Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” in a leopard-print swimsuit to Harris stunting in an unbuttoned shirt under a menswear-inspired blazer, we’re getting a rare glimpse at a group of women who are uninhibited, unfiltered and uniquely, authentically themselves. Just like out on the field, they’re not a bit worried about who’s watching or judging. Their confidence and swagger have gone beyond aspirational to become instructional.
Maybe there’s no help for folks who see women living big, bold lives and want to tone them down, but I’d like to think seeing this team win in such an inspiring fashion might soften their stance. And if it doesn’t, let ’em sink. Let ’em watch as we pass them by, no longer just thankful for an opportunity, no longer just grateful we get to play. Angry, motivated and powerful enough to demand more, like the freedom to celebrate with abandon, the right to the biggest spotlight, and the respect to be paid what we’ve earned.
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