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Choking with the Stars

July 27, 2011 1 comment

By: Aaron Watson

Bryant Gumbel was right. The USA women’s soccer team choked. And not just in the horrendous shootout that featured mistake after mistake by both United States shooters and keeper Hope Solo. The entire game was a series of unfortunate events, from poor defending on counter attacks and defensive miscommunication to shot after shot that missed the target.

But these women were media darlings. And criticizing them for losing in a World Cup Final just seemed unfair. This is soccer, after all, a sport where in the United States the men’s team gets hero status for barely beating Algeria in the World Cup and championed for defeating Panema 1-0 in the gold cup semi final. Only, of course, to be brought back to reality thanks to powerhouses like Ghana and Mexico.

Except that in women’s soccer, the United States was the top ranked team in the world. A team on the verge of winning more World Cups than any other country on the planet. A team with the world’s best goalkeeper and one of the most feared strikers not named Marta. And yet they lost.

To recount, here is what Gumbel said on HBO’s Real Sports, “Can we stop coddling women in sports? Are we now so fearful of being labeled sexist that we can’t objectively assess the efforts of female athletes? Had a men’s team turned in a similar performance, papers and pundits nationwide would have had a field day assailing the players, criticizing the coach, and demanding widespread changes to a men’s national team that flat out choked. Yet the common reaction to this ladies’ loss were simply expressions of empathy for the defeat of the unfortunate darlings and pride in their oh-so-heroic effort.”

Yet to me, the worst part isn’t that the women aren’t taking flak for their multiple mistakes during the World Cup Final loss to Japan. It’s that they are being celebrated for their great effort and almost applauded for trying so hard in their loss to a clearly inferior opponent that had never come close to defeating them and had previously lost in two pre-Word Cup exhibitions.

Poor LeBron James gets just lambasted by every major media outlet after slumping in the NBA finals, but no such criticism for the great Hope Solo or Abby Wambach, who couldn’t stop the Japanese from fighting their way back time after time in the biggest game of their lives. They were bigger, faster, stronger and simply better than their opponent, and yet they lost the game. That’s called choking, folks, and we shouldn’t coddle them for turning in a “great all-around performance”. The object is to score and stop the other team from scoring, and they lost that battle no matter how “pretty” and “skilled” they looked in losing.

And I don’t say any of this to discredit what the Japanese did, which was heroic and emotionally charged. But when goliath is slain, doesn’t the giant have to take some criticism? The Giants win over the undefeated Patriots in Superbowl XLII earned Brady and Belichick plenty of negative press. You think the Russians went home and walked the red carpet after losing to Team USA during the 1980 Winter Olympics? And we all remember what happened to Michigan in 2007 when Appalachian State came in and shocked their division one athletes.

But when you’re the best in the world and favored to win the game by every media outlet in the world, shouldn’t the word “choke” come into play? According to Hope Solo, “…we played our best game. We were attacking, we had opportunities on the goal, we played beautiful soccer, like the game is meant to be played, in the final. So did we choke? We played a beautiful game. We played our best game. But we didn’t come out on top. I don’t think we choked at all.”

Yes, Hope, you did. That’s what it’s called when you lose a game you are supposed to win and that you should have won. You see, it’s not just that they lost to a team that played them tough. They lost to a team they outshot, outjumped and outplayed for over 120 minutes. And credit to Gumbel for coming out and saying it, instead of setting up another red carpet event for beautiful women who just couldn’t get it down in the end.

Anna Kournikova, anyone?

Aaron Watson saw his NFL career cut short when his pee wee coaches informed him he wasn’t very good. So he turned his attention to writing, studying journalism in college while blogging for several sporting blogs since 2005. He and his wife currently live in Richmond, VA, one of the worst sports towns in America despite the short lived hype during the Final Four. When he is not at the local sports bar pursuading the owners to put the Buccaneer or Gator game on the big screen, Aaron serves as the Director of Staff Development for TeenPact Leadership Schools, a non-profit training teens to impact their nation through government, business and ultimate frisbee. He has also stayed in Tim Tebow’s house.

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