In Defense Of The United States Women’s National Team

I did not plan on writing anymore about the World Cup, but I feel like I have to.

In the two days since the World Cup has ended, I have been extremely surprised by what I have seen.  Rather than appreciate the fact that the US Women did their nation proud and placed second, an improvement on the last two World Cup performances, the sports media has directed invective toward the USWNT.   ESPN in particular, which pimped the USWNT to no end during the tournament, has been the biggest culprit.

This is not limited to ESPN of course.  The comments on All White Kit, a site that I admire very much, have been extremely negative (not the actual AWK bloggers who have been very fair and astute in their analysis.)  On World Football Daily, Kenny Hassan and his co-host of the day were questioning whether it was sexism that no one is calling the USWNT’s performance a choke. Clearly Kenny and co-host were not actually looking at the sports media, and instead pulling that sexism argument out of thin air.  Bill Archer on Big Soccer also made that exact same argument, again without any basis.

And then there is Jemele Hill of ESPN, a “writer” of such shocking ignorance that she doesn’t know what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution actually says.  Ms. Hill, no doubt trying to be edgy, also used the word choke,  Now to be fair to Ms. Hill, if you go to ESPN for quality commentary, you are bound for disappointment (with the occasional exception*.)

Taking apart a Jemele Hill’s column argument is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Her writing displays nothing except intellectually laziness and woeful ignorance.  I don’t want to pick on her, but her latest misinformed screed uses all the same arguments being circulated by people who should (and should not) know better about why the US women lost.  They did not choke.  Did the pressure get to them?  Maybe, but losing a one goal lead, even it losing it twice is not choking in football.  Choking in football is losing a 4-0 halftime lead in a league match when the title is on the line.  Choking in football is losing a 3-0 halftime lead in the final of the Champions League to a team that would not have even qualified for the next year’s tournament had it not won (oh, no wait, that’s actually Liverpool fighting bravely, not Milan choking.)  And as painful as it is for me to say, choking is losing 4-0 in the Champions League final you are expected to win because your opponent has been hamstrung by suspensions and injuries.  A one goal is extremely tenuous in football.  One error and it’s gone.  Unfortunately for the US, the back line had a bad game and made two very critical errors.  That’s not choking; that’s football.

Ms. Hill’s writes

If the U.S. men’s soccer team had been ranked No. 1 in the world and lost in the World Cup final to a team that hadn’t beaten the Americans in 25 tries, what would we be saying about them in the aftermath?

They choked.

Ms. Hill does not bother to hide her ignorance of the game in the least.  Anyone who knows a damn thing about international football knows that the FIFA rankings mean absolutely nothing.  The rankings are a way of ensuring that teams from the most historically successful teams do not play each other in the early rounds of international tournaments and qualifications.  They are ridiculous.  Right now England is #4.  No one, not even English, believe that England is the 4th best team in the world.  It’s a convoluted system that no one takes seriously.  Even when the US Women were ranked #1, everyone who knew better did not think they were the best team in the world.

As for Japan, it’s not like all 25 of those previous matches came in the months just before this World Cup.  They go back over two decades to when the landscape of women’s football looked far different from how it does now.  See, Ms. Hill what happens is that over time teams improve when they have aspirations of breaking into the elite.  Often this is inspired by not wanting to get beat 22 out of 25 times and drawing the other three.  But Ms. Hill, let me translate this into terminology that you presumably are more familiar with:  The #4 seed beat the #1 seed.  The #4 had beaten the #2 seed in a previous round, thereby becoming the darlings of the tournament.  It happens all the time and everyone talks about the Cinderella side’s spectacular tournament, not the bigger side’s choke.

Actually, except for the No. 1 ranking thing, there’s no need for the hypothetical. That’s essentially what a lot of people said about our men’s national team when it lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final last month despite leading 2-0 in the early going.

Again, you’re wrong.  What people were saying about the US men was not that they choked, but that they were a talentless bunch of hacks who could neither defend nor attack and were coached by a toadying yes-man who plays favorites and lacks tactical acuity.  Not that I ever said that,  Everyone knew going into the Gold Cup final that Mexico were the better side; the shock of the match was that the US took a 2-0 lead.  What people said afterwards was the instead of trying to get a third goal, the US should have bunkered down and defended.  As a result, the US lost the lead 13 minutes later.  No one accused the US of choking, we accused them of having no grasp of basic tactics and going stagnant because of from a manager who had passed his shelf life.

Also, Ms. Hill, the Gold Cup is not the World Cup.  If the US men were to get to the World Cup final, I would be thrilled if they lost on penalties after a hard-fought match.  It would be an incredible improvement.

Yet in the aftermath of Sunday’s thrilling Women’s World Cup finale, most of us seem to be picking up the pompoms instead of taking a critical look at why the U.S. lost to Japan, an inferior team that the Americans dominated for most of the match.

Perhaps it is because Japan were not actually inferior.  The US played a better game, but Japan never gave up, and they were the better side all tournament long.  By your logic the US should have lost to Brazil or France.  Football is not a fair game, and sometimes better sides lose.

From a survey of the coverage and analysis in the mainstream media, you would think the U.S. women’s national team had just accomplished something extraordinary rather than suffer what should be considered a devastating loss.

In the last two World Cups, the US lost in the semifinals.  In 2007, the US suffered its worst loss ever, a 4-0 defeat to Brazil.  US fans still have nightmares about this.  Coming in second is actually an improvement, especially for a program that had been heavily criticized in the months leading up to the World Cup.

Instead, the U.S women are being praised for their gutsiness. Because the match against Japan was the highest-rated soccer telecast ever on an ESPN network and was the most-tweeted-about event in Twitter history, the U.S. women’s World Cup experience is being viewed as a watershed moment for women’s sports.

Ms. Hill, I’m not sure if you knew this, but people don’t actually watch sports because they know the results ahead of time.  They watch the results because they are rooting for their team.  By the way, you may not find this interesting, but one of the biggest Twitter-using countries is Japan.  Although this doesn’t conform to you theory, the people of Japan may have been on Twitter during the match too.

Uh, let’s slow our roll.

Indeed, this was a terrific moment for women’s sports. It proved that female athletes are every bit as capable of captivating millions of sports fans as men.

But the reaction to the U.S. loss doesn’t seem progressive. It feels like stereotypical coddling of female athletes.

It seems patronizing to view the loss to Japan as historical or groundbreaking. The Americans are far too good to be patted on the back and given the we’re-just-happy-you-made-it treatment.

Is it possible, just possible that we can be proud of our team’s performance even if they didn’t win?  Is everything either victory or shame?  Ms. Hill, I hate to tell you this, but other countries play football, they play it well, and they have been playing it for as long if not longer than the US.  The rest of the world has caught up to the US, which gained an advantage from Title IX.  That advantage has come to an end, and unless the US changes its program, the US will not make the final again.  New Zealand gets their first draw ever, and they do a celebratory haka.  Our team gets to the final and barely loses and derided as chokers?  If the US men ever did what the US women did this year, I would be dancing in the streets.

Only a person looking for sexism would see a double standard in being proud of your team.

Keep in mind that the Americans were among the favorites to win the World Cup. Once the host team from Germany — perhaps the biggest favorite — was eliminated and the U.S. took care of Brazil in the quarterfinals, this tournament became the Americans’ to lose.

So why is everyone acting like the U.S. won something?

This isn’t a slight against Japan, an enormous underdog in the World Cup. The Japanese deserve a ton of credit for overcoming constant U.S. pressure on the pitch with a pair of come-from-behind goals. And when you consider that their country is coping with recovery from a devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was heartwarming to see their fans rewarded with the championship.

Not a slight against Japan?  I don’t know any other way to read this?  You flat-out called them inferior.  Basically what you are saying is that if Germany, Brazil, or the United States didn’t win, then it must be some crap team rather than the fourth best team in the world, and a side that has taken the women’s game to stylistic places that no one expected.

You clearly don’t watch football.  If you did, you would know a basic truth that all true fans know through bitter experience: there is no such thing as a guaranteed win, especially in the international game.

But let’s not pretend the U.S. didn’t whiff a huge opportunity. It let Japan hang around for far too long and eventually blew two leads. And other than Abby Wambach, the Americans looked shaken during the penalty kicks to break the 2-2 tie.

If true equality means giving women’s sports the same sort of analysis with which we scrutinize the men, then it shouldn’t be considered crass, unknowledgeable or unpatriotic to suggest or think the USWNT choked.

Male athletes and men’s teams are routinely judged against expectations. For the past month, for example, LeBron James has been vilified for his performance in the NBA Finals.

Some of the criticism directed at LeBron is mean-spirited, but a lot of it is justified. You can’t rationalize his disappearing act in the Finals, even though the Miami Heat came within two wins of the championship. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t form their trio in Miami to finish in second place.

So if James can choke, why can’t the U.S. women, who haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, be considered choke artists, too?

Perhaps the reason that LeBron James has gotten as much criticism as he has gotten has less to do with him losing and more to do with the fact that James had that distasteful spectacle of a show (aided in large part by your own ESPN) in which he ridiculously announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach, squandered all the good will people had toward him (especially in Cleveland), cried racism when he was criticized, made fun of a final round opponent who was very much respected around the country (and who gracious despite that), and generally acted like the pampered jerk that everyone hates in professional athletes.  As far as I know, no one in the women’s game has gone to those extremes.

Bob Bradley, the embattled U.S. men’s soccer coach, has his decisions constantly second-guessed; and U.S. women’s head coach Pia Sundhage should be facing criticism, too, because her team was unable to close out an inferior team. Doesn’t Sundhage deserve some blame for the U.S. team’s seeming inability to match Japan’s incredible will?

Bob Bradley’s team underachieved in a major way at the World Cup, not just according to the expectations of US fans, but also according to the governing body of United States soccer.  That’s why they looked for a replacement.  It was only after they could not come to terms with said replacement, that they kept Bradley.

As for Sundhage, she is facing criticism, but unlike Bradley, she actually won a world title, the 2008 Olympics.  Her record has as US coach has been stellar.  And, as I said before she improved on the US’s prior two World Cup performances.  Although some have blamed her for penalties (and there is a point), the truth is that penalty kicks are as much luck as nerve.  Criticizing a coach for a penalty shoot out is just not fair.

Of course if you actually watched football, Ms. Hill, you would know that.

Oh, and I thought you weren’t trying to take anything away from Japan.

Elevating women’s sports doesn’t always mean being obligated to run amok with praise when women’s teams are defeated. Female athletes already struggle to receive the same recognition and coverage as men, and whatever progress they’ve made is undermined when we pamper women after they lose. It sends the message that female athletes can’t handle scrutiny like men.

I’m not saying the U.S. women deserve extreme criticism. I’m not saying Sundhage should be fired, or that the women’s legacy was somehow hurt by the loss to Japan.

But our expectations of them shouldn’t be lowered just because they’re women.

Actually everything that you are claiming you’re not saying, you’re saying.  In fact you have contradicted yourself so many times in one article that your head must be spinning.  If the US had gone out in the quarterfinals or in the group stage, believe me Pia Sundhage would have been fired the next day.  But she got the US to the final where they unfortunately lost a great match, possibly the greatest the women’s game has ever seen.  There is no shame in that.  It hurts, but it is not shameful.

What there is shame in is lazy thinking and ignorance masquerading as a call for equality.  Ms. Hill, your ignorance of football is shocking for someone writing a column on it, and the thinking you have displayed is incredibly lazy.  But don’t worry, I am not calling your ignorant and lazy because you are a woman.  I’m saying it because your writing is ignorant and lazy.

Footnotes:

* ESPN’s European football site Soccernet has much better writers and commentators, but I consider that separate from ESPN.

Harry Potter And The Meditation On Aging

This past Friday I saw the final Harry Potter movie.  As a general rule, I don’t go to movies on opening weekend, especially summer movies.  Ever since I saw Mr. Holland’s Opus in a packed theater and suffered a bout of claustrophobia, I’ve tried to avoid movie crowds.  Generally I accomplish that by not going to the movies.  The last few movies that I have seen in the theater are Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the last three Harry Potter movies.  That’s it.  Otherwise, I watch movies at home.  I cannot imagine there is any other movie I will ever want to see in the movie theater again.  Too expensive, too loud, and it’s just not as much fun as it used to be.

There were two types of exceptions that I made to my “no opening weekend rule” however, the three Lord of the Rings movies and the eight Harry Potter movies.  I really wanted to see those movies, and I wanted to see them as soon as I could (I even went to a midnight showing or two.)  I read Lord of the Rings a year or two before the movies came out, and I went from refusing to see the movie (“They’ll ruin it!”), to seeing the trailer and wanting to watch, to loving the movies more than the books (sorry, but it’s true, and the absence of Tom Bombadil makes them all the better.  Please direct all hate mail to Solitary Muser c/o Antarctica.)

Unlike Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter movies are uneven and none are as good as the books on which they are based.  Two of them (Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets) don’t stand up to repeat viewing, and I couldn’t stomach Half-Blood Prince the first time around.  On the other hand Prisoner of Azkaban and the two Deathly Hallows movies, particularly the second one, were very enjoyable and moving.

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From Goblet of Fire on, whenever the newest book in the series was published, I would reread the entire series.  What struck me at around Book 5 is how the tone of both book and writing matured as the characters did.  Read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone again.  It is very light even a little twee.  J.K. Rowling’s targeted audience was about the same age as Harry in the book (11).  She did not talk down to her audience exactly, but the first few books are more child-centered than what would come.  Rowling may be the first children’s literature author who did not target a specific age group, but rather a specific generation, and her style matured with her initial audience.

In contrast to the lightness of the first two books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is dark, brooding, and harrowing.  Harry Potter is treated as an adult even if he is only 17.  The writing is not light and breezy.  Harry, now fully integrated into the wizard world, does not have a sense of wonder anymore.  There are no clever inventions like a Pensieve or Quidditch.  Rather, Rowling introduces her audience to the Deathly Hallows, three objects which, according to legend, were created by Death itself.  Moreover, Harry has to come to understand an important truth about his hero and mentor Dumbledore, a bitter truth that we eventually all learn about our heroes, they are dreadfully, shatteringly, and completely human.

A good children’s book is like a perfectly shaped jewel.  Like the finest adult novels, it can be a microcosm of the world, the means of conveying complex moral struggles in a way that enlightens.  In some ways, it is even harder to do that in a children’s book because the complexities have to be made simple for not fully developed minds (no child cannot truly understand War and Peace or Don Quixote.  Most adults cannot either.)  Perhaps the master, at least in children’s fantasy, is Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Earthsea series is remarkably complex–morally, politically, ethically, and emotionally.  Rowling has not reached Le Guin’s level (few have), but her elegance and humor, as well as the books’ increasing darkness, set the Harry Potter novels apart.

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I was not exactly late to the Harry Potter phenomenon, but I did not come in at the beginning either.  By the time I realized those books existed, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had either just come out or was about to.  I deliberately stayed away from the books, not for any anti-Potter reasons, but because I heard there would be seven books in all, and I wanted to read the complete series rather than wait one book at a time.  In retrospect, I am glad I did not wait.  Each time a new book was released it was an absolute thrill to wake up, find a package on my doorstep, and read it non-stop until the end.  I am also glad I read the books when I did because I could see each movie in the theater without spoiling the books (and better understood the movies.)  As much as I dislike movie theaters, there was something magical about seeing even the more banal of those episodes on the big screen.

Around the time that I read the Harry Potter books, there was a hue and cry from some of the more ridiculous elements out there who, needing a platform to get into the media limelight, declared that the books were Satanic.  (The Onion, in one of its finest moments, perfectly parodied this phenomenon to the extent that life imitated art in a scary yet hilarious way.)  This is what first cracked my resolve against reading an incomplete the Harry Potter series.

The main reason I eventually read Harry Potter is because I was friendly with a graduate student at my university, and I would watch her two sons from time to time.  There were times this became extremely difficult (this student’s family was falling apart, and the emotional toll for all involved was massive), but the two boys were very sweet.  The Harry Potter books were an escape for the younger of the two, and one night he asked me read to him from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I got through about two or three chapters, and I was hooked.  This boy’s mother lent me the book and the next one, and I finished them both by the next day.  I bought my own copies and also The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Ironically, this was the at the same time I was reading The Lord of the Rings (for a class), and once I started reading the Harry Potter books, I had some trouble switching back to Tolkien.  It was somehow less fun.

Over the years, I have often wondered what happened to those two children.  I wonder though if they still like Harry Potter or if they grew out of it.

Personally, I am glad that I read the Harry Potter books as an adult; as a result I will never grow out of them.  Perhaps not coincidentally most of my favorite children’s books I discovered either as a small child or as an adult.

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My grandfather and I had a disagreement in the early 2000’s about the lasting legacy of Harry Potter.  He thought it was a flash in the pan that would eventually burn out, and I thought it would be enduring.  Time will tell which one of us is right, but I suspect it is me.  Harry Potter is not a series of books, movies, and a theme park tie in.  It is a worldwide, unifying, cultural phenomenon.  It is quite possible to imagine that right now in every country in the world, in every language (including some dead languages), there is some child reading a Harry Potter book.  In terms of popular culture, only a few musicians have had this kind of worldwide appeal: the Beatles of course, and Michael Jackson in the early 80’s.  Beyond that I am hard pressed to think of another.  It is more common for movies to have that appeal, but most movies do not stand the test of time.  In literature this kind of popularity is practically unheard of.  Perhaps only Lord of the Rings.

My grandfather had no sense of magic.  Not so much the spells and hexes cast by the wizards in the Harry Potter books, but rather a general sense of wonder and whimsy.  It’s this magic that allows a sports fan to recognize and appreciate the truly amazing feats of a supremely gifted athlete.  It’s the same magic that performers like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, or Karen Carpenter cast through the power of their voice.  The real magic of the Harry Potter franchise is not the money it has made, but Rowling’s ability to hypnotize her readers with a unique retelling of an age-old tale.

My grandfather, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up during the Great Depression.  He graduated high school, but not college.  He was drafted into the army but because of injury he was honorably discharged without ever seeing combat.  He married my grandmother, started a business, and raised a family.  He liked golf, cards, and the Philadelphia Phillies whom he followed for about seventy largely unsuccessful years.

My grandfather did not understand the Harry Potter phenomenon, because he saw it through the pragmatic lens which he viewed life.  Children like it, children are flighty, children move on.  What he did not understand is that Harry Potter tapped into a deep cultural yearning that went far beyond children.  In Britain, where the series was first published, each book has two covers: one for children and for adults (so they could read it in public without embarrassment.)  Harry Potter is not the media creation that my grandfather saw.  Rather the media attention is recognition of a genuine phenomenon.  Yes, there are those who hate Harry Potter or look down on the books (most famously the boorish scholar and self-proclaimed cultural critic Harold Bloom), there are more complex storytellers, and there are better writers.  What separates Rowling and Harry Potter, and what Rowling’s true gift is, is balance.  The books are just original enough, just well-written enough, just funny enough, just intelligent enough, just accessible enough, just emotional enough, just lovable enough to make them beloved by the largest audience possible.  Had Rowling gone too much in any one of those directions, she could have wrecked the balance, and the series would not have the same appeal.  That is why Harry Potter is a singular phenomenon that has yet to be replicated.

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As for the movie itself, it was wonderful, probably the best of the series.  Harry has become an adult in every way but actual age.  The movie makes for a more stimulating experience than the book.  Some of the moments that Rowling glosses over (Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort for example) are fleshed out in an exciting, special-effects laden way.  Other moments that were integral to the book (Harry’s discovery of Dumbledore’s failings) have been pushed to the side or eliminated entirely.  The movie is Harry’s story and only his.

This movie is the best of the series because it has successfully married faithfulness to the text with faithfulness to the tone.  Most of the movies are faithful to the former but not the latter.  Perhaps a fear of crazed Potter fans prevented directors from imposing their own vision.  The sole prior exception was Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, a wonderful movie more faithful to tone than text, but also the lowest grossing of all the films.

At the end of this movie, I felt a sorrow that went beyond story.  Although I read the books as an adult, I too grew up with Harry.  Even after I read the final book, the melancholy of finishing was not as pronounced because there were still movies to be made.  I suppose there is Pottermore, but it is not the same.  The final movie is a reminder that I too have aged.

Harry Potter is not Peter Pan.  He grew up, and I did too.