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Nashville Scene Viva la Difference

Women's soccer victory shakes up sports--and more

By Randy Horick

JULY 19, 1999:  Don't catch yourself saying that the exhilarating shootout victory over China Saturday was the greatest ever for U.S. women's soccer. Otherwise you'll be guilty of a gross understatement.

Say this instead: The women's soccer team may well have changed everything. The popularity of their sport in this country, almost certainly. The face of women's sports in general, very probably. The way we look at female athletes, absolutely. And maybe, we can hope, the way we evaluate all athletes--men and women, boys and girls.

Perhaps the most relevant parallel occurred 30 years ago, almost to the week, when Neil Armstrong first kicked up a cloud of lunar soil. You may consider that an overhyped, lunatic perspective. But I don't. Besides swelling a national sense of elation, pride, and accomplishment, the Apollo missions made it impossible to view the moon, and ourselves, as we had before. The former was no longer merely a pie in the sky; the latter could no longer be bound by traditional limitations.

The final kick on Saturday--an emphatic winner by Brandi Chastain that set off a flag-waving, confetti-flinging celebration--marked a similar turning point. One short kick for a woman; one great leap for womankind. Sure, the U.S. women's team captured the World Cup once before, and they won the gold in Atlanta in 1996. Women's teams in other sports, notably basketball and gymnastics, have earned golds, too.

But, in the Olympics, they had to share the spotlight with other winners, and with their male counterparts. This team carried the standard for America all by itself, and everyone was watching. This World Cup drew larger crowds (including more than 90,000 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday) than any other event in the history of women's sport. It attracted a far larger American TV audience (more than 40 million for the final) than either of the past two men's World Cups.

And this team, along with its trophy, captured something perhaps even more important--and unprecedented--for women athletes: the imagination of the American public.

They did it by being refreshingly different from what we have come to expect from big-time, male-dominated sporting events--and vive la difference.

They brought a whole different attitude to the game. There were no displays of ego, no public complaints about playing time, no unlikable stars whose boorish behavior was tolerated for the sake of their talent. And when they won, none called attention to their own heroics.

Goalkeeper Briana Scurry not only deflected a penalty shot that set up the winning kick, she deflected attention to teammate Kristine Lilly, whose heart-stopping header from the goal line averted sudden defeat in the first overtime. Lilly, for her part, unassumingly explained that she was simply in her assigned spot, just doing her job. Amid such unselfish displays, the cynicism that usually attends men's sports events all but disappeared. Where else could Bill Clinton visit a locker room full of fit young women and fail to elicit a single snide remark from a commentator?

The crowd and the atmosphere were different, too. The executives and junketeers who usually populate Super Bowl audiences were absent. In their place were children, their faces and hair painted red, white, and blue. (Beer lines were nonexistent.) And, in contrast to crowds at women's professional basketball games, men and boys appeared just as numerous, just as exuberant, as women and girls. The women even brought a different style of play to soccer. Their game might be a little slower than that of the men, but it also creates more scoring chances. It's more open, more accessible to ordinary fans, yet no less intense.

Saturday's final was both as gracefully played and as tenaciously fought as the very best games of the men's Mondial. Both teams played with such captivating heart and desire that neither deserved to lose.

(By the way, Soccer Governing Body Geniuses, can we come up with a more equitable solution than shootouts to settle ties? Why not simply let the teams play for as long as it takes, as in hockey playoff games, for one side to score the decisive goal? The women have proven they can handle it.)

There's one more crucial way that the women differentiated themselves from American men's teams: They faced pressure to win, and they won. In our culture, it's impossible to overstate the importance of winning. Winning validates you and gives you sustaining power. As the men's team demonstrated by its ephemeral success in 1994 and its last-place debacle a year ago, losers may momentarily allure us, but only champions can seize the imagination.

Ironically, though, as the Media Geniuses wonder loudly how the women's team will build upon its success, what happens on the field may matter least.

Saturday's penalty-kick shootout produced a winner and intensified a rivalry but did not disrupt the sport's prevailing order. China and the United States remain the best two women's teams in the world--and two of the most evenly equipped rivals in memory. The two undoubtedly will meet at the top again--perhaps even before next year's Olympics in Sydney. But even if the U.S. women fall, they already have made their mark. Their most significant legacy will have little to do with their record.

For one thing, the women have provided badly needed reinforcement for the slightly unstylish notion of teamwork. By example, they have shown that reaching the goal is more important than receiving the credit. Also, the team may have provided a new, alternative model for athletes of both sexes. It's permissible to compete at the highest level and yet maintain a fulfilling life away from sport--as do the team's "soccer moms" who have children at home to raise, and the others who took breaks from training to be with their families. Most of all, this team provided world-class role models for girls (and parents of girls) all over America. Here are the messages they sent: Work hard, play hard, and you can be a national hero. Not just a player who is cheered as the B side to men's teams. Not just a hero to women, like Billie Jean King. A hero.

It's OK to be a hard-nosed competitor. No American player exemplified that spirit more than the team's old veteran, Michelle Akers, who at times seemed to carry the squad through sheer force of will. To the girls (and boys) who saw her play, Akers did not appear, to use the least offensive term, butch. Instead, she came across as the player you would want most on your own team.

It's possible to be a soccer star, a soccer mom, and a soccer mama. To the players, it didn't seem to matter that some men (including David Letterman) appeared as much drawn by their physical beauty as by their physical abilities on the field. When Chastain stripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal, she not only was following a male soccer tradition; symbolically, she also stripped away the tired old myth that women cannot be athletes without suppressing their femininity.

Now, more than ever, girls will be emboldened to claim for themselves the benefits of team sports that have long helped boys gain confidence and become leaders. It was a sentiment expressed by numberless commentators over the weekend, but never more eloquently than by one young girl caught up in the exhilaration of Saturday afternoon: "I'm so excited, I just want to go out and play."

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