Good Sportsmanship Knows No Gender

We made anguished, strangled noises, something between a sob and a shout. “Oh my God,” I exclaimed to my husband, who had leapt to his feet in the living room, “was that an own goal?”

It was, he bleakly ascertained. We watched the replay, stunned to see such a gut-wrenching error in the final minutes of the 2015 World Cup. The match: England vs. Japan. We sat in silence, watching the Japanese team members celebrate their victory. Laura Bassett, the English defender who gave the match-winning point, crumpled into sobs and appeared inconsolable. Her team — stunned, crushed, disappointed — went through the wrap-up motions in a seeming daze.

Tweets posted about England's own goal against Japan, 2015 World Cup

Girls Aren’t the Only Ones Who Cry

I have never played soccer. Yes, I’ve kicked a ball around here and there, but I have yet to be part of an organized team. Everything I know about the beautiful game has been picked up in the last 18 years, thanks to my son. He started playing at age 4 after watching his older sister play for a season. It was love on the pitch for him. As I grew with him in the game, I came to love it, too.

Through the years, my boy played a variety of positions for school and club teams (he eventually went on to play and coach club soccer in college). As he got taller, stronger, and faster, coaches moved him into the backfield as a defender. During his junior year in high school, his school team went farther than ever before in post-season play. They lost their final game, after overtime, in the last PK.

He might dislike that I’m pointing it out publicly, but there was nothing sadder than watching those young men cry as the other team exuberantly celebrated the keeper’s dive to the wrong side. They’d played their hearts out and, naturally, emotions ran high. Though our family gave the boys time to compose themselves before walking quietly across the field to collect our son, he continued to mourn that game for quite some time.

Afterward, we made a point to focus on the aspects of the game where the team had played well. We reviewed the strategy that led their opponents to sub in a new keeper on those crucial PKs; it was some masterful coaching, a move that meant our Warriors couldn’t anticipate reactions. Discussions were kept positive. There was no reason to denigrate anyone — especially not the keeper — for that loss. Good sportsmanship required that we respect the competition and learn from the experience.

Lately, I’ve been reading some pieces that have labeled reactions to England’s own goal as “sexist.” I think there’s some loose play with language here that needs to be straightened out.

What is “Sexism”?

sexism: 1. prejudice or distinction based on sex; especially : discrimination against women. 2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex. ~ Merriam-Webster

I’m trying to sort out exactly where people feel the problem lies, and I think there are two distinct parts: how Bassett reacted, and how the public responded to her error.

I’m a little mystified by any claim that crying in sports is something unique to women. Anyone who’s ever watched a Super Bowl or NCAA championship has seen male athletes weep. I’ve seen tears of sorrow and rage. Hell, I’ve seen guys cry at marathons, triathlons, and trail races. There are many famous incidents of professional and collegiate male athletes weeping for a variety of reasons: Michael Jordan (’91 championship), Brett Farve (retirement, 2008), Wayne Gretzky (trade to LA), Tiger Woods (2006 British Open), Roger Federer (loss to Nadal, Australian Open), Terrell Owens ( 2008 playoff loss), Tim Tebow (2009 SEC Championship loss).

In 2014, AC Milan player Mario Balolelli was photographed crying on the bench. During the game, Italian fans hurled racially-based insults at the Black soccer player. The taunting was so overwhelming that the ref had to stop the match and warn the crowd over the public address system. Afterward, there was some media discussion as to whether Balolelli was crying over the fans’ hurtful, insulting behavior or being benched.

Does it matter?

As I researched “male athletes crying,” I noticed a theme in article titles — negative language. Phrases like “crybaby” were often used to describe these weeping athletes. Images were used disparagingly. Take a look at this compilation video of soccer superstar and mega-heartthrob Cristiano Ronaldo “crying like a baby,” created for “Ronaldo haters.” It has had more than 167 THOUSAND views.

What should be called out is that male players are unreasonably denigrated for shedding tears. Shame on the media, shame on the public’s insistence that men are somehow weaker for crying. The problem isn’t that Bassett, a woman, cried after committing a horrific error on an international stage — the real issue is that the public response doesn’t extend to the men’s field.

Good Sportsmanship Has No Gender Affiliation

The crux of this matter really comes down to sportsmanship.

I wish I could find a gender-neutral word to use, but I’ve grown up with “sportsmanship,” defined by my old friend Merriam-Webster:

sportsmanship: fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in winning and losing.

While we encourage competition in athletics, sportsmanship isn’t always taught. I’ve found that my female friends who react negatively to the idea of “being competitive” are really appalled at bad sportsmanship. That’s the tantrum thrown because the call didn’t go your way, using any means possible to better an opponent, trash talking and name calling, default blaming of referees for a game’s outcome.

Nobody likes a bad sport. Nobody likes an ugly fan.

But it seems that’s what was expected — to witness some excessively ugly fan behavior following Bassett’s own goal. How in the world is it sexist to have seen better behavior from the fans, players, and media associated with the women’s 2015 World Cup?

Would it have been less sexist to replay the reaction to Andres Escobar’s own goal in the 1994 World Cup? On July 2, 21 years ago, the Columbian player cost his team a victory against the United States. Ten days later, after being heckled while out with friends, he was shot six times by irate fans and died.

There’s nothing sexist about the reaction we’ve seen to Bassett’s catastrophic error. I’m not sure how the lack of bad behavior “fosters stereotypes” or “discriminates against women.” What we saw was good sportsmanship, which elevates the sport.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that Bassett made a devastating mistake, there’s no shame in tears following a horrific final minutes loss, and it’s logical to recognize that even athletes at the pinnacle of success make some really awful plays. These things are what make competitions exciting: “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” Mistakes happen.

Fans behaving well doesn’t mean that Bassett is somehow getting off easy. She will live with that play for the rest of her life, without anyone’s help.

What’s wrong is verbally tearing apart athletes over a mistake, issuing death threats to players who don’t perform to expectations, heckling and insulting competitors during a match.

The problem is that good sportsmanship is not the norm. And perhaps that’s where any hint of sexism lies — that its okay for fans and media to treat male athletes badly when they show emotion or make mistakes.

Let’s all try to elevate our play.

Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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