Kovacevic: Here's Hope-ing women's sports evolve
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
LONDON — Hope Solo and the U.S. women's soccer team were wonderful the other night, front to finish, in besting Japan for Olympic gold at Wembley. It was a fitting climax to a fantastic Games not just for that group of women but also for women worldwide.
Now you know what's the best thing anyone could say to Ms. Solo?
“Hey, Hope! You're a hopeless sieve!”
No, really. And stick it to Abby Wambach, too.
“Wambach! You'd miss the ocean if you were at the beach!”
Even if it's wholly irrational and loathsome, this is what they need to hear. It's what all female athletes need to hear for their various sports to take the next step.
Remember the fuss Solo kicked up at the start of these Olympics?
Happened July 28, when the U.S. blanked Colombia, 3-0, in Glasgow, Scotland. On the NBC broadcast, Brandi Chastain, the former player now commentating, was discussing a defender's responsibilities: “Defend. Win the ball. And then keep possession. And that's something that Rachel Buehler actually needs to, I think, improve on in this tournament.”
Pretty, um, venomous stuff.
Presumably fearing that Buehler would need meds and treatment to recover, Solo threw a Twitter tantrum the next day: “It's 2 bad we can't have commentators who better represent and know the team and know more about the game. … I feel bad 4 our fans that have to push mute.”
This, too: “Brandi should be helping 2 grow the sport.”
Let's set aside, for a moment, that Chastain — the player — did more to grow women's soccer with one kick and a strip of her shirt than Solo will do if she never allows another goal.
The issue here is that criticism of women's soccer, even something so benign as, gee, Rachel needs to step it up, is genuinely seen as an affront to the team, to its fans, to the sport.
As proof, consider that the best Chastain could offer in response was this weak one-sentence statement: “I am in London to cover women's soccer for NBC in an honest and objective fashion, and that is what I have done and will continue to do.”
She should have tried this: “I'll do my job. You do yours.”
Say what you will of this mind-set — and I can see where views would diverge — but know this: It's got nothing to do with sports fandom.
At least not the kind that, you know, draws paying customers and profitable TV audiences.
These really have been a breakthrough Olympics for women, especially American women. They arrived here with a larger contingent than the men for the first time, and they'll carry by far the greater haul when they leave: 29 gold medals to the men's 15 and 58 overall medals to the men's 43.
That's amazing, worth applauding on a lot of levels.
But let's be honest: A breakthrough Olympics for women doesn't mean much more than we'll all watch a little more closely four years from now.
Other parts of the world pay to watch women play basketball, volleyball and tennis, but not in the U.S. We pay to watch Danica Patrick and cheerleaders. Most of that's plain old chauvinism that will take generations to wipe out, but at least some of it is because there isn't that emotional attachment that people build up with a franchise over time.
And, yeah, dishing out and taking criticism comes with that pact.
I'm picking on Solo, but examples can be found across women's sports. Jamie Dixon and Agnus Berenato coach Division I basketball at Pitt, but you'll never hear of Dixon admonishing reporters for an article not being “positive” enough. It's standard fare on the women's side.
Can't have it both ways, where you want publicity but won't take criticism. Equal means equal.
All these years the Pirates were terrible, I never doubted they'd be a smash if they were ever just decent simply because they continued to make people in Pittsburgh furious. That was infinitely better than people not caring.
Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications who has his finger on our city's sporting pulse better than anyone, once told me when I was covering their worst-in-the-NHL team a decade ago: “Rip us all you want. Just spell the name right.”
That's sports fandom.
We're not a nation of fans who sing songs or whistle or applaud our boys coming off the pitch after a tough loss. We boo. We bash people on the Web. We call talk shows and demand change.
It's who we are.
Not everyone likes it, but no one's going to change it.
Back to Solo.
After the triumph, she continued to try to drum up interest for her sport by bemoaning the recent cancellation of the Women's Professional Soccer League. In referencing the 80,203 who witnessed U.S.-Japan, she said: “We filled Wembley Stadium, and you're telling me there is no league to play in? Seems a bit dated.”
No more dated than the concept that women athletes can't be criticized.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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