The Dream Team made its official debut 27 years ago this summer in Barcelona, opening play with a win over Angola, a team that didn’t have a player over 6-7.
The U.S. men’s basketball team’s 68-point win over Angola was the largest margin of victory in Olympic basketball history. It was the first confirmation of their greatness and the team was widely celebrated — even by the Angola players. The Dream Team’s opponents turned into fawning fans after the 116-48 loss, posing for pictures and collecting autographs from the team that had just steamrolled them.
Contrast this with the treatment that the U.S. women’s soccer team received Tuesday after defeating Thailand, 13-0, in the opening game of World Cup play.
Rather than being celebrated for scoring the most goals in World Cup history, the U.S. team has received a non-stop lecture for its so-called lack of sportsmanship.
While some observers were upset by the lopsided score, others took issue with the way the team celebrated its later goals. Megan Rapinoe’s goal, which made it 9-0, seemed to particularly tick people off. She slid to the turf and kicked her legs in the air before being mobbed by teammates.
Would the U.S. men’s soccer team have faced the same kind of backlash for a 13-0 win? Well, we probably will never know, given that it has taken nine games and nearly two years for the men’s team to total 13 goals.
It’s ridiculous, however, to think that the women’s team owes the world some kind of apology for winning big and celebrating. It’s also more than a little sad, given that it illustrates how women athletes continue to be held to a different behavioral standard than men.
Women, far more than men, are asked to rein in their emotions and demonstrate “class” as they compete in sports, according to Rachel Allison, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State and the author of “Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer.”
“It’s much easier for women to cross that line into poor sportsmanship than men,” Allison said. “There are powerful gender expectations of women’s friendliness, nurturance and humility. Because what women in sport are perceived to be doing can run counter to that, we often see a policing of femininity in sports.”
Not long ago, it was not seen as feminine for a woman to compete in sports at all, Allison noted. While that has changed, the treatment of women in sport — the fact they are routinely paid less, receive less coverage in the media and are scrutinized for their behavior — is a form of social control that protects the long-standing perception that sport is an endeavor most appropriate for men, Allison said.
Why are women athletes always expected to be nice? Why can’t they just be good? Why can’t they get ticked off, throw in-your-face celebrations and show raw emotion the way men often do?
This is a question I have often wondered about during the course of Serena Williams’ career. Williams was vilified by many after she called chair umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” during last year’s U.S. Open final. Ramos reacted by assessing what was basically a match-ending one-game penalty against Williams for verbal abuse.
Never mind that tennis has a rich tradition of bad-boy players who have mouthed off to officials, including Roger Federer, who was assessed a whopping $1,500 fine when he swore at an official at the U.S. Open in 2009.
Somehow it seems the better a women’s team or woman athlete is, the more the team or player is held to some stricter standard.
This of course brings us back to the women’s U.S. World Cup team.
The team put the pressure on itself when it filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. The members of Team USA, which plays again Sunday against Chile, is looking to establish that they not only are a great team but deserve to be paid like one. They are trying to shake up a long-standing assumption in sports that women’s teams should be paid less than men’s, even when they clearly are more successful.
No one expected the Dream Team to apologize to anyone after cruising to a gold medal by beating their opponents by an average of 43.8 points a game. And it’s ridiculous to expect that from the women’s soccer team.
“Honestly, if anyone wants to come at our team for not doing the right thing, not playing the right way, not being the right ambassador for the sport, they can come at us,” Rapinoe said. “I think our only crime was an explosion of joy.”
Maybe it’s time for us to join them. If they can win it all, this dream team also deserves to be celebrated.