There was a bit of irony in the controversy that erupted over the excessive celebration by the United States women’s soccer team during its 13-0 World Cup victory over Thailand on Tuesday.
In the middle of it were former Canadian national team players Kaylyn Kyle and Clare Rustad, who registered their self-righteous disgust with the Americans on the Canadian sports network TSN.
The irony: This all happened the day after Canadian sports fans cheered when NBA superstar Kevin Durant suffered a serious injury in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Toronto.
Apparently, questionable sportsmanship does not recognize borders.
This isn’t my way of excusing the manner in which the U.S. team comported itself during the late stages of the most lopsided game in the history of the World Cup. It was clearly excessive and certainly worthy of a discussion about the point in a blowout game when it’s no longer appropriate to dance on the figurative grave of an overmatched opponent.
Just understand that it’s not a new issue. The decorum debate in sports has been raging and evolving for decades.
First off, let’s set the parameters of this one. The U.S. team did absolutely nothing wrong by playing the game hard from start to finish. The rules of the World Cup reward the teams that have the highest goal differentials in the round-robin phase with the first tiebreaker, so the bigger the blowout the better.
But there does come a point when the burst of joy that comes with performing at the top your game on a very big stage needs to be reined in a bit, even if there is a long tradition of over-the-top goal celebrations in both men’s and women’s soccer.
If you need proof, the insurance giant GEICO even made a hilarious commercial about that, featuring a player celebrating a goal with a never-ending knee-slide that took him all over the field.
So, the issue wasn’t the act of celebrating an individual goal. It was the intensity of the celebrations after the U.S. team had run up so many tallies that the team representing another country was being totally humiliated.
Doesn’t seem like a tough call, but some defenders of the U.S. team’s behavior were quick to point out some of those goals were scored by players who had never scored a goal in the World Cup and had a right to let their joy be unrestrained.
Others quickly trotted out the NFL as an example of a team sport that now allows choreographed end-zone celebrations, which don’t seem to be dependent on the score … or even which team is winning.
Retired U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach even turned it into a gender issue, posting on Twitter: “It’s the World Cup folks. Would you say this about the men?”
Well, yes. This debate has been going on in men’s sports for decades. There was a time when a baseball player who danced around the bases after a home run stood a good chance of needing to pry a baseball out of his ribcage the next time he came to the plate.
The excuse that the U.S. players scoring their first World Cup goals had every right to celebrate however they wanted regardless of the score is actually compelling. But even that is a sign of the times.
It wasn’t all that long ago that veteran players on high-profile sports teams reined in the excitement of younger players with the stern admonition, “Act like you’ve been here.” But the world has changed.
This is the “look at me” era when media face time can be worth millions and there has been a revolt at all levels of sport against the old-school concept of respecting your opponent and winning with dignity.
Philadelphia Phillies superstar Bryce Harper might have summed it up three years ago when he called out baseball — which has long been the most conservative of the pro team sports — for lacking the entertainment value of the NFL and the NBA.
“Baseball’s tired,” he told ESPN The Magazine. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself.”
The brashness of that comment by such a young player made headlines everywhere, but the general consensus seemed to be he had a point. Kids just want to have fun.
No one wants the terrific U.S. women’s soccer players to stifle themselves, but there is a time and place for everything. And there came a time in Tuesday’s game when they could have shown a bit more self-awareness.
So could their critics.