It was Megan Rapinoe’s goal in the 79th minute that really seemed to tick people off. Rapinoe, the vivacious U.S. women’s national soccer team forward with pink hair, ran with outstretched arms, spun around a couple times, then slid to the ground and kicked her right heel high in the air several times.
A whole lot of people were big mad at Rapinoe, whose goal made it 9–0 over Thailand, a team the U.S. thoroughly dominated in its opening World Cup match on Tuesday. The Americans eventually won 13–0. But, rather than being praised for setting a World Cup record for scoring the most goals in the tournament’s history and securing the largest margin of victory ever, the win turned into a debate about sportsmanship.
Instead of Team USA being celebrated for what its players achieved, the victory became an opportunity to lecture these women on how to behave. That lecture is all the more galling given that, in March, the team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. The women are fighting, in the courts, for equal pay and respect—and, on the field, for the right to pummel their opponents and express themselves in a way that men often do.
“Either way, people are going to say something,” the former women’s national-team forward Sydney Leroux Dwyer told me in a text message. Dwyer won the World Cup with Team USA in 2015. “You celebrate, you’re rubbing it in their faces,” she wrote. “You don’t, and you’re entitled or cocky.”
True to form, many commentators who saw the U.S.-Thailand game chided the Americans for gloating. Jim Toth, a radio host for the Canada sports network TSN, tweeted: “I’m not opposed to the number of goals. I am disgusted by the celebrations after 8 though.”
Former national-team member Hope Solo, who was the U.S. goalkeeper for 16 years and won a World Cup with the team in 2015, wrote in a guest column for The Guardian: “You do want the game to be celebrated and you do want to see players having fun, but at the same time I thought some of the celebrations were a little overboard.”
The ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman also weighed in on Twitter: “0.0 problem with the score line as this [is] THE tournament BUT celebrating goals (like #9) leaves a sour taste in my mouth like many of you. Curious to see if anyone apologizes for this postgame.”
Well, no one apologized. Nor should anyone have. It isn’t the U.S. national team’s job to spare Thailand from humiliation—especially when, in this phase of the tournament, the differential between goals scored and goals allowed can determine whether a team advances. Considering that Alex Morgan tied a tournament record with five goals, and Morgan’s teammates Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle each scored the first World Cup goals of their careers, this team had every right to celebrate as it wanted.
“You spend your entire life trying to get to a World Cup,” Dwyer wrote, “and you get there and you’re supposed to tone it down and make people more comfortable?”
Female athletes are often judged differently than male athletes when it comes to expressing emotions on the field of play—whether it’s in exuberance or anger. In 1999, Brandi Chastain hit a penalty kick in the World Cup Final that not only sealed the tournament for Team USA, but led to the most iconic moment in U.S. women’s soccer history. After making the kick, Chastain infamously whipped off her jersey and celebrated in her sports bra. Some considered Chastain’s celebration to be in poor taste, even though there were countless examples of bare-chested male soccer players in the same victory pose.
The behavior police don’t just stick to soccer. If the tennis star Serena Williams is visibly upset with her performance, she isn’t perceived as being competitive, but moody. Earlier this month, the men’s player Dominic Thiem said Williams had a “bad personality,” because he was told to leave the main interview room at the French Open to accommodate Williams, who was in a rush to leave after suffering a surprising loss to Sofia Kenin in the third round.
It’s doubtful Thiem would have said the same about Roger Federer.
Last year, Williams was subjected to a mountain of criticism for calling the chair umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” during the U.S. Open’s women’s final. Ramos made the unprecedented decision to levy a game penalty against Williams for verbal abuse. In all, he penalized Williams three times during the match.
Meanwhile, men’s players often have testy exchanges with officials without being penalized on the spot. Andy Murray kicked a ball toward an umpire’s head at the 2016 Cincinnati Masters in Ohio, and all the umpire did was glare and move out of the way. Federer, who said Williams “went too far” by calling the umpire a “thief,” blew up at an umpire at the 2009 U.S. Open: “Don’t tell me when to be quiet, okay? When I want to talk, I’ll talk,” he said. “Don’t fucking tell me the rules,” he added.
Federer was fined $1,500 for swearing at an official. Instead of clucking at Federer’s poor sportsmanship, a story in The Telegraph characterized the outburst as a competitive turning point. That same U.S. Open, Williams received a $10,000 fine for berating a line judge.
When men curse and yell at officials, they’re just showing how much they care about the game. Imagine if a woman behaved as Mario Vilella Martínez did at an ATP Challenger event earlier this week.
The shameful part is that how the U.S. women’s soccer team celebrated on the field will cause more of a stir than whether the players are paid fairly. Despite having won three World Cup titles, earned four Olympic gold medals, and generated millions of dollars more in revenue than the men in 2015, the women sometimes earn 38 percent of what the men earn per game.
In fact, the 13 goals the women scored were more than the men have tallied in every World Cup appearance since 2006 combined. So if anyone deserved to celebrate on their own terms, it’s these women.