Keith Strudler: The Perils Of Winning Big
One of the teams in my kids’ soccer club lost a game 18-0 last week. This team competes in a fairly competitive league, or flight I suppose, where every team is called either elite or premier, which then makes the term obsolete. In this league, there is no penalty for running up the score, unlike others where teams get fined for winning by more than seven.
In this particular 18-0 blowout, while it was a competitive division, it was also a division of nine-year-olds. Which is why a lot of parents in our club are pretty upset about the other team’s perspective. Clearly, at any point, the opposing coach could’ve asked his players to simply stop scoring and kept it to a manageable nine or 10 to nothing, as odd as that sounds.
Of course, there’s a big divide between grade school club soccer and the World Cup, which determines the best national soccer team in the world. And as many of you know, the Women’s Cup is happening right now, with the American team the resounding favorite to defend their title. That process started on Tuesday with a 13-0 win over Thailand, the team with the worst odds of winning the whole thing. Thailand only had two shots on goal all game, compared to 39 for the Americans. It was kind of like watching Usain Bolt run in a high school track meet, only for two hours.
Now it’s no surprise the US won, and by a lot. The Americans want no drama during this initial pool play, where groups play round-robin until some move on to the elimination part of the tournament. For the American team, the best thing that can happen is that they win every game in decisive fashion and save their Maalox for later.
Not everyone sees it that way, at least when it comes to the most lopsided victory in the history of the Women’s World Cup, which to be fair, is only 28 years. After the match, rhetoric included questions of whether the Americans lacked sportsmanship, whether they should have stopped celebrating goals, or more specifically, whether they should have stopped scoring goals altogether – not unlike the aforementioned nine-year-old team that scored a full 18. So after the match, instead of simply talking about their performance of the next game, the Americans also had to defend their play, at least it’s insinuated excess.
There is a lot to break down here, much of far beyond the scope of a single commentary or sporting event. At the core of this analysis is a) we are talking specifically about women, and b) this is the World Cup, the height of elite competition. Leaving aside either of these truisms ignores the social context of moment.
So first, no, I do not think there would be the same level of questioning had this been the US men’s team winning 13-0 against another national men’s team. We’ve seen dreadful college football and NFL blowouts in playoff and championship games, and no one seems to get too worked up about it. So any wagging the finger here feels gender biased.
Second, I do believe that in sporting events like these, where the assumption is greatness and the stakes are highest, I would expect people to continue to play hard, regardless the score. Some call that respecting your opponent, although anyone on the losing end may not see it that way.
So instead of whether it’s okay that the US Women won by a landslide, the real question is, what does that do? As far as I can tell, perhaps the most damaging part of any highly public, blowout win, is how it impacts kids that follow their lead. In other words, does a 13-0 World Cup win lead to a heartless 18-0 blowout with nine-year-olds? The answer, I suppose, is perhaps.
There’s no doubt that kids want to copy their favorite athletes, especially when it comes to on-field behaviors. So if the pros try to win big, their young fans may try as well. Which, I suppose, is the inherent challenge of creating youth sports programs that emulate their professional elders. Perhaps part of the problem isn’t that nine-year-old elite teams are copying the blowouts of the national team. Perhaps it’s that they have the opportunity to do so in the first place. Or as I once said after a really bad loss of one of my kids travel teams, “I don’t know why we have to drive so far for a game. We could lose just as bad close to home.”
That, the professionalization of youth sports, the endless creation of elite and premier programs that go too far too fast, that is far more an issue than the current state of elite and pro sports themselves. Which is why an 18-0 kids game is far more concern than a 13-0 adult one.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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