Women can never win – even when they win 13-0

It’s crucial women call out double standards, but it’s also important we don’t cry ‘sexism’ to absolve ourselves of bad behavior

Should America be ashamed of itself?

I know that’s an evergreen question (and the answer is normally yes), but in this particular instance I’m talking about the US women’s soccer team (USWNT) thrashing Thailand 13-0 in the World Cup on Tuesday. Despite being a record-breaking performance, the exuberance with which USA celebrated goal after goal after goal has prompted criticism and accusations of unsporting behavior.

A lot of this criticism, it should be said, came from male sports commentators. “The goal celebrations at 9-0, 10-0, 11-0 are so overboard. Why are they even trying to score any more? I’m on team Thailand at this point,” said Jeff Paterson, a Canadian sports reporter.

“0.0 problem with the scoreline as this is the tournament, but celebrating goals (like No 9) leaves a sour taste in my mouth,” Taylor Twellman, an ESPN analyst and former player for the US men’s national team, said on Twitter.

And commentator Max Bretos similarly tweeted: “I would tone down the celebration on the ninth goal, but that’s just me.”

There is something infuriating about a bunch of male commentators telling the world’s best women’s soccer team: Tone it down, ladies! It smacks of sexism, as many people were quick to point out. Responding to the criticism, Abby Wambach, a former player for the USWNT, tweeted: “For all that have issue with many goals: for some players this is [their] first World Cup goal, and they should be excited. Would you tell a men’s team to not score or celebrate?”

Wambach followed this up by noting: “[T]his isn’t rec league soccer. This is THE WORLD CUP!!!!!!!!! Stop judging these women with patriarchal glasses. You would never say this about a men’s team. Period.”

I understand Wambach’s frustration; I’m sure every woman does. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a soccer pitch or in a boardroom – being a woman means constantly battling impossible double standards. If you’re too friendly you’re considered unprofessional; if you’re not friendly enough you’re considered a bitch. If you speak up, you’re told you’re too aggressive or emotional; if you don’t speak up you’re told you’re not assertive enough. You can basically never win when you’re a woman, even when you win 13-0.

Professional sport is particularly rife with double standards; female players are rarely given the same levels of respect as their male peers. They’re certainly not given the same levels of compensation. The USWNT is currently in the middle of a federal lawsuit against US Soccer, alleging “institutional gender discrimination”. US Soccer’s response to this lawsuit has essentially been to claim that the women’s team – three-time World Cup winners – isn’t entitled to equal pay with the men’s team because they’re not performing equal work. This is beyond patronizing.

Did sexism play a part in the criticism leveled against the US performance on Tuesday? Absolutely. Does that mean that none of the criticism is valid? Absolutely not. While Wambach is right to point out double standards, she is wrong to boil everything down to sexism. You don’t have to be wearing “patriarchal glasses” to think that USA could have behaved a lot more decently on Tuesday. I’m not saying they should have taken it easy on Thailand or scored fewer goals – but there was no need to be quite so over-the-top in their celebration, especially when they were playing a team that was clearly the underdog. The exuberance wouldn’t have been an issue if USA had thrashed France 13-0, but this wasn’t a fair fight. The celebration felt unnecessary and cruel.

Plenty of female athletes have pointed this out, including Hope Solo, the team’s former goalkeeper, who acknowledged in the Guardian that “some of the celebrations were a little overboard”. Clare Rustead, a Canadian soccer analyst and former player, was more blunt, calling the performance “disgraceful” and tweeting: “The USWNT displayed poor sportsmanship excessively celebrating many of the 13 goals against a 34th-ranked team. It has nothing to do with the final score. You are one of the best teams in the world. Act like it. And yeah, I definitely would have said the same about a men’s team.”

It’s important that we call out double standards, but it’s also important that women don’t cry “sexism” to absolve ourselves of bad behavior. The USWNT’s behavior on Tuesday was objectively disappointing; they could and should have performed a lot better. But with all that said, I would like to reiterate that it’s a brilliant team full of inspiring women, and I’m rooting for them all the way. (Unless they play England, in which case I’m hoping they get thrashed 13-0.)

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist