A priceless point from Cup women

July 18, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was a landmark moment for women's sports.

A victory over middle-aged male grumpiness.

And it was fun.

That's how the United States' Women's World Cup success should be remembered.

Assigning it any more importance would be a mistake.

No, it's not going to spawn a thriving women's pro league.

And no, it doesn't mean millions of women are going to start spending months on the couch, gnawing on chips and numbly watching whatever games show up on cable.

Women have more important things to do, such as balancing work, exercise and motherhood. That 30-hours-a-day load doesn't leave a lot of time for a nightly megadose of ESPN2.

But just because women might not want to watch as much sports as men doesn't mean they can't play sports with as much intensity, intelligence and guts.

That was the ultimate lesson of the U.S. team's victory over China in the Cup final, an event watched by some 40 million viewers.

We have watched women's tennis players, figure skaters and golfers thrive under wilting pressure for years, but this was a team, the ultimate male bastion. And it was a tough, selfless and smart team, as dominating and effective as the best male teams in any sport.

Midfielder Michelle Akers was as physical as a boxer, throwing her body around and leaping for headers until a concussion ended her day against China. You won't see a more vivid definition of a world-class athletic performance.

Mia Hamm? Stuck in a scoring slump at the worst time, she didn't fret about living up to her hype, as so many male stars do. She just kept filling her role without forcing plays to the team's detriment. Imagine, the team came first.

Then, when the game came down to penalty kicks, goalkeeper Briana Scurry took a guileful gamble that symbolized how far American women athletes have come since Title IX was installed in 1972.

Taking an advantage the rules prohibit, Scurry crept ever so slightly toward the ball before a shot was taken, then made the decisive block. She knew referees could be lax on such calls, much like baseball umpires and phantom tags at second base. Her hunch paid off.

Call it cheating if you want, but every sport is full of such subtle byplays on the fringes of the rules, and Scurry just took what was being given, as would any knowing, winning athlete.

For years, male American soccer players have lagged behind the rest of the world in knowing how to take such advantages.

That a woman showed them was the ultimate "in your face" to the millions of male sports fans who casually dismiss women's sports as dull imitations.

No, the women on the U.S. team weren't as fast or as strong as males, but they were more together, just as tough, just as fit and, in the end, smarter.

If you don't think female athletes everywhere have more respect today as a result, you're either not paying attention or you're just a curmudgeon.

Sure, a powerful hype machine helped lure the huge TV audience, magnifying the accomplishment and what it signified. But give the American players credit for holding up under such scrutiny.

They were thoughtful, original and funny, an appealing mixture, as opposed to the characteristics that unfortunately fit so many male athletes -- jaded, selfish and spoiled. Don't think that didn't contribute to the Americans' sudden popularity.

They also somehow managed to walk the line between using their sexuality -- "booters with hooters," they called themselves -- and laughing at those who missed the point and saw them only in such terms.

Basically, they had fun and were fun, and as a result, the Cup was fun.

They should give lessons to the rest of the sports world on taking themselves seriously, but not too seriously.

Suggestions that their success will spawn a nationwide women's soccer craze and a pro league are predictable, but misguided.

We have been down this road before. Supporting an undefeated national team for three weeks is a lot easier than supporting a faceless, fledgling league long enough to make it go. Too many fans don't have the necessary attention span.

Not that we're against the idea, mind you. But the odds of it succeeding are small. There aren't enough quality players to fill up a league, for starters. And the low ratings for non-U.S. Cup games suggest the "craze" was more for the U.S. team than women's soccer.

Besides, if the history of American men's soccer is any indication, the millions of young girls already playing soccer won't grow up and become ticket-buying fans.

But hey, who really cares if anyone cashes in on the Cup phenomenon? Asking it to do that, on top of breaking so much ground for female athletes, is asking a lot. Maybe too much.

Let's just settle for labeling it as the moment when millions of male couch potatoes sat up and realized that, gosh, female athletes have game.

Like, duh.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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