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Opinion: Here’s what’s behind criticism of U.S. women and World Cup celebrations

PARIS — There’s something distasteful about the U.S. women’s goal celebrations.

Not the displays themselves. Rather, it’s the criticism of the celebrations that is troubling – and what appears to be the reasons behind it.

Those who criticized the Americans in the immediate aftermath of their 13-0 rout of Thailand in Tuesday’s World Cup-opening match for both teams were vocal and persistent. Classless was a word used quite frequently. Ugly, too. Many fumed that the women lacked grace or decorum.

One person on Twitter huffed to me about the Americans’ lack of sportsmanship also felt compelled to tell Kaylyn Kyle she was a “pretty soccer player” before saying he agreed with the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist from Canada’s criticism of the U.S. women.

See a theme developing? For all the strides women make, there is still a lane society expects us to stay in and woe to those who stray from it.

“There is this notion that women should be more ladylike, and that is a benevolently sexist kind of ideal. That they shouldn’t be overly assertive – and we do know the penalties for overly assertive women, the negative reactions,” said Peter Glick, a social scientist who along with Susan Fiske coined the term “benevolent sexism,” the idea that women are viewed by some as wonderful but inherently weak. 

“There’s sort of this distaste when women assert themselves and brag – things we expect men to do. Women get tagged with, `This is not right,’ ” Glick said.

Sunday’s game isn’t likely to temper the anger. The U.S. plays Chile, a team making its World Cup debut and which the Americans beat a combined 7-0 in two games last fall. 

The Americans were criticized for going overboard as the goals piled up against Thailand, displaying too much exuberance and enthusiasm in their celebrations. But there wasn’t similar vitriol for the St. Louis Blues, who celebrated each of their goals in a 4-1 Stanley Cup-clinching win with equal gusto.

Granted, the game qualify as a rout, but the game wasn’t exactly close, either, especially given the stakes.

That was different, according to the critics. The Blues had won a championship, whereas all the women did was win a group stage game against a woefully overmatched opponent.

And yet, there is no outrage for San Francisco Giants pitcher Will Smith, who exchanged a flying chest bump with a coach while his teammates high-fived each other after Friday night’s win. Or at the Chicago Cubs, who crowded Jason Heyward at home plate after his walk-off home run last month. Why are those celebrations not deemed inappropriate, given the games will have even less impact on September’s playoff races than the U.S. women’s win over Thailand will in determining their seeding for the knockout rounds?

“It has to do with the female apologetic. If women are going to be strong and successful, they need to balance that with also being feminine and nice. If they don’t do that, it makes people uncomfortable,” said Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports.

“They need to temper their strength. And their athleticism. And their fabulousness with this apologetic, `But don’t worry, we’re still subservient and willing to play along in this gender role,’ in order to make people feel comfortable,” Burton Nelson added.

“It raises the question: When will we as a society become comfortable with female strength and power, and unabashed celebration?”

MORE WORLD CUP:

13 GOALS: Rapinoe, Morgan call goal celebrations ‘explosion of joy’
ARMOUR: USWNT in bubble, not listening to criticism

This is hardly unique to sports. Female CEOs are deemed bitches if they’re demanding and dispassionate — the very same traits for which their male counterparts are praised. How many times did we hear people say they “just didn’t like” Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite her obvious competency and experience? Elizabeth Warren is dismissed as too professorial, Kamala Harris as too harsh.  

The U.S. women have long been beloved because of their success – there’s nothing America likes more than winners, especially when they have U-S-A on their chests – but also because they’ve won the “right” way. They are, with few exceptions, exemplary role models, and embrace the responsibilities and expectations that come with that. They don’t cause trouble, they don’t embarrass themselves or their country, and they manage to dominate without being domineering. 

But in March, every member of the national team joined together to sue U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination and wage inequity. The players have talked openly about the lawsuit, their reasons for it and the impact it could have, not just for their sport, but society as a whole.

Now there are the celebrations, a decidedly different look than the public is used to seeing from the U.S. women.

If you go back and watch the second-half goal celebrations, as I have, you’ll see that they are all team focused. Not one is choreographed. It wasn’t even the goals the players were celebrating so much as the players themselves, coach Jill Ellis said Saturday.

“Goals are pretty hard to come by in our sport,” she said. “The meaning behind those goals, the people behind those goals — you’ve got to celebrate that. It’s celebrating the high moments because what people forget is there are a lot of low moments, too.”

And the U.S. women do not — and should not — have to apologize for that, said Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor at Purdue University and co-author of No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change.

“They were cheering because someone was achieving. … Why not celebrate that?” Cooky asked. “Questioning the validity in that space is incredibly offensive to not only the U.S. women, but athletes generally. I think it speaks to the persistent sexism in our culture.

“Policing women’s emotions and policing women’s bodies within sport, this isn’t new to this particular incident,” Cooky said.

No, but it’s tiresome. If the U.S. women — or any other women, for that matter — don’t meet your expectations or behave in a manner you find appropriate, that’s your problem. Not theirs. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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