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Is media giving U.S. women’s soccer team a free pass for its World Cup Fail?

Jul 18, 2011, 4:14 PM EDT

Wambach of the US reacts after her team was defeated in a penalty shootout against Japan after their Women's World Cup final soccer match in Frankfurt

Consider this: LeBron James is playing for the U.S. men’s national basketball team. He goes 0-for-8 from the field and 1-for-3 from the line down the stretch, and the U.S. loses to Germany, 94-91 (Nowitzki celebrates again!), in the championship game. Can you imagine the dump truck-load of grief he and his teammates would receive in the media? For one thing, he wouldn’t be allowed back into this country, except disguised as a woman (imagine the confusion in the TSA pat-down line). The smoke and heat from all the LeBron jerseys being burned would melt the polar ice cap, resulting in catastrophic flooding. It could quite literally be the end of the world as we know it.

But when it comes to Abby Wambach or Hope Solo or any other of the U.S. women’s soccer team who blew it against Japan on Sunday, the media has been much more forgiving. Why?

It’s true that the U.S. did beat Brazil, in what the media dubbed the “Miracle on Grass”: Although I think that more aptly applies to this story about Charlie Sheen getting a new sitcom. The U.S. played well in this World Cup, up until the final game.

Then they blew it. After missing numerous scoring opportunities, and losing two one-goal leads in regulation vs. Japan, the U.S. converted only one penalty kick to lose the shootout, 3-1. The prevailing sentiment in the media? ‘That’s OK, you did well, and the Olympics are coming up.’

In other words: You played pretty well … for a girl.

They were saying and writing this in all corners of the media today. In fact, the only really harsh criticism of the U.S. team that I’ve seen so far has come from ESPN’s Tommy Smyth, who said, entertainingly, that the U.S. women “Couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a cannon.”

And he’s right, they couldn’t. Smyth also criticized the U.S. coaching (and rightly so), saying that with a late 2-1 lead, they should have been a lot less aggressive:

“You put your foot on the ball, you move it around amongst yourselves, and I’m not sure what the American coach was doing.”

This sounds much harsher when said in an Irish accent.

OK, the New York Post’s headline: Kicked in the Grass, was pretty critical. But it didn’t even rate a full cover: Most of the page was taken up by the Yankees’ search for another pitcher.

Here’s the thing: This World Cup was supposed to be the next big step for women’s soccer in the U.S. It was supposed to create all these new fans, and help put the sport on a lower shelf at the sports supermarket, along with basketball, hockey and those Mint Oreos you always buy.

You know how I know that didn’t happen? Because they lost a championship they should have won, and nobody really cared. “Oh that’s OK, they played hard” is a great observation if your team of choice is the Purple Ladybugs, who just lost the under-10 AYSO girls championship. But if you get that kind of sentiment when your team is representing the entire nation, that means your sport is still second rate.

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Where are the YouTube videos of some fan going nuts and destroying his TV over this loss? Where are the disconsolate Hope Solo fans rolling on the floor in agony? In Vancouver they’ve rioted for much less.

Then there was this headline today in The Onion: SPORTSWIRE: Women’s World Cup Sets Record For Most Creepy Tweets During One Event.

So few really care, and if they do it’s only for prurient reasons.

Women’s sports will never achieve full equality until some of their teams are unfairly criticized on SportsCenter, or mocked by The Onion for reasons besides sex. And as the Women’s World Cup has shown us, we’re not there yet. Not even close.

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