When Brandi Chastain bared her bra-covered chest in the 1999 World Cup Final, it was the natural outgrowth of the rush of adrenalin that she inevitably experienced after winning a hard fought, pressure-filled game in the most pressure-filled moment of that game. When Richard Sherman shocked Erin Andrews and most of his viewing audience with his vituperative screed against Michael Crabtree and for his status as the best corner in the game, it too was the natural outgrowth of the rush of adrenalin that comes from performing at the highest level in the most pressure-filled moment of a huge game (with a healthy dose of personal history thrown in too).
Initially, I assumed that the reactions to these situations were different. Sherman was pilloried in the media (both formal and social), resulting in multiple degrees of apologizing in various media as the situation’s momentum grew, while Chastain enjoys near-heroic status for her expression of womanhood at what is considered a seminal moment in the history of women and sports. But Chastain’s expression of womanhood (which, she would say, was not at all a conscious expression of anything other than pure bliss) caused significant reaction and controversy, ranging from what was perceived by the more Puritanical in her audience as self-sexualization to a bald shill for Nike’s new sports bra to a borderline-insulting taunt toward the Chinese team that her penalty kick had just defeated. History has treated Chastain more kindly, especially since the criticisms of her were outweighed by the praise. That she was a member of a beloved team who had just made history on so many levels didn’t hurt either.
But will Richard Sherman be treated so kindly by history? The answer to this question of course is where the more compelling issues of context come in to play. Sherman’s football is a sport with a rougher edge to begin with (understatement), and so on the one hand such behavior is more normalized than in other sports (certainly women’s soccer) but on the other hand, when that otherwise normalized behavior crosses the line, it becomes exponentially more shocking, as Sherman’s behavior did. The race factor should not be ignored either. Sherman alluded to this, that if he were a white, non-dreadlocked player, would the reaction have been so extreme (and I will add too that the Stanford factor, i.e. the use of his alma mater to soften, or at least contextualize, his comments beyond the moment in which they were delivered, is of course used on some level to de-blackify him, as if Stanford and its associations are or should be the purview exclusively of whites)? And I neither can, nor probably want to, answer that. But that it needs to be asked is likely answer enough. And the personal nature of Sherman’s screed did not help (an aspect of it that he has since retracted in Sports Illustrated as well, I assume, as other locations). That he attacked Michael Crabtree specifically made the moment more uncomfortable than had he simply praised himself.
Chastain expressed the joy of what had been then a marginal at best sport at the culminating moment of years of preparation. Certainly the team had and was prepared for the soccer, but the pressure that the team felt to honor the Women’s World Cup organizers’ faith to put the games in 60,000 seat arenas, with the assumption that fans would buy those tickets and fill those seats, must have been crushing. (And I still remember, with fondness, watching the WNT play at such municipal venues as Worcester’s (MA) Foley Field, where the biggest games tend to be state championship games or the short-lived Worcester Hydra (who likely drew fewer than the state championship games do).) When Chastain tore her shirt off that was as much a release of the pressure of justification as it was any pressure to make the PK and win the game.
Where Sherman had race issues implicit in his situation, Chastain had gender issues. The inevitable role model discussion was perhaps the most thorny response to her baring. If the target audience of the WWC was really the tween girls who would comprise the future of the sport, do we want the iconic moment of the WWC to be a grown woman baring her (bra-covered) breasts? The Sherman-version of that question is of course whether we want our tween boys given a lesson in the not-so-subtleties of self-aggrandizement and the shock and awe of an expected answer to a relatively harmless, boilerplate question. The double standard response, though, is yes, we do want that to be the iconic moment and, no, we don’t want such lessons imparted to our young football players (or non-football players).
But hasn’t it always been that way for boys and girls? Aren’t we constantly trying to encourage the very things in our girls (confidence, self-assertiveness, resilience, a comfort with lack of comformity) that we’re trying to temper in our boys (i.e. not to squelch them but to harness in a (more) positive way (than might be their natural inclination)? This is where I think the real distinction is, that, despite the similarity in situation, Sherman’s behavior only confirms what we worry about in our boys while Chastain’s only confirms what we hope for in our girls.
(I want to give due credit to my English 4 classes for this piece. As a culmination to the Title IX unit I teach as part of my Sports-focused English course, I have my students watch Dare to Dream, the story of the 1999 World Cup team and the history of the WNT up to that point (including the subsequent retirement of the core of that team a few years later (’05?)). I was reading their responses to the movie and one described Chastain’s iconic baring of her bra-covered chest as the result of a spontaneous rush of adrenalin, which of course then led me to the Richard Sherman situation.)