There’s a big story that occurred at the Rio Olympics within the past 24 hours that inspired me to write this post. I’ll get to the Olympic story later, but I want to bring up a topic I think I’ve mentioned in passing here before about my school days. I got teased. A lot. From elementary right up through my junior year of high school. Sometimes, that teasing would result in a physical altercation, most often started by the person teasing or bullying me, or by someone who didn’t really give a rat’s behind about me but was just itching to push me out of the hallway, down to the ground, or into a locker.
More often than not, anyone who wasn’t me or the person teasing me would just look the other way or do nothing, not even giving me the benefit of the doubt. Even a school principal would not look kindly on me. For just one example, I was in 6th grade, I got into a shoving match with a notorious teaser in our class, who later responded during the lunch line in the cafeteria by grabbing a pepper shaker from the kitchen and throwing pepper into my eyes. What was more stinging than the pepper was the stern talking-to the principal gave me in his office after the incident, all because I may have provoked him into the shoving incident earlier (or may not have, I don’t remember anymore). Mom made it worse that evening back at home with her own stern comments of disappointment.
Needless to say, that day in 6th grade was one of the worst days I had as a kid. It was far from the only bad day, however. Picture this: I took a lot of history and social studies classes in high school. The teacher who taught most of those classes preferred to have our desks arranged in a circle so that our chair backs were against the wall while the teacher walked around in the middle of the classroom to present his lecture. One Friday during an American history class in junior year, our teacher wasn’t presenting a lecture, but instead had us quietly catch up on reading a chapter from the text book. A note from one girl to another was surreptitiously being passed around that circle of desks, from one desk to another, until it came for my turn to pass the note on down. The boy who passed it to me had moved to our town from Madison the year before with his father (his parents were divorced, I think) and wasn’t one to take nicely to other kids, especially to an awkward boy such as I. I say this because this kid didn’t pass the note to me so much as throw it into my face (which he did routinely, now that I recall). I didn’t take it very kindly, so I threw it back at his… desk. You notice I didn’t say “back at his face“? That’s because I tried to take the high road. He didn’t, however, and got out of his desk, cocked back his right arm, made a fist, and struck me in the face, knocking my eyeglasses to the ground (one of the lenses popped out and had to be repaired the next day). The other kid got suspended for a day or two (and eventually moved back to his mother in Madison by the next semester). I didn’t go unpunished, though: The gash that other kid left to the side of my face sent me to the school nurse for a cold compress, which caused me to miss the next class on my schedule (physical education), which led to me being sent to an hour’s worth of post-school day detention.
The reason that I mention both of these school day incidents is that when I had pepper and a punch thrown into my face, I felt like a coward. “Coward” is defined as “
If there’s anything that’s been known to get really underneath a thin-skinned kid’s skin, it’s being called a “coward.” That applies whether the person calling one’s cowardice is a challenging bully in school or the meanest outlaw in the Old West. I am reminded of the Back to the Future film trilogy. We’re certainly all familiar with the premise of the 1985 original: Marty McFly goes back in time to the mid-1950s to put some manly gumption into his young father so that he can charm the girl that would become Marty’s mother. But Marty had one key character flaw throughout the trilogy: He could act recklessly whenever someone got under his thin skin. Sure, Marty could deliver words of wit in a pinch, but goad him into a challenge and he would put up his dukes to defend his pride more than his well being.
There’s a moment in Back to the Future Part III, however, where Marty learns how to be on the good end of a bad situation: In 1885, his actions rile an outlaw, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, who challenges him to a duel. Yes, Marty’s thin skin gets the best of him, at first. Riled up himself by “Mad Dog” calling him yellow, Marty accepts his challenge to a duel… but decides instead at the very last minute to throw down his gun and settle things with the outlaw like a real man, albeit with the use of a steel door for a bulletproof vest and with a little bit of fisticuffs. It’s that lesson about acting like the better man and not acting all macho like that outlaw, even after being called yellow, that Marty takes back with him to 1985, when in Part III‘s final moments, he backs away (literally) from a drag race. It’s a lesson I tried to learn in my own life, emphasis on “tried.” I tried not to fight, but I could easily be goaded into one; when I did, however, I did my best to act defensively. I only wish I had learned to back myself into reverse as Marty did at the end of Part III; who knows how much more respect I would’ve gained — from others as well as myself — had I known when and how to do so.
Which leads me to how this post is Olympic-related. Perhaps you’ve heard by now about the United States women’s national soccer team. The are the reigning World Cup champions, one of the dominant teams in women’s international soccer (if not the most dominant), and a prohibitive favorite for the gold medal heading into the Rio Olympics. However, they won’t be bringing home any medal from Rio, for they were eliminated on penalty kicks by Sweden in Friday’s quarterfinal in the knockout stage. That’s not to say the U.S. team didn’t perform admirably at the Olympics, for they did perform stellar enough to take first place in their preliminary group stage and are still considered one of the world’s top teams, gold medal or otherwise.
But the U.S. team’s admirable efforts are overshadowed by the sting of elimination, even more so by their reactions after the sting of elimination. The highlight — or, more precisely in this case, lowlight — among the reactions came from USA goalkeeper Hope Solo. She stared her post-game comments with this:
“I thought we played a courageous game. I thought we had many opportunities on goal. I think we showed a lot of heart. We came back from a goal down. I’m very proud of this team.”
“I think you saw American heart. You saw us give everything we had today.”
Okay, Hope started admirably and respectful enough. But she threw in this comment:
But I also think we played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly believe that.”
The Swedish team? Cowards? How so, Hope?
“Sweden dropped off. They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball. They didn’t want to play great soccer.”
So, in other words, the only form of soccer Hope Solo prefers, as a goalkeeper at least, is to face one scoring attack after another from the opposing team. And any other form of play in soccer, such as sitting back in a mostly defensive position, is considered cowardly? One thing for sure, not a lot of people call Hope Solo an inadequate soccer player on an inadequate team. Indeed, she allowed only one goal in regulation on Friday; and indeed, the U.S. team was generally regarded as being the more dominant of the two teams in the match. But the Swedish team was just doing their own form of play that they thought worked best against their opponent in this particular match. They were the Marty McFly with his bulletproof steel door in this case; Hope Solo, thanks to her post-game tirade, so ably filled the role of “Mad Dog” Tannen.
Thankfully, just as more right-thinking people should do when calling out a bully, Hope Solo has been called out for her comments. By quite a lot of people. In the U.S. and otherwise. From people like Julie Foudy who know a thing or two about soccer, to many others inside and outside of soccer and inside and outside the U.S.
While it’s disappointing for any American to see their favorite team, or at least the team that represents them in an outstanding way, lose… I have to admit that reading Hope Solo’s comments make me glad that she was on the losing end. Well, perhaps I should correct myself there: On the eliminated end (since the match technically goes down in the record books as a tie). I’m sure she and her teammates hate to lose, and I’m sure they’ll learn from their setback. But it’s best to lose in a gracious, sportsmanlike fashion with respect for your opponents, not with words of gripe and claims of cowardice. And hopefully, just as I’ve learned to strengthen my skin a little bit and take criticism in stride, I’m sure Hope Solo will heed the criticism and have more respect for future opponents and whatever style of play they may or may not utilize.
It should be noted that the Swedish women’s team coach, Pia Sundhage, is a former U.S. team coach, leading the Americans to great success (and a couple of Olympic gold medals) during her tenure with Team USA. In her own post-match comments, Ms. Sundhage seemed be content with her team’s game tactics. She even had a great response to Hope Solo’s criticisms, though not addressing her specifically:
“It’s O.K. to be a coward if you win.”
It’s okay to be a coward if you win. Think about those words: You may get pepper thrown into your eyes in 6th grade and be talked down to by the principal, but the other kid will find himself held back a grade. You may get slugged in the face by another kid in junior year, but he gets suspended from school. You may be criticized by the opposing team’s star for not being offensively aggressive, but you still advance to the next round. And an outlaw may challenge you to a gunfight, but you find a way to win the day without having to fire a single bullet. Being a coward in each case isn’t so bad, now isn’t it?
Know, though, that if you’re called out by claims of cowardice — fairly or otherwise — but you still take the high road in the situation and stick to what you think is the right thing, you will still come out a winner. In more ways than just the final score. And the real “coward” in the situation may turn out to be the one who called you a coward in the first place.