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 against 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, when I was in 6th grade, I got into a shoving match with a notorious teaser in our class. He later responded in the cafeteria lunch line 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 the kid into the shoving incident (or may not have, I don’t remember anymore). Mom made it worse that evening at home with her own stern comments of disappointment.
Needless to say, that day in 6th grade was one of my worst days 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 history classes preferred to have an “in the round” classroom, having our desks arranged in a circle, seat backs against the walls, while he walked around the center of the room to present his lectures (that was his style). I make note of this arrangement because it allowed students to pass notes to each other a little more surreptitiously than if the desks were in rows.
One Friday afternoon in junior year during an American history class, our teacher wasn’t presenting a lecture, but instead had us quietly catch up on reading a chapter from the text book. While we were quietly reading our textbooks, a note from one girl to another made its way around that circle of desks… until it came for my turn to pass the note on down. The boy who passed that note 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.
So, it goes without saying that this particular 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 by the next semester he moved back to Madison to live with his mom. I didn’t go unpunished, though: The bruise he 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 I mention both of these school day incidents is that when I had pepper and a punch thrown at me, I felt like a coward. “Coward” is defined as “
If there’s anything that’s been known to get underneath a thin-skinned kid’s skin, it’s being called a “coward.” That applies whether the person calling out one’s cowardice is a 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 familiar with the premise of the 1985 original: Marty McFly time travels 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 throughout the trilogy, Marty had one key character flaw: He could act ill-tempered 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, defending his pride more than his well being.
There’s a moment in Back to the Future Part III, however, when 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 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 deal with the outlaw like a real man, albeit with the use of a steel door for a bulletproof vest and 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 duel with another bully.
Those lessons of taking the high road in a challenge are ones 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 faced that challenge, however, I tried 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 and from 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 Olympic playoff quarterfinal. That’s not to say the U.S. team didn’t play admirably at the Olympics, for they performed stellar enough to take first place in their preliminary group stage. And even without a medal, they are still considered one of the world’s top teams.
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’s 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, one that they believed worked best against their opponent in this particular match. They were the Marty McFly with his bulletproof steel door; 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 fact. Julie Foudy was among those who know a thing or two about soccer and weren’t afraid to criticize Solo for her comments. Many others from outside the soccer world and from inside or outside the U.S. offered their criticisms as well.
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: Hope Solo was on the eliminated end, since the match technically goes down in the record books as a tie (the penalty kicks were needed to determine which team would advance to the next round). I’m sure she and her teammates hate to come up on the short end, and I’m sure they’ll learn from their setback. But it’s best to lose in a gracious, sportsmanlike fashion, offering respect for your opponents and not 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 criticisms 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 team’s coach, Pia Sundhage, previously coached the U.S. team to great success, as well as a couple of Olympic gold medals. In her own post-match comments, Ms. Sundhage seemed 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. When you think about it, those are wise words:
- You may get pepper thrown into your eyes by a fellow 6th grader, only to have Mom and the principal chew you out. But the other kid will find himself held back a grade.
- You may get slugged in the face in one class, only to suffer detention because you missed the next class while in the nurse’s office. But the kid who threw the punch will see himself suspended.
- You may be criticized by the opposing team’s star for not being offensively aggressive. But she goes home while you advance to the next round.
- And you may be challenged to a gunfight, but you find a way to beat the outlaw without firing a single bullet.
Now, really, being a “coward” in each of those cases isn’t so bad, now is it? Whether or not you’re rightfully called a coward in a situation, keep taking the high road and stick to what you think is right. In the end you’ll still come out a winner, in more ways than just the final score.
And when you take that high road, the real “coward” may turn out to be the one who called you a coward in the first place.