American treasure Heather O’Reilly, who played in 231 games for her country and amassed 47 goals as one of the best midfielders in the world, called out another member of US Soccer at USSF’s Annual General Meeting yesterday. It was the open remarks part of the session, where members were allowed to line up at the mics to make statements, presumably about how to better the governance of soccer in this country.
Instead, Stephen Flamhaft, who represented the United States in the 60s and whose father ran USSF’s predecessor, the US Soccer Football Association, decided to use his time at the AGM to insult the USWNT, presumably in a reference to their 13-0 defeat of Thailand at the 2019 World Cup. Shortly after Jill Ellis was honored for her work and talked about getting more women in the game, Flamhaft opened his mouth and let out this series of words (his full comments begin around 1:51:30 in the video linked above):
“I share in celebrating the success of the Women’s World Cup team, but for the moment I would like to touch on my own experience as a national team player, and my reaction to the conduct of the team in its most recent competition. As a member of the United States team, in addition to performing positively on and off the field you are representing the values and ideals of the United States. That’s part of the responsibility of wearing the uniform. So permit me to comment on the recent ethics, conduct, and behavior of the team. Assuring and encouraging integrity and sportsmanship is of paramount importance, especially on the international stage. Let me pose a question: is it okay for a national team, while being successful on the field, to act in an unsportsmanlike manner specifically by humiliating their opponents and subjecting them to ridicule and then boast and preen when humility - humility - is in order. These actions are not acceptable as they are inconsistent with our values and I don’t believe it’s okay. I have learned through my life experiences, especially in this organization, that you cannot codify morality, but I think we should recognize that what is missing or has been missing by this team is the respect that should be shown.”
Scattered applause followed these comments, along with a few boos, according to another person present at the AGM.
Technically the USWNT’s most recent competition was actually Concacaf Olympic qualifying, where Ashlyn Harris specifically went on record to talk about how important it is to invest in building up underfunded teams and to respect every team that they play regardless of the scoreline, but we’ll assume Flamhaft meant the World Cup. After he presumably sat on these feelings of moral outrage for nearly seven months, he didn’t say anything new, considering the hand-wringing that went on at the time after the game in a prime display of respectability politics. The US women were too proud, too loud, too much.
It is one thing to talk about how the disparate resources between federation has lead to extreme imbalances in power levels on the field. It is another to lecture the players on their behavior. Let me pose a question: what should the USWNT have done that would have satisfied the call for humility? Passed the ball around their opponents without attempting to score to keep the number at a level you would be comfortable with? Or should they have scored and walked away without reacting each time as though they were at a practice with no stakes? Why is it that female athletes are always on the hook to be humble, grateful role models? After their game against Thailand, the US players used their time in the mixed zone to promptly call out FIFA for not doing more for small teams with limited resources. So what else should they have done?
The ideas that 1) it’s shameful how vast the difference in resources is between teams and 2) that the US players can take joy in their accomplishments can coexist. What does more good for the game - trying to patronizingly shame a bunch of women, or shaming FIFA for not pouring more resources into the women’s game? What exactly has Flamhaft achieved here except air his grievance months after everyone else has already discussed it in much greater detail?
Heather O’Reilly, currently an Athlete’s Council member, got her turn at the mic eventually and said the following:
“We want to develop this game and to that end, we want to make sure that all the resources are going towards all the things that we’ve been talking about today. To that, I want to encourage, as much as we can, all lawsuits to come to a speedy conclusion, putting away longstanding biases and truly take leadership in shaping society and be seen as a beacon of equality. I want to be proud of this federation. I’ve been part of it for a long time. And unlike evidently some others in the room, I am incredibly proud of the confidence, sportsmanship, and courage the team displayed this summer.”
Most American soccer fans probably want to be proud of USSF too. Whether they actually can be proud of their federation may depend on if its members can let go of antiquated notions about womens’ behavior.