The World Cup 'C' word: 'Choke'

If the U.S. men's soccer team had been ranked No. 1 in the world and lost in the World Cup final to a team that hadn't beaten the Americans in 25 tries, what would we be saying about them in the aftermath?

They choked.

Actually, except for the No. 1 ranking thing, there's no need for the hypothetical. That's essentially what a lot of people said about our men's national team when it lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final last month despite leading 2-0 in the early going.

Yet in the aftermath of Sunday's thrilling Women's World Cup finale, most of us seem to be picking up the pompoms instead of taking a critical look at why the U.S. lost to Japan, an inferior team that the Americans dominated for most of the match.

From a survey of the coverage and analysis in the mainstream media, you would think the U.S. women's national team had just accomplished something extraordinary rather than suffer what should be considered a devastating loss.

Instead, the U.S women are being praised for their gutsiness. Because the match against Japan was the highest-rated soccer telecast ever on an ESPN network and was the most-tweeted-about event in Twitter history, the U.S. women's World Cup experience is being viewed as a watershed moment for women's sports.

Uh, let's slow our roll.

Indeed, this was a terrific moment for women's sports. It proved that female athletes are every bit as capable of captivating millions of sports fans as men.

But the reaction to the U.S. loss doesn't seem progressive. It feels like stereotypical coddling of female athletes.

It seems patronizing to view the loss to Japan as historical or groundbreaking. The Americans are far too good to be patted on the back and given the we're-just-happy-you-made-it treatment.

Keep in mind that the Americans were among the favorites to win the World Cup. Once the host team from Germany -- perhaps the biggest favorite -- was eliminated and the U.S. took care of Brazil in the quarterfinals, this tournament became the Americans' to lose.

So why is everyone acting like the U.S. won something?

This isn't a slight against Japan, an enormous underdog in the World Cup. The Japanese deserve a ton of credit for overcoming constant U.S. pressure on the pitch with a pair of come-from-behind goals. And when you consider that their country is coping with recovery from a devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was heartwarming to see their fans rewarded with the championship.

But let's not pretend the U.S. didn't whiff a huge opportunity. It let Japan hang around for far too long and eventually blew two leads. And other than Abby Wambach, the Americans looked shaken during the penalty kicks to break the 2-2 tie.

If true equality means giving women's sports the same sort of analysis with which we scrutinize the men, then it shouldn't be considered crass, unknowledgeable or unpatriotic to suggest or think the USWNT choked.

Male athletes and men's teams are routinely judged against expectations. For the past month, for example, LeBron James has been vilified for his performance in the NBA Finals.

Some of the criticism directed at LeBron is mean-spirited, but a lot of it is justified. You can't rationalize his disappearing act in the Finals, even though the Miami Heat came within two wins of the championship. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn't form their trio in Miami to finish in second place.

So if James can choke, why can't the U.S. women, who haven't won a World Cup since 1999, be considered choke artists, too?

Bob Bradley, the embattled U.S. men's soccer coach, has his decisions constantly second-guessed; and U.S. women's head coach Pia Sundhage should be facing criticism, too, because her team was unable to close out an inferior team. Doesn't Sundhage deserve some blame for the U.S. team's seeming inability to match Japan's incredible will?

Elevating women's sports doesn't always mean being obligated to run amok with praise when women's teams are defeated. Female athletes already struggle to receive the same recognition and coverage as men, and whatever progress they've made is undermined when we pamper women after they lose. It sends the message that female athletes can't handle scrutiny like men.

I'm not saying the U.S. women deserve extreme criticism. I'm not saying Sundhage should be fired, or that the women's legacy was somehow hurt by the loss to Japan.

But our expectations of them shouldn't be lowered just because they're women.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.