Sports Media And (Incredibly Mild) Critique Is Making Me So Low
Hope Solo is angry. Although her team had won 3-0 today against an undersized Colombia, Brandi Chastain, an NBC commentator for the match, had criticized one of the team’s defenders. Solo, who counts on those defenders, wanted to make something clear: color commentators are there to approvingly praise American players. They are not to offer anything that might, at any time, be construed as critique.
Its 2 bad we cant have commentators who better represents the team&knows more about the game @brandichastian
Lay off commentating about defending and gking [goal keeping] until you get more educated @brandichastain the game has changed from a decade ago.
Its important 2 our fans 2 enjoy the spirit of the olympics.Its not possible when sum1 on air is saying that a player is the worst defender!
I feel bad 4 our fans that have 2 push mute, especially bc @arlowhite is fantastic.@brandichastain should be helping 2 grow the sport #fb
Chastain, you see, had the temerity to question the play of Rachel Buehler, briefly, after Buehler had turned the ball over on her side of the pitch. According to Deadspin, this was as bad as Chastain dished out. I can attest to Deadspin’s analysis, having watched the entire first half, and much of the second as well (although I took brief break for the fantastic Italy-USA archery final). But even this minor criticism for an actual mistake was too much for Solo.
Here, quickly, are thoughts about this, in no particular order:
1. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with sports media. It is often expected to be nothing more than a public mouthpiece for the sports industry itself. Genuine critics are few and far between and where they do exist, it is often only to criticize anybody who strays from the industry’s party-line. This becomes doubly bad in international events, as expectations suddenly emerge that American announcers will not criticize American players, even if those players are performing poorly. (Here is one small example specific to female athletes.)
2. This though seems to be an issue native to America. For a glaring example of this, watch football as announced by British commentators as compared to soccer announced by American commentators. British commentators have no problem excoriating poor play, and do so regularly, and at no point during the experience do you find yourself thinking, “This is horrible! Why doesn’t he praise those guys more?” especially if the critique comes after a particularly bone-headed play.
3. What I’m saying is that Solo has been raised in a sporting culture that taught her that the media is there to serve as her personal lapdog. Chastain strayed from this model briefly, and Solo lost her mind. And when I say that, I mean that, because Chastain spent the entirety of the match (both before and after that one particular comment about Rachel Buehler’s poor play) wedged firmly up the ass of the American team. When the fantastic Abby Wambach took a shot to the eye that the referee missed, Chastain responded as though Pearl Harbor had been bombed again. When Megan Rapinoe scored a relatively innocuous first goal over the arms of a very short Colombia goalkeeper, Chastain reacted with breathless wonder.
4. Speaking here briefly of Chastain, I spent the game disgusted with Chastain’s work. The one exception? That particular critique, which was simultaneously genuine and necessary. Buehler had shown bad form and had turned the ball over carelessly. That is precisely the sort of thing that ought to be critiqued. That Solo would expect Chastain to simply ignore the mistake suggests that Solo doesn’t understand what the color commentator is in the booth to do. Chastain certainly isn’t up there to “grow the sport.” Shying away from any criticism reinforces a problem that American soccer/football has repeatedly had: its refusal to understand that it doesn’t play the game at the same level as much of the world. This distinction is much less true in the women’s game, where the Americans are one of the world’s elite teams, but even there, the American women repeatedly leave their side of field open to counter-attack by pushing their entire team (save the goalkeeper) into the offensive end of the field. There’s a reason the team needed miraculous comebacks in the 2011 Women’s World Cup, a tournament which it did not win because its defending was poor at best. Superior athletes and superior size do not guarantee soccer wins, no matter how much American soccer seems to collectively believe otherwise.
5. Then there’s Solo’s other jab: that Chastain doesn’t understand the game anymore. We’ll ignore the fact that Chastain was playing international soccer until 2004 and instead focus on the absurdity of what Solo was apparently implying, “Yes, in 2004, turning the ball over in your own half was entirely unacceptable, but in the intervening eight years, giving the other team the ball on your own side of the field has become the strategy of successful teams.” Without knowing the entirety of soccer/football history, I’m going to guess that Chastain’s critique could have been muttered today, ten years ago, fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago, and and overwhelming majority of fans would have nodded along.
6. I sincerely hope that Chastain trots out Patrick Roy’s famous “I can’t really hear what (critic) says, because I’ve got two Stanley Cup championship rings plugging my ears.” Solo deserves it, considering that she’s been on the precipice of a World Cup twice and twice come away without a victory (although the first of those times was hardly her fault, as her coach inexplicably benched her in favor of Brianna Scurry).
7. As for the American sports media changing its style generally? I doubt it. This won’t be the last time that commentators stray from the “Rah Rah!” mode that athletes expect, and this won’t be the last time that those athletes explode at the criticism. Unfortunately, both rely upon each other so heavily that keeping up appearances will always dominate.
8. A more enterprising writer might pivot from this minor example to the vast failure of the American media in regard to almost anything it covers, but doing so tonight is too depressing for me to imagine.