I've been hearing explanations all week of the thrilling victory of the Americans over the Chinese in last Saturday's Women's World Cup soccer final. They've gone something like this:
"It was Title IX, pure and simple. Without that [1972 federal legislation barring sex discrimination in education], universities wouldn't have poured money into women's athletics for equipment, facilities and coaching and there would have been no championship team."
"No. You want to know why that team was so great? It was that gutty, gritty Michelle Akers who, playing through injury, exhaustion and dehydration, inspired her teammates to hang in there."
"Sure, but if that Brandi Chastain didn't rip the ball into the right corner of the net during the penalty kick shootout, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Brandi's kick would have been for a tie if it hadn't been for the brilliant save by goalie Briana Scurry. Man, I looked at the way the reporters covered the victory celebration, and it looks like they couldn't wait to go to the white girls for their comments. Any fool can see it was this sister, Briana, who won the championship for them."
And of course they are all right. Each of the elements was vital. And so were many that never got mentioned. The coaching, for instance, or fan support.
The whole thing reminds me of the aftermath of political victories -- particularly close ones. If it hadn't been for the black vote, or the Jewish vote, or the women's vote, or the gay vote, the candidate would have lost. True, but true as well that the candidate would have been defeated without the votes of whites, Christians, straights and men.
"Victory," to quote Italy's infamous Count Galeazzo Ciano, "finds a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan."
One of the "fathers" of the American World Cup success is the huge promotional machinery during the playoffs. The publicity didn't produce the victory, of course; it merely made us care.
I am a prime example. I'm not that much of a soccer fan, though I'm convinced that soccer players are among the best all-around athletes in sport. I watched a little bit of the Men's World Cup five years ago, but never for more than five or 10 minutes at a time. I knew these were superb athletes, playing what must be the only game widely played by Asians, Africans, Europeans and throughout the Americas. It was important, I knew, but it was boring.
I watched a fair amount of the Women's World Cup this time, and I'm not sure I missed as much as five minutes of the two hours preceding the shootout of Saturday's finals. And I found the whole thing exciting, riveting, occasionally thrilling.
Why? Because I'd been manipulated into caring. Title IX had its role, but so did promotion. It was promotion that got me interested, that filled the Rose Bowl with 90,000 fans, that brought men and boys as well as women and girls to admiring attention. I'll bet you more Washington men watched Saturday's final than have ever watched D.C. United of the men's professional soccer league. I'll bet as well they can name more players on the Women's World Cup team than on the men's professional entry.
As ESPN/ABC sportscaster Robin Roberts noted, America is experiencing culture change. Men are openly admiring of female athletes -- not for their looks but for their game. Boys as well as girls can look at a Brandi, a Michelle or a Briana and see a role model.
That's a part of what comes out of the World Cup victory. Another is that, for all this business about what particular thing or player accounts for the team's success, the fact is that the women are a damned fine team.
There may have been stars on the Rose Bowl field, but no ball hogs.
One last thought: If the Chinese goalie had deflected an American's penalty kick and all five Chinese kickers had scored on Scurry, would we be talking about Title IX or grit or even missed opportunities during the first 90 minutes of play? I doubt it. We'd be clucking our sympathy over "poor Briana" and how awful she must feel.
But let's not even think of that. Defeat is too lonely. Let's just savor "our" splendid victory.