When it comes to Mia Hamm, Craig Carnell -- student, security guard, all-around regular guy sports fan -- is decidedly of two minds.
Part of him is just a little cynical about the hype surrounding one of the biggest breakthrough stars from the world of women's sports.
"The day you put Mia Hamm in the same class as Michael Jordan, it's a slap in the face," he fumed yesterday during a break in the Women's World Cup final, as the TV screens in his favorite smoky sports bar flashed a Nike ad featuring the two athletes. "Okay, she's the best in women's soccer, but women's soccer's been around for, what, 10 years?"
But when it's crunch time, and Hamm's rushing the ball toward the goal, there's no denying from her fans.
"C'mon, come on, my girl!" Carnell shouted, heaving himself off his stool until he nearly levitated over his beer. "Push it!"
Guys may have watched women's soccer with a more jaded air than the female fans who took a sense of empowerment from the stellar success of the U.S. women's team. But they were indeed watching. And for the regulars at Fanatics Sports and Billiards, a mostly male bastion on K Street downtown, gender wasn't even an issue.
"It's sports," Chris Krafczek, 26, a schoolteacher visiting from Long Island.
"You want some sort of dramatic conflict, and this has tons of it," said Pat Long, a 37-year-old graphics designer.
"Plus, it's China," said a 28-year-old redhead who would identify himself only as Wilson. He meant: It's an ideological rival.
It's not like the men didn't have options yesterday from the fields of testosterone. On the tube, the Red Sox were in Atlanta, men's golf was in Des Moines and the stars of NASCAR were tearing up the track at the Craftsman Truck Series Federated Auto Parts 250.
Of course, watching a sports program that is so heavily marketed to women can be somewhat alienating. On the one hand, there's curvaceous singer Jennifer Lopez writhing through the opening number: all right!
On the other hand: "Coming up next, the national anthem performed by Hanson."
Hrr-pfft! That was Pat Long, choking on his beer.
Byron Briscoe, 34, an office temp from Northwest Washington in a Minnesota Twins shirt, was skeptical that women's soccer could harness the World Cup enthusiasm to form a professional women's soccer league. There just aren't enough fans there. And, he contended, the action just isn't as intense as the men's games.
"Women have better passes, but with men, the game's much faster," he said.
Carnell, 30, was more diplomatic. "This women's team, they are playing as a team," he said approvingly. "With the men's team, there's all this controversy, one guy against the other . . . . When it's all said and done, the women are always bringing it home."
It's a whole new era, mused Krafczek and his friend Mike Herrmann, 24, a teacher in District schools. Someday soon, they said, a woman will crack the gender barrier in professional sports and be the first to take the field with a men's team. And that will be just fine, they said. "My high school football team had a female placekicker," said Herrmann. "We were all right with it. It was cool."
One of the few women in the bar, Lina Parikh, 27, of Adams-Morgan, said she was not surprised to see so many men watching the game so closely. Lots of men support women's sports, she asserted -- notably, her friend right here, Jason Dinter, an all-around sports fan who has been following the women's World Cup avidly through the final rounds.
"It's a good game, and we're winning," she explained.
"Plus," Dinter added, teasing, "it's kind of a lull in the other seasons."