Bold they were. Maybe even out of bounds. But the female college rugby players who bared their breasts last weekend at the Lincoln Memorial revealed more than what was under their sports bras.
The 13 Ohio State University players flaunted, for a few minutes, how women's sports--and the culture at large--have changed. At least that is what their coach, John Moore, and some others say.
This, after all, is the year when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt--sports bra still on--after a game-winning kick that delivered the World Cup for her celebrated U.S. women's soccer team, a moment that was captured in newspapers and magazines around the world.
"Taking your shirt off does not seem so bad once you have seen Brandi Chastain pull her shirt off in front of 3 billion people," said Moore. "Young women athletes feel that same kind of spirit she felt. There's a cultural progression here."
So, in a moment of fun before the camera, Ohio State stripped down a little further . . . .
The Ohio State players made national news with their stunt. But educators and coaches in Washington suburbs are grappling with the same vexing new realities.
Don Disney, coordinator of athletics for Howard County schools, jumped into the fray over shirtlessness in the heat of August, as fall teams began to practice. In meetings with athletic directors, he spread the word: No sports bras without shirts to cover them.
"It was like a no-brainer to me," Disney said. "Why would I not expect a 15-year-old girl to imitate Brandi Chastain?"
But then came the issue of equity.
A female athletic director said, "Hey, wait. This is not just for girls. This should be for boys, too," he recalled.
Henceforth the rule: Boys have to keep their shirts on, too.
So far this season, one male soccer player has broken the rule, Disney said. He scored a winning goal in overtime, ripped his shirt off and ran around the field. His coach was held accountable, Disney said without elaborating.
But the shirt rule has apparently not trickled down through the ranks. During varsity soccer and football practice at Long Reach High School in Columbia earlier this week, several athletes said they had heard nothing of the policy. And while some understood its rationale, they still weren't pleased.
"I think it's a little uptight," said Erin Symonds, 16. "If I'm muddy, I'm taking my shirt off after the game."
Several girls said they joke about following Chastain's victory example, but haven't. "Maybe when we win finals next week," laughed 16-year-old Alison West.
On the football team, Bill Clark, an 18-year-old senior, arms and midriff bare during a brisk autumn practice, said: "If they make something that says you can't take off your shirt, I'm going to go against it, 'cause I'm a nudist by nature."
As for the girls, he said, "What's the difference between seeing a girl in a sports bra and in the summer seeing them at the pool in a bathing suit? Some of the bathing suits they wear--come on now."
In the school system next door, William G. Beattie, coordinator of Montgomery County athletics, said all students must wear shirts when playing sports. "I don't consider myself a prude," he said. "I just don't see 2 and 2 adding to 4 here. You score a goal, you take off your shirt? What is that about?"
The sports-bra issue, he added, could place administrators in the awkward position of distinguishing one tight-fitting garment from another. "I've been led to think there's a fine line between sports bras and other kinds of shirts," he said.
In Loudoun County, School Board member D. Kim Price-Munoz (Sterling) said that in an age when sports bras are commonplace, the fuss over Chastain and the actions of the rugby players was an overreaction. "You see them in the grocery store, you see them in gyms across America, you see them everywhere."
"Do I let my daughters dress like that? No. But it's not against the law. And the boys whip off their shirts."
Chastain's ebullience, she said, reflected "women's acceptance of their strength more than their sexuality. They want to show off their powerful body. And we let men do that, so why can't women?"
For the record, the Ohio State team was temporarily benched by the school, made official apologies and pledged community service. The regional governing body has barred the team from playing the rest of the season. Moore says the team's goal is to mend relations with the university and keep the club, in its first year, up and going.
There is more to the story than a college prank, according to Moore, more than the explanation the team captain gave at the time that it was a moment of bonding for women in a "crazy sport."
The team had not set out to imitate Chastain, he said, but had absorbed her triumphant moment as a proud expression of women's athletic power--which team members shared.
The idea has touched off debate among many who follow women's sports, and rugby, about the line between free expression and bad taste, and whether it is drawn according to gender.
Dwelling on what women wear or reveal--instead of what they accomplish athletically--dismays Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociologist at University of Minnesota who directs the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports.
"What this proves to me right now is that we, as a culture, seem to be incapable of talking about women for very long without getting to their breasts," she said.
She added, "I think it's important for women athletes to create rituals and images that can be replicated by other younger athletes. I would just rather have it be about Brandi Chastain's foot putting the ball into the net."
Moore suggested that the university's disciplinary measures might not have been the same with a male team. He warned: "Public institutions have to be prepared for more and more of this as women share a more equal role in sports."
"People react to the risque behavior of females in sports differently than they react to the risque behavior of males," he said.
From Disney's view, the larger picture is that women's sports have finally become so popular and mainstream that they now reflect the bad habits men have long displayed.
"I think the women's program is becoming the same as the men's program now," he said. "You hear a lot more complaints about trash talking and physical play than you did five to six years ago."
When Chastain pulled off her shirt, Kane cringed. But she has since discerned an age gap in people's reactions to what Chastain did. Kane is 48 and helped fight for the protections of Title IX's anti-discrimination laws. Her students did not. She found they felt, "This is about women soccer players doing what male soccer players do," she said. They felt, "She rocks, she rules."
For many female athletes, the issue is largely abstract. They could not imagine the thrill of victory ever leading to a fit of shirt-flinging.
"Personally, if I was going to score a point, it's not the first thing that would come to my mind," said Victoria Vaskov, 19, a sophomore rugby player at George Washington University. On the other hand, Vaskov said the larger trend may be positive.
"Maybe it shows the level of comfort women athletes have with their bodies," she said.
In the world of sports, many drew distinctions between baring down to the sports bra--and baring down to the breast.
People who know rugby say it is a breed apart from other sports, with its full contact play, no helmets, no pads. Many players argued that the display at the Lincoln Memorial takes away some of the hard-earned respect the sport has begun to command in recent years.
Roni Epstein, who has played rugby in the region for 15 years, said the topless posing has been the talk of her team. While a few players have forgiven the stunt as a youthful indiscretion, she said, most were angry.
"Everybody was insulted that the face of rugby was tainted," she said. "We take our sport so seriously. It trivializes the sport of rugby."
Moore said supportive words have come in for his rugby club from across the country. Most offended, he said, have been university alumni and administrators.
But, he said, part of the sport's tradition is fearlessness. "Maybe you're not afraid to take your shirt off," he said, "after you're not afraid to play on the field."