CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE IN A PENALTY KICK AND ITS AFTERMATH
By Al Mattei
When Brandi Chastain of the 1999 U.S. Women's World Cup team neatly left-footed a fifth-round penalty kick into the side netting of the goal at one end of the Rose Bowl, she gave American sports culture -- no, make that American culture -- an unforgettable image.
She jumped up, tore off her white jersey, knelt down at the penalty spot, pumped her arms, and shouted for joy.
The image is not just a bare-shouldered Californian wearing a black sports brassiere, baggy white shorts, and cleats. It was not just the fact that Chastain once said, "I ran my ass off for this body."
Instead, you must take into account the whole person when understanding the emotions of Chastain -- and her countrywomen.
You see the image of toned arms, which helped to hold off a Chinese defense for 120 minutes of play.
You saw legs which bicycle-kicked away an almost certain score in overtime.
You saw the sweat dripping off her, borne of the Pasadena sunshine as well as the countless hours of training, even the solitary training which Chastain had to go through to get back onto the national team after being cut several years back.
You also saw the parallel emotions on her face -- joy and relief, ecstacy and release .
And this wasn't even because of the final: Chastain, you may remember, scored an own goal for Germany in the quarterfinal round in the game's opening minutes of play. She, however, gamely came back and scored the game-tying goal in the second half..
But what the Chastain image of celebration does not show is that, underneath the uniform, underneath that black sports bra, underneath all of what we all could see, is the heart of a champion. The heart of a team player, who was the culmination of many efforts over the years.
Chastain's shout would never have been possible without Title IX, the federal statute which guides equal funding for men's and women's athletics. It would never have been possible without open-minded athletic directors in colleges and high schools who did not think of soccer as just a boys' sport.
Too, Chastain would never have been at the penalty spot without the efforts of the several hundred women from Lisa Gmitter to Mary Harvey, from Andrea Velasco to Carin Jennings, who have worn red, white, and blue at some level.
She would never have had taken the kick without Briana Scurry's save in the third round of the penalty-kick shootout. Or, for that matter, Kristine Lilly's defensive save in overtime.
The team would not have been in the position to win without the defense of Kate Sobrero and Julie Foudy, the attacking pressure of Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm, or the spark of Shannon MacMillan.
In this age of "image is everything," the celebratory image of Brandi Chastain says a lot about where women have come in the past 100 years.
Whereas women in olden days had to remain completely covered from the neck down, and play genteel sports like croquet, tennis, and archery, women now have choices. They can run, sweat, knock down opponents with two-footed challenges, and exult in victory in Chastain-esque fashion.
And never did a black bra look so good.