Let's get the obvious out of the way:
The United States-Japan World Cup final on Sunday was an absolute classic, packed with more drama than all five seasons of the late and very great "Friday Night Lights" put together. Everyone on the field gave everything they had, the very best at their sport playing with the desperation you want to see in a game that defines legacies -- all that stuff.
And the easy take after watching the 90 minutes of regulation, 30 minutes of extra time and the penalty kicks is, of course, this:
There were no losers in that game.
The only problem with that cliche is that it's not nearly true. What you witnessed on ESPN on Sunday afternoon was a choke of epic proportions, right next to Greg Norman vomiting up a six-shot lead at Augusta in 1996, the Yankees in 2004 and the "Lost" writers crumbling under the immense pressure of coming up with a satisfying finale and going with the "F--- it, let's just have them all be in limbo" angle in 2010.
No way around it, the United States collapsed on the biggest stage in women's sports (I think that's true -- the game was the highest-rated women's sporting event in ESPN history, just nudging past the UConn-Oklahoma NCAA title game from 2002 and the 2005 Black Widow documentary). To blow a pair of one-goal leads that late in a soccer game in front of the whole sports world against a country you have not only never lost to but just beat twice right before the World Cup is chokish (is that a word?) enough, but then the parade of ineptitude during the penalty kicks?
(Quick aside: Imagine if the Super Bowl was ended with a pass, punt and kick contest. How about Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce playing one-on-one to 11 to determine the NBA title after three overtimes in Game 7? Penalty kicks make sense for the MLS in the regular season, but is it even close to a fair conclusion to the World Cup? This isn't a bitter USA rant, it just has never seemed to make a single shred of sense.)
So, when the game ended, I turned off ESPN (and a memo to the World Wide leader: Please keep Julie Foudy away from us forever -- if a man ever said "we" and "us" that many times during a broadcast he'd be fired in a week. So embarrassing. Please be consistent) and went to Twitter, readying myself for the inevitable buffet of "So proud of you USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" that would be crafted by half-sports fans, half-perverts who were (fingers crossed) hoping that Alex Morgan might A) re-tweet or B) find that hidden meaning in the 140 characters and begin a quest to find AlexMorgan312.
No shock, there was a decent amount of ass-kissing going on, both online and on TV. But I was surprised to read plenty of criticism as well. Pia Sundhage was being blasted for her lack of substitutions and decision to leave Morgan out of the penalty kicks. The players -- at least those not named Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan -- were receiving shots for their failures down the stretch. Even Hope Solo -- who I was told was a "household name" and "America's Queen" by ESPN last week -- was getting thrown into the choke mix.
It's ugly. It can be cruel. Ripping women just minutes after losing the most important game they'll ever play in borders on inhumane. I agree with all of that.
But you know another word to describe it?
I'm serious. For the first time I can remember, much of the media and many of the fans are treating women athletes like male athletes. And isn't that a good thing? If the U.S. men's basketball team played some team it had always owned in the Olympic finals (guess Japan isn't the best comparison here) and lost a couple of double-digit leads in the final quarter and were then drilled in overtime, there would be off-the-charts outrage the next day. And that's OK, it's how it goes. But until Sunday, that kind of vitriol never got within 500 miles of any female athlete.
There has always been almost a halo effect, I think, with women athletes when being judged by the (mostly) male media. Win or lose it's almost always the same. They tried their best, they played like champions, what an inspiration to the young girls out there. It's scary, I suppose, to come across as sexist or insensitive.
But all we hear from these women is this: Treat like like any other athlete. We're just as good. We work just as hard. Our accomplishments mean as much.
Seems fair to me, I'm pretty sure Wambach is every bit the equal of any male athlete I can recall in terms of skill, determination and leadership. She should be held to the exact same standard.
But if we are going to give them equal praise for the success, shouldn't there be equal condemnation when failure arrives?
The U.S. women's team choked on Sunday. But in doing so, the players might have gone a long way in changing how we treat and cover female athletes.
I'm guessing they'd rather have the championship.