Headline on U.S. soccer game is out of bounds

“RED, WHITE AND BLEW IT.”

That was the all-caps headline on the front page on the Sacramento Bee this morning. It was plastered over a picture of  U.S. fans, draped in red, white and blue, looking shocked after Portugal tied the American team in the final seconds of Sunday’s World Cup game.

Even though I’m not much of a soccer fan, I was annoyed by the two-bit cheap shot. For the sake of a pun, the newspaper belittled the U.S. team like a disgruntled fan cursing the players. There was nothing in the New York Times account in the Bee’s sports pages to suggest the U.S. had caved under pressure.

 The underdog U.S. team had played hard and held the lead until Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo, the world Player of the Year, made a great play enabling a teammate to make a header into the net. The tie meant the Americans missed an opportunity to advance to the knockout round, but they’re still in contention.

The Bee’s descent into snideness is ironic given the newspaper’s recent effort to clean up the incivility in online reader comments. “Too many so-called trolls are using the comments to be mean, obscene or just plain rude,” said executive editor Joyce Terhaar in announcing the crackdown last year.

Suggesting players have choked is an age-old putdown in the sports world. You might recall that the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins, among his many lapses from virtue, was fined and benched for unsportsmanlike conduct for making the choke sign after an opponent missed a free throw.

It’s also an insult that’s easy to make and hard to justify. If a basketball player who makes 50 percent of his shots misses a 15-footer in the clutch, does that mean he choked? What about a .300 hitter in baseball who strikes out with the bases loaded?  The law of averages says he’ll fail more than two times out of three.

Or how about a world-class golfer who can’t seem to win a major title? Michelle Wie was hailed by journalists and fans as a sensation when she played in the final group of a major at age 13 and competed against men on the PGA Tour while still in high school. She continued to be a star golfer for the next decade, along with graduating from Stanford, but couldn’t close the deal on her promise of greatness.

“For anyone prone to cattiness, a teenage Wie made a convenient scratching post, making PGA Tour starts and millions of dollars from endorsements while the top women in the game struggled for attention and sponsorships,” a New York Times story said.

On Sunday, Wie finally kicked aside the choke label when she made a key 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole and withstood a lot of pressure to win the U.S. Women’s Open by two strokes. It was her first major title.  

Who knows what accounted for her setbacks on her 11-year journey to win a major title. Perhaps she was hyped up way over her ability by a media looking for female sports star. Perhaps she peaked early and got sidetracked by fame. Maybe she lacked the inner strength and steadiness needed for all-out success. But she’s still one of the world’s best female golfers.

Those who are quick to say a team or athlete “choked” or “blew it” should look in the mirror and see the face of nastiness.

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