The River City Renegade

Phil Esposito’s words from 1972 ring true today: It isn’t fair to boo athletes who wear the Maple Leaf

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To skewer or not to skewer, that is the question.

I refer to our female footy ambassadors, who, at last sighting, were in the throes of a full-pitched bawl fest on the grounds of B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver, where they had found themselves short of the task in a FIFA Women’s World Cup quarterfinal joust with an England outfit that had been there for the taking. In their valley of tears, those among the Canadian flag bearers not weeping had the carriage of a pall bearer—ashen-faced, mournful and spent.

In the wake of that 2-1 loss to the English 11 and their ouster from the global tournament, which concluded this Sunday past with the United States’ ascention to the mountain peak, much has been said and written about our soccer side, a good portion of the reviews featuring a favorable theme while others carrying a darker, less charitable hue.

Most notably, Lauren Sesselmann and Melissa Tancredi have been caught in the crossfire of critical commentary, the former for flubbing a pass and an accompanying pratfall that gifted England with its opening score, and the latter for failing to reward teammates whom had provided her with gilt-edged scoring possibilities.

The Sesselmann gaffe was especially slap-stickish. Writer Michael Farber on TSN’s The Reporters aptly described the much-maligned defender’s faux pas as negotiating the ball “like a racoon negotiates a garbage can.”

Farber, a senior scribe whose main portfolio with Sports Illustrated is hockey, later engaged in an interesting exchange of philosophy with Steve Simmons, the loud-barking Toronto Sun jock journalist whose suggestion it was to take a look at the big picture the World Cup offered vis-a-vis the growth of women’s soccer in Canada.

“This is not about 54,000 people in the stands. That’s wonderful. Women are empowered, women are inspired. That’s not the issue,” Farber lectured “This is a national team, playing at home, and if this were, say, the men’s hockey team they would be eviscerated for that kind of performance. These women have to face the same kind of scrutiny. John Herdman, the coach, has to face the same kind of scrutiny and Sesselmann can’t say, ‘I’ll only answer positive questions.’ She has to face the music. If you want to empower women, if you want to inspire women, they have to be held to the same standards as any other professional athlete.”

“We’ve never done that in this country for almost any sport,” insisted Simmons. “We don’t do it with the women’s hockey team when they lose…”

“You’re gonna pat them on the head…nice try, girls.”

“No, I agree with what you’re saying. I’m just saying, the broad view is we don’t treat them the same way. We probably should, but historically we have not.”

So, two of the top jock journalists in our country believe it should be open season on our soccer girls, or any athlete who wears the Maple Leaf at home and abroad. Both men and women. If they soil the sheets, carve ’em up. Eviscerate them!

Well, I’m sorry, we don’t want to go there.

Thought-provoking analysis and hard-edged opinion is one thing, but to advocate the slicing and dicing of our flag-bearers satisfies nothing but the sports media’s morbid preoccupation with blood-letting. Unless one of our athletes pulls a Ben Johnson/Charlie Francis and earns the country a reputation as a nation of syringe-packing cheaters, we do not take them to the figurative woodshed.

I am reminded of the events of September 1972, and I know both Farber and Simmons are old enough to recall the legendary Summit Series between our band of National Hockey League players and the best shinny stars from the Soviet Union.

The universe was not unfolding as we thought it should through the first four skirmishes, with the comrades holding a 2-1-1 advantage as the sides prepared to leave our shores for the Mother Russia portion of the engagement. In the post-Game 4 fallout—a 5-3 Soviet victory in Vancouver—our overwhelmed, exhaustive troops trudged off the ice to a chorus of booing and nasty catcalling which inspired an epic rant and scolding from Team Canada leader Phil Esposito.

“For the people across Canada, we tried. We gave it our best,” a sweat-stained Espositio told a live national TV audience. “For the people who booed us, jeez, all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned and we’re disappointed in some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players like some of the Canadian fans—I’m not saying all of them—some of them booed us, then I’ll come back and apologize to each and every Canadian. But I don’t think they will. I’m really, really, I’m really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really really, really down in the dumps. We know—we’re trying. What the hell, we’re doing the best we can. They’ve got a good team and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150 per cent because we certainly are.

“Every one of us guys, 35 guys that came out to play for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason. They can throw the money for the pension fund out the window, they can throw anything they want out the window—we came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home and that’s the only reason we come. And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.”

Espo’s sermon rings true to this day.

Our women’s soccer players were devastated after their loss to England. They had hoped for so much better than a quarterfinal finish. Not for themselves, for the flag. Still, clinical analysis of offensive shortcomings, player deployment and the national team program is appropriate.

The suggestion that they ought to be “eviscerated,” on the other hand, is irresponsible and shameful.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.

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