On its own, the popularity of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team probably shouldn’t be viewed as a giant step toward gender equity in athletics or anywhere else. We’ll eventually see that the weekendlong preoccupation with distaff soccer owed more to nationalism and the downward trend of our government’s relationship with China than it did our feelings toward the sport. The whole country also watched the U.S. hockey team defeat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics, remember, yet puckheads will see hell freeze over before they live through the ice hockey boom so many predicted at the time.

But Brandi Chastain’s victory celebration provided profundity seekers and Neanderthals alike with something pretty meaty. For anybody out of the country last weekend: Moments after Chastain banged home the money shot and gave the U.S. women the cup, she ripped off her jersey, sank to the ground in shorts and a sports bra, and writhed for a few brief moments.

Some segment of the viewing audience, the same segment that found Wimbledon captivating when, and only when, Anna Kournikova got to whacking on Centre Court, was tuned in to the game primarily because of Chastain. Not for her able left foot, but for some of the other body parts she’d displayed while posing nude for a recent issue of Gear magazine. For that bunch, the play-by-play of the most watchable portion of the World Cup would go something like: Oh, yeah, lose that sweaty top. Now get on your knees, and lean waaaaay back. Yeah, Brandi, you’re a fine girl…

Yet for all the witnesses to Chastain’s peep show—the World Cup final was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history—and all the shutter-clicking it generated, there was relatively little hand-wringing about her conduct.

The media accepted her claim that the strip was spontaneous, though there’s plenty of evidence that that’s a load of crap. The Gear spread revealed Chastain’s predisposition to shedding a layer or two with people watching, and there are rumors that the whole thing was a stunt to promote a sports bra that Nike is about to release. Chastain didn’t even invent that post-goal ritual: Earlier in the tournament, Linda Medalen, captain of Norway’s team, had flashed her bra and run around, but kept her shirt on, after scoring during group play at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. In the locker room, Medalen had said she wanted to call attention to women’s and lesbians’ rights issues.

Chastain didn’t wax political about why she took Medalen’s routine a little further; she just said, “It was an act of temporary insanity,” then joined her mates on a trip to Disneyland.

Chastain gets nothing but a “You go, girl!” from women’s groups who some years back might have frowned on the use of public disrobing as a way to get attention.

“We live in a society where we value people based on how much money they make,” says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, “so it only makes sense that this woman would do something to get a product endorsement contract. The fact is that nobody would have even paid any attention to her ripping her shirt off if it hadn’t happened in the World Cup final, and she only got the opportunity to play before so many people because of what a fantastic athlete she and the other women on the team are. I really thought it was wonderful. Besides, I’ve seen guys do stranger things. What about those little dances they do in the end zone?”

To some sociologists, Chastain’s behavior isn’t nearly as significant as the lack of repercussions she faced for it.

“If this happened five years ago, there would have been speechifying from establishment feminist types,” says Karen Lehrman, post-feminist and author of The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World. “You’d have someone saying, ‘See, here’s a woman who’s equal to the men in athletic abilities, but she still has to do something in the end that’s quite demeaning to herself and her sex!’ And they would make something of the fact that she went down on her knees. But that hasn’t happened. If this is a sign, I don’t want to say it’s a sign of anything so positive—just the lack of something negative—but I guess it’s good that nobody’s wagging their finger at her.”

Others think Chastain skirted scorn primarily because society doesn’t view female jocks as female. Just as we don’t see anything sexual when baseball players toy with their naughty bits in the batter’s box, we didn’t get titillated by Chastain’s pageant.

“In any other walk of life, what she did certainly would have gotten a greater response,” says Katie Roiphe, whose books Last Night in Paradise and The Morning After ponder the state of sexuality and feminism in the States. “And since she wasn’t wearing something from Victoria’s Secret under her shirt, this didn’t come off as a highly charged erotic moment. But I also think people look at women’s bodies in sports differently, as if they’re not really women. This team has been [marketed] differently, so you hear people saying things like, ‘Oh, they’re really pretty!’ just because this isn’t a bunch of short-haired women. But still, as athletes, they don’t look like ‘normal’ women. They’re so strong, almost like a different species. And, well, frankly, for me, her taking off her shirt, something about the whole gesture was masculine; she was just like one of the boys.”

After the tournament, the women showed just how much like the boys they are. Even bench warmers began grumping about how from now on they want money for their appearances, and Briana Scurry admitted that on the game-deciding save, she had intentionally broken the rule that says goalies can’t move forward during penalty kicks to gain a competitive advantage. “It’s only cheating when you get caught,” Scurry asserted.

So much for progress.

“Maybe the real message of this is that women are going backwards,” laughs Roiphe. “Even though I’m disconnected to the world of athletics, I [followed] the women’s soccer team. So maybe soon we’re all going to be sitting on the couch, eating pretzels and drinking beer in front of the television. We’re going to close the gender gap that way.” —Dave McKenna

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