On February 15, American skeleton athlete John Daly was in third place, and with very strong hopes for a medal, before his final time down the mountain. Unfortunately, on his running start, his sled slipped out of one of the guiding grooves at the beginning of the icy track, an unrecoverable error that put him out of medal contention entirely. When Daly reached the end of his run, where most athletes jump up to check their time and clear the track, he simply lay very still for a long moment, his hands holding his helmet, obviously in shock over what had just occurred.
A few minutes later, he was interviewed on his crushing loss -- and also on the victory of his American teammate, Matthew Antoine, who won the bronze.
I saw this interview happen live, and Daly’s devastation and shock were acute. He could barely get a single sentence out at a time, before having to pause and take a deep, shuddering breath. Eventually, he simply turned away from the interviewer, apologizing. I half expected him to sob out loud at any moment.
Watching him fight his own tears actually made ME cry. Although I am hardly a committed sports fan, few things will more reliably inspire me to well up than watching a person who has worked impossibly hard for something, and made incredible sacrifices for it, only to lose out on their dreams, and to be forced to face how deeply they’ve disappointed themselves.
Five days later, the US women’s hockey team faced Canada in the gold medal game. Canada has taken home the gold in the last four winter games, and they share a vigorous rivalry with the US, in women’s hockey as in men’s.
The US women’s team lost in sudden death overtime after a grueling game, in which the US prevented Canada from even getting on the board until the last four minutes of regulation time. But, as my husband is fond of saying, “Four minutes is a lot of hockey,” and the Canadian team managed to erase the US lead and take the game into overtime, where they won on a power play.
Following the loss, the US women’s team’s disappointment was immediately evident; odds are good many of them truly believed that this would be their year to win gold, and now at best they have another four years to wait -- four years too long for many players who can’t afford to keep up their training.
While the Canadian team threw off helmets and gloves and celebrated, the inevitable reaction shots peered into the cagelike face masks of some of the American players, and I tensed, inwardly pleading that the live coverage would not show any of them crying.
It bothered me that this was my reaction -- it would be pretty understandable to cry. But I also live in a world where women who cry in public are often considered overly dramatic and out of control at best, and at worst, straight-up crazy.
The cameras found some red-eyed American women, of course, because even restrained crying plays well to TV audiences at a game’s end -- it’s emotional, it’s sad, it makes us sympathize with the players. I don't know any sports fans who watch sports from a totally detached place, caring only for wins and losses as they count for numbers on a board. They watch sports because sports make them feel things, often really powerful things: joy, anger, astonishment, relief, fear, misery. We can hardly expect that the athletes themselves would be immune to a similarly emotional reaction to a difficult loss.
Occasionally I like to use Twitter as a barometer for cultural moments, when I am looking to get a broad sense of people’s unvarnished thoughts on an event. It’s not a super scientific method, but it is useful as a quick assessment of which way the wind is blowing.
Following John Daly’s teary post-loss interview, the praise for him on Twitter was glowing and enthusiastic. His efforts to talk about an error he had barely time to process himself were “heartbreaking,” Daly himself even “courageous” for having the bravery to speak to the interviewer at all, given his emotional state.
I agree with these assessments, frankly. Watching Daly struggle was painful, but real, and something athletes face all the time -- having to explain that one mistake that cost literal years of training and preparation and dreaming.
Following the US women’s hockey loss, however, the reaction was different. Markedly different. People seemed to be annoyed by the emotional reaction of some members of the US team. Or disgusted, even.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, in narrating live post-game coverage of some US team members fighting tears, longtime NHL announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick actually said, out loud, on NBC Sports, “Maybe it’s a man thing, but when a woman cries, you never know what to say. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all."
It's a real shame that he did not take his own advice on this matter.
I wish I could say I was surprised by Emrick’s bizarre “when a woman cries” comment, but I expected it, or something awkward and weird like it. I also expected the immediate derision of the women’s team from some quarters, because few things are as disgustingly womany as a woman getting her woman-tears all over her woman-face. I also expected this:
Because anytime anyone cries in a sport, some folks feel required to announce that there is no crying in that sport. (Also, just to be clear, “There’s no crying in baseball” is not some time-honored old saying, as a lot of people seem to think. It comes from the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” and it’s uttered by Tom Hanks in the role of Jimmy Dugan, who at that point in the story is a revolting, chauvinistic jerk who thinks “girls” playing baseball is absurd.) (Also also, “A League of Their Own” is easily one of the finest sports movies ever made and I will fight you if you debate this with me.)
No doubt some will argue that hockey, in particular, is not crying-friendly, being a big tough sport for big tough (wo)men. But then, skeleton is not exactly an undertaking for soft smooshy weaklings, being a sport in which participants slide head-first down a frozen track, often at over 80 miles per hour, and yet John Daly (who incidentally looks like this) didn’t seem to get much derision for his tears -- just sympathy and understanding.
No, the crying women’s team members were criticized for one reason: because they are women. And as Emrick so inelegantly stated, women crying is a very different thing, culturally speaking, from men doing the same damn thing. Men’s tears may well be mocked, but are also occasionally moving, brave, or noble. Men's tears have meaning, even when they are ridiculed. We tend to trust that if a dude is crying, he's doing it for a reason.
Women’s tears, on the other hand, are melodramatic and ubiquitous -- when ISN’T a woman crying, right dudes? Bitches will cry at commercials sometimes.
The idea that hockey is usually crying-free is just inaccurate. There is plenty of crying in men's hockey. I knew this intellectually, despite being a very casual hockey viewer, but even I was shocked when I googled “hockey crying” and found a ZILLION examples. The truth is that lots of male playerscry over hockey -- as those links illustrate, some on live television. Yes, even Canadians cry over hockey.
This is the totally understandable way of things, because these are individuals who care very much about hockey.
I’m of the opinion that no matter a person’s gender, there’s actually nothing wrong with crying, even in public, even in a hockey jersey. It’s not exclusively “feminine” behavior, and even if it were, “feminine” is not bad. In life, as in hockey, we cry when we experience a loss that we feel deeply, a disappointment that we truly care about. We cry when we have failed to achieve the dreams for which we’ve worked the hardest, and believed so strongly we could make true. And sometimes we cry when we DO achieve those dreams, for the same reasons. It’s good to cry, because it means that we give a shit. It means we’re passionate. It should not be embarrassing. It’s just part of living a life in which we care about things.
So I don't blame either John Daly OR the US Women's hockey team for letting a few tears fall; it says nothing about their "toughness," their sportsmanship, or their ability at their chosen sport. All it communicates is that they driven to win, like all competitive athletes are, and there is absolutely nothing shameful about that.