LONDON – The first time a woman joins a pick-up game with men, she has three to five minutes to exploit her opponent's attitudes about women players, depending on the game's pace and how soon she gets the ball.
When a female player enters a "man's game" as an unknown quantity, she steps onto a field of low expectations. Everyone is pleasantly surprised when she completes a pass, takes a reasonable shot. She gets easy praise for the display of the most rudimentary skills. Although these comments are meant to be supportive, they can feel patronizing.
But our player is used to that stuff and hardly pays it any mind. She's not there to raise anyone's conscience. She's there to play.
She knows better than to take such things seriously, too, because those attitudes are usually temporary.
Unmarked because underestimated, she picks off a weak pass, takes the ball around a couple guys, and sends in a sweet cross -- and the whole tenor of things changes. This is when she enters the game, really, not as "the girl" but as a player like any other.
If she's a good player, guys will remember this. They'll hope she shows up to the next game. When she does, they'll give her the ball, run into space for the pass and ping it back to her, knowing that one-touch give-and-go is her "thing."
Even better, expectations are raised: People are surprised if she flubs an easy pass. They tease her when she sends a shot ridiculously high, sarcastically cheer a ludicrous volley. They know: She's a solid player and can take a ribbing.
In a regular pick-up game, in other words, once people see a woman play well, the fact that she does becomes the new normal.
In considering the impact of this World Cup on the women's game, sports media would do well to follow the example of the ordinary men and women who play together in parks after work.
Sports media needs to learn the lesson that the US Women's National Team has been teaching it since 1999.
It needs to start treating the US Women's National Team like it treats other names in sports -- with consistent attention to both its successes and its struggles. Front page celebrations of a come-from-behind victory are wonderful. But for longtime fans of the sport, getting that coverage once every four years is not even close to enough.
It is hard to hide the shallowness of media awareness of the women's game. BBC Radio 5 featured a discussion of England coach Hope Powell's controversial statements regarding her team's failure to volunteer to take penalties. Within seconds of the broadcast, it became clear that not all of the football journalists talking about the game had seen it.
That kind of lack of seriousness (in which it is OK to talk about a huge match that one hasn't seen) leads to misleading takes on events, such as the myriad stories that frame Japan's win over Germany as "the biggest upset in the history of women's soccer." Japan is No. 4 in FIFA's world rankings and placed fourth in the 2008 Olympics.
Last week, that may have been Japan's biggest win, but I am not sure the 1-0 victory is on par with the shocking drubbing Brazil gave the US in 2007 (4-0), nor does it compare, really, with Mexico's 2-1 win over the US in the CONCACAF tournament -- a loss that very nearly kept the US women out of the World Cup altogether.
Japan's win over the US in the World Cup final is another story altogether. For it is one thing to beat a team you've never conquered before. It is another to earn a string of such victories, one after the other, and to conclude that streak with a win, via penalty kicks. This is basically what women have to do to get not equal coverage, but any coverage.
On the international stage, it is especially irritating so see such thin coverage of the women's game in dry seasons, when newspaper pages are filled with stories about transfer rumors .
According to the stories covering European sports pages, apparently we would rather read a long article about how Theo Walcott doesn't think he's a winger or explore how much money Carlos Tevez might make next year.
It is understandable that in 1999 very few newspapers planned to send reporters to cover the Women's World Cup. But, according to journalist Grant Wahl, this year there were only three US print journalists at the media session two days before the US match against Brazil: himself, Nancy Armour from The Associated Press, and David Leon Moore of USA Today. (There were, however, more American new media and television journalists.)
Given all the stories out there in the women's game, it's high time we all raised our expectations and welcomed women's soccer into the sports world as just another game, with its own glories and its own dramas. And as is the case with any other sport, we expect to see it covered -- not only when the national team is in the World Cup final, but also when the national team players go home, change into their club kits and put their shoulders to the tough work of building a league.
Almost every single player on the current USWNT roster will be playing this weekend in the WPS. A good number of other stars from the tournament, like Marta, are already back on the field in the US playing in the league. We need to hear a lot more about what is going on in our domestic league. We need to pressure media outlets and show them we care by turning out in numbers for their games.
If we keep at it, maybe a few years down the road, we'll be complaining about how much press is given to transfer rumors in the women's game.
We can do more than hope for this day when we are plagued by over-reporting of the game's minutia. We can start some of those rumors ourselves.