The Double Standard of Brandi Chastain
For the last 10 years, nearly every time Cristiano Ronaldo scored in a big game whether for Portugal, Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, or Real Madrid, the soccer stud celebrated by taking off his shirt and flexing.
Ronaldo isn’t the only player to show off his pecks in celebration.
During the 2012 Euro, Mario Balotelli famously ripped off his Azzurri jersey after he gave Italy a 2-1 win over Germany in the semifinal of the tournament. Italy’s first black player flexed his entire body to show off his gladiator-like physique in front of the German defense. Months after the game, an artist crafted a sculpture of the now iconic moment.
Countless others like Francesco Totti, Mauro Icardi, Edinson Cavani, Gianluca Lapadula, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Paulo Dybala have all done it. They wave their jerseys in the air; some even throw it to supporters in the crowd. They show off their muscles, tattoos, and skin in raw emotion.
The most a man gets for ripping off his shirt in a goal celebration is a yellow card – nothing more, nothing less.
In 1999, Brandi Chastain did the same thing her male counterparts did during a match and made front page headlines because she was a woman.
Brandi Chastain and The Game of Her Life
One of the most important moments in American soccer came in 1999 when the USWNT won the country’s second World Cup. The famous phrase “anything boys can do, girls can do better,” never was truer. This was the second major international soccer trophy for U.S. soccer.
The first Women’s World Cup saw the U.S. beat Norway 2-1 in 1991 in China. It was the first time FIFA organized a women’s tournament but it being played outside of a major U.S. time zone likely led to poor ratings. U.S. interest in soccer just wasn’t high.
The tide started to turn in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the World Cup. Add the growing interest in the sport after the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996, and the USWNT had a fan base ready to go for the 1999 tournament. The country too was on board.
During a hot July 10 afternoon inside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the USWNT went to penalty kicks against China after a scoreless final match. Over 90,000 people were packed into the iconic stadium including President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton. 40 million Americans watched on television.
It was a rematch of the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal final, which saw the U.S. beat China to take top prize in Atlanta that summer.
As Brandi Chastain went up to take the final kick, the score was 4-4, China’s Liu Ying had missed a kick and if the American midfielder sunk this in, the game was over. According to Sports Illustrated, Chastain wasn’t even supposed to be in the top 5 to take a kick, she was placed at sixth after she missed a PK against the Chinese months prior.
After managerial decisions, Chastain, who helped the U.S. win their first Cup in ’91 and gold in ‘96, was put back into the top 5 flight. Then, she made history. She won the U.S. their second World Cup.
In celebration, the California native took off her shirt and revealed her black sports bra, dropped to her knees, raised her fists in the air and unleashed a scream that was heard from the Golden State all the way to Hong Kong.
It was the third time the tournament was ever played, and the U.S, whose men’s team never won anything at the time, had two World Cups under their belt.
As her team ran towards her to celebrate, Brandy Chastain became the most photographed woman in the world. And it wasn’t because she scored the goal. It was because she wasn’t wearing a shirt.
In 2014, Chastain told BBC: “I whipped off that shirt and I kind of whipped it around in the air over my head and dropped to my knees as a ‘Yes!’ moment that we had done what we set out to do. I had no idea that would be my reaction – it was truly genuine and it was insane and it was a relief and it was joy and it was gratitude all wrapped into one.”
It was a natural reaction for any player, male or female. Following the goal, she made the front pages of nearly every magazine, newspaper, and was both the hero and villain.
While it was the ultimate display of girl power, some felt it was inappropriate for a woman to take off her shirt on live TV the way she did. Chastain soldiered on and despite the comments, she brushed it all off.
She told the BBC in 2014: “There’s always going to be someone who says, ‘Why did you do that? That’s disrespectful.’ I was grateful for those comments because it gave me a new platform to express myself about what sport has given me. There’s something primal about sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else – when you have a moment like scoring a winning goal in the World Cup championship, you are allowed to release this feeling, this emotion, this response that is not elicited anywhere else.”
The man who shot the iconic photo, Robert Beck of Sports Illustrated, told DeadSpin in 2014: “When she made the winning kick and took her top off, it turned into something completely different.”
USWNT Coach Tony DiCiccio also told Deadspin: “That was a response that a top player would do after scoring an incredibly important goal. Brandi celebrated a goal in a way she had seen countless men celebrate big goals. In that moment I don’t think she felt anything other than exhilaration and relief.” Still some media focused on the celebration and critics thought it was distasteful
Chastain, though, focused on the emotion of the moment. She told Deadspin: “What I explain to people is, imagine the moment you created as a kid in the playground many, many times–where you have the last shot and the clock is ticking down and the crowd goes wild. Maybe in the playground you jump up in the air or pump your fists. But to do this in real life: the emotion and the energy and the electricity and the crowd–it was insanity because I wasn’t really in control. It was just a spontaneous expression to a wonderful moment, but a moment that was a lifetime in building.”
The USWNT would win their third World Cup in 2015 beating Japan during an Independence Day weekend final in Canada.
In many ways, Chastain’s USWNT set the blueprint for the next crop of players. Following Team USA’s victory in 1999, ABC’s Robin Roberts told Sports Illustrated: “What we are seeing clearly transcends sports. This is a moment in American culture … embracing women athletes in this magnitude. And the athletes themselves realize they are part of something special.”
Chastain played with the USWNT until the early 2000s when she hung up her international boots for good. Chastain told BBC in 2014: “Women’s soccer was not anonymous any more – people were talking about it.”
In 2016, she stunned the world when she said she would donate her brain to concussion research to see the effects soccer has on the head.
She told USA Today following the announcement: “I’m not going to be needing it at the end of my life. Hopefully, what can be learned is, can doctors and scientists and neuroscientists look at the brain of someone like me, who has been playing soccer a majority of my life, and really dissect the brain and say, ‘Here’s where we see it beginning?’ Could we then use that information to help say that before the age of 14, it’s not a good idea to head the ball?”
Sports Illustrated voted her as the Sportsperson of the Year in 1999 thanks to her winning goal and in 2014, her iconic celebration was named the magazine’s greatest cover.
As for the most infamous bra in American culture – it hangs in The Sports Museum of America in New York City.