Winning trumps sportsmanship for team USA at 2019 FIFA World Cup

Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

This American saying holds true for the players on the United States of America’s football team.

They are playing in the 2019 FIFA World Cup being held in France. The team is among the favorites to win this tournament, which is regarded as the pinnacle of women’s football (or soccer for us North Americans). They are the defending champions, the number one ranked team in the world, and they have their sights set on repeating at this World Cup.

In their first game against Thailand, they demolished their opponent by a score of 13-0. While the one-sided scoreline seems unusual, it is normal considering the U.S are ranked 1stin the world and Thailand is ranked 34th

What is truly unusual is the manner that team USA celebrated after each goal. In fact, they celebrated like it was the game winning goal of a World Cup final. 

Onlookers, fans, and perhaps, Thai were upset. In their eyes, these celebrations were excessive, antisocial, and actions that aligned with low morals. 

Indeed, actions that have consequences for others’ rights and well-being are within the moral domain (Turiel, 1983). 

In studies about morals and sportsmanship, participants observed common football scenarios where athletes tried to injure an opponent, or they faked an injury. They were asked to indicate whether they viewed the behaviors as appropriate and whether they would engage in the behaviors if they were in a similar situation.

Participants that had low morals judged inappropriate actions as appropriate, reported the intent to engage in similar antisocial behaviors, and had greater frequency of previously engaging in these behaviors. In football, antisocial behaviors are voluntary actions intended to harm or disadvantage another individual. Teasing, showboating or humiliating others are examples of emotional bullying(Stirling, Bridges, Cruz, & Mountjoy, 2011).

Researchers have dug even deeper and noticed three things with low moral functioning athletes:

  • Ego goal orientation
  • Performance motivational climate
  • Coaches and teammates encouragement

Ego goal orientation is the tendency to use criteria to evaluate success such as winning, capturing a trophy, or scoring a goal (Nichols, 1989). Effort and ability are distinguished as the causes of success or failure. For team USA, they want to score to win their games and eventually win the 2019 FIFA World Cup. It will mean that they defend their previous 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada. 

Verbal warning: their players have an ego goal orientation.

Performance motivational climate of the team refers to the athletes’ perceptions and how they impact their motivation. Ego goal-oriented athletes are not seeking to master a skill or improve themselves. They want to win at all costs and, as researchers have noted, morality is low. These athletes are typically from individualist cultures and the United States of America is ranked first in this category, according to Hofstede Insights (2019).

Yellow Card: their players are individualists.

Coaches and teammates can encourage unsportsmanlike actions, creating a lower standard of morals. With team USA, there is footage of teammates celebrating and dancing together immediately following each goal scored against the helpless Thai. Following the game, media sources and pundits were quick to denounce these actions from the bench and amongst teammates, but American players have failed to recognize the impact of their antisocial actions. 

Red Card: their players show low morals.

In one other finding, researchers have found gender differences, with men displaying lower levels of moral functioning than women. (Kavussanu & Roberts, 2001). It is plausible to believe that these celebrations are shocking to viewers leading to a form of underlying sexisms, arguably. But examples of sexism will be analyzed in future articles.

One point can be argued.

For USA women’s football, winning is the only thing and it trumps everything.


Hofstede Insights. (2019). Retrieved from

Kavussanu, M. (2008). Moral behaviour in sport: A critical review of the literature. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology1(2), 124-138.

Kavussanu, M. & Roberts, G.C. (2001). Moral functioning in sport: An achievement goal perspective. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 23: 37-54.

Stirling, A. E., Bridges, E. J., Cruz, E. L., & Mountjoy, M. L. (2011). Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine position paper: Abuse, harassment, and bullying in sport. Clinical journal of sport medicine21(5), 385-391.

Turiel, E. (1983). The development of social knowledge. Morality and convention. Cambridge University Press. 


By Jamie Smed from Cincinnati, Ohio – IMG_9505.JPG, CC BY 2.0,


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