In the recent World Cup soccer match against Sweden, the United States women’s team was eliminated from competition in a penalty shootout. After Megan Rapinoe missed her penalty kick, she laughed. And she was widely ridiculed for her reaction to her miss. The Daily Mail reported, “As she jogged back to the halfway line, she was—much to the confusion of fans watching back home—smirking and laughing to herself, which left fans on social media enraged.” Consider the headlines from various outlets, “Megan Rapinoe was slammed for laughing at her own missed penalty,” and “USA soccer fans fume as Megan Rapinoe laughs off missed penalty kick.” She is “under fire for strange reaction to missed penalty,” and “Slammed By Fans For Confusing Reaction.”
I don’t often agree with Megan Rapinoe’s outspoken politics, but these attacks of her reaction are deeply unfair. The poet William Blake would have understood. In his “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake wrote, “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps. The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” When we are overwhelmed, sometimes the only possible reaction is laughter.
Moreover, it radically misunderstands Rapinoe’s reaction to read her laughter as indicative of positive emotion. Her emotion is captured by her body language. Consider the contrast of the following photos. The first one is following her game-winning penalty kick in the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands.
She extends her arms in the wide open body language of the hero, the conqueror. Her head tilts upward and outward like a general soaking in adoration after the hard fought battle is won.
But now consider this perspective after the recent missed penalty kick:
Her head is downcast, and she has the shrinking posture that seeks to hide from attention. And for good reason. To miss was an unexpected humiliation.
What were the odds of missing that kick? Heading “into the 2023 event, 82.9 percent of Women’s World Cup penalties had been converted—78 out of 94. Indeed, it took until the fourth World Cup in 2003 for one to be missed, the 1991, 1995, and 1999 editions all went by without a shooting mishap from 23 attempts in regular play (shootouts excluded).” Arguably, the odds were even better with Megan Rapinoe taking the penalty. She hadn’t missed one in years. She was one of the most experienced players on the field. She was one of the least likely to crack under World Cup pressure. Rapinoe was selected by the coach to take the penalty for good reason, having scored the game-winning penalty kick in the 2019 World Cup final.
But this time she couldn’t hit the mark. Then, she couldn’t control her emotions. One of the most important moments of her life not only didn’t go according to plan but radically contradicted the plan. She failed in front of the world.
Almost none of us have had such a public failure. But all of us have discovered that our lives, even in their most important moments, are not under our control. All of us have had the experience of our emotions to these events being not under our control. By our lack of control, in both our emotions and in our lives, we are reminded of our humanity, our lack of divinity. We can and should allow people, even those who we may consider to be gravely mistaken about matters of public importance, to be human. Shakespeare said, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” And that includes all of us, in all of the ways we miss the mark.