Elizabeth Lambert And The Aggression Taboo
I’ve been meaning to write about this since the story broke, and this post at Gender Across Borders got me motivated to do it. Lambert, who has since apologized, pulled an opposing player off her feet by her ponytail during a college soccer game. That was not her only incident in the game; she punched another player in the back and made a very nasty tackle in what was a very physical and mean game all around. Much of the discussion has focused on her individual play, whether it is acceptable and whether her treatment has been sexist. I want to take a step back and take a more macro approach: what does aggression mean in sports and how does Lambert fit into how we see women as competitors?
Direct aggression is not part of every sport, but in a lot of team sports it is. Players come into contact. How much and in what way this is expected and allowed is particular not just to the sport, but the level of competition, and culture of the league, and the sex category of the competitors.
I’m not just talking about the rules. There are rules against fighting in hockey, and there are penalties. But nobody thinks that fighting isn’t part of the game. There are rules, there are penalties, and the benefit of breaking the rules is weighed against the cost of getting caught. In American football, for example, offensive linemen hold routinely. Sometimes they get caught, sometimes they get called, and there’s a penalty. Both the violations and the penalties are part of the game.
There are the routine violations, and there are the shocking violations. For example, when Marty McSorley hit Donald Brashear in the head with his stick, it wasn’t part of the game and it wasn’t treated at if it was. What side of the line something falls on, though, may be a matter of debate.
The individualized debate isn’t one I want to get into. What I want to say is that individual fouling and individual gross misconduct are part of a spectrum that arises from teaching people to compete hard in a physical arena. There are people who can exhibit extraordinary self-control and magnanimity even while scrapping for every advantage — I’m thinking Dollar Bill here. Then there are people who are mean, surly and dirty as part of their style of play. Bill Laimbeer and the Chuck Daly Pistons, I’m looking at you. Sometimes it’s actually productive — the Broad Street Bullies and Daly’s Pistons earned national championships, in part, by being physically intimidating. It can also be counterproductive, and the cellar of any league usually has a team of thugs that tries and fails to transmogrify aggression into performance, and gives up needless penalties in the process.
I’m not interested in debating the big Elizabeth Lambert hair-pull. What I’m saying is that, if we raise a group of girls to play soccer and play hard, those girls will fall on a spectrum that includes their version of the Bradleys and the Laimbeers and the McSorleys. The occasional cork-popping hothead will manifest, but the process also produces another kind of competitors: physical, tough, surly, intimidating. Someone who is rough for the purpose of creating an advantage, who claims space on the floor or the field or the ice, and won’t be backed down.
And that’s the important part, isn’t it? If the real world is rough-and-tumble and we expect people to inject themselves, fight for advantages and claim space, don’t we use sports to teach that to our boys? And shouldn’t we teach that to our girls? Shouldn’t we teach our daughters, just like our sons, “nobody owns the paint: you have to take the paint”?
One of my favorite quotes about sports is one of the most frequently misquoted. Vince Lombardi did not originate the saying, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing“. (It probably dates from college coach Red Sanders before the 1956 Rose Bowl.) But he did say, “winning isn’t everything, trying to win is,” and at various other times, “the desire to win is” and “the will to win is.”
And I believe that. I believe in the will to compete and win, to drive one’s self, to train and sweat and bleed and keep training, in the discipline to get hit and get knocked down and get up. Sometimes that means being angry and surly and unfriendly. Sometimes that means, for some people, that to be aggressive means to act aggressive.
We live in a society that regularly accepts that in men: If I started listing them I’d have trouble stopping, so I’ll just name one. Bob Gibson. Surly, mean, and intimidating — and it’s not even a contact sport. But we look askance at women taking on that role — because it’s direct aggression. Folks are okay with artistry; Mia Hamm could always outmaneuver opponents, but do we accept the women who run over and through opponents, the women who play physical and hit hard? I think we’re coming to. Players like Michelle Akers ae legends within their sport, though women’s athletics is so overshadowed by the men that women’s team sports’ biggest stars are barely household names, overshadowed by gymnasts, swimmers, figure skaters, tennis players, and an entire pantheon of male athletes. But then, it wasn’t that long ago that it seemed like everyone hated Cathy Turner for being a physical, bumping, rough-and-tumble competitor in the physical, bumping, rough-and-tumble sport of short track skating.
As Melissa McEwen pointed out, in a post about Lambert, when men in soccer are rough and even unsportsmanlike, it gets attention but it does not occasion the same kind of shaming: Vinnie Jones gets movie roles on the strength of his career as an enforcer, and Wayne Rooney is one of the more celebrated figures in the game today, despite his lack of temper control. But in a country where women’s college soccer isn’t even on the radar screen, Lambert’s violence was an outsized story.
It’s an old patriarchal double-bind: men and even some women say that women lack the drive and the guts to be tough competitors, but to do that goes against all the socialization we throw at them, and they are often more severely criticized for the outright display of aggression. If Lambert is a sign, even a maladaptive one, that we’re raising a generation of girls to say (to paraphrase Rihanna), “Eff nice”, then I’m okay with that.