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Ponytail Pulling is Bad (but awfully good for women’s sports)

Lauren, Publicity Assistant

Laura Pappano, co-author with Eileen McDonagh of Playing With The Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal, is an award-winning journalist and writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She blogs at FairGameNews.com . In the original post below, Pappano discusses  Elizabeth Lambert’s hair-pulling and sportsmanship in women’s athletics.  Read Pappano’s previous OUPblog posts here.

Outrage over New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert’s dirty play – including her ponytail-yanking an opponent to the ground – is justified given this egregious act of poor sportsmanship.

But as the conversation and video have gone viral – from SportsCenter to NFL pre-game shows to David Letterman – the subtext has become less about comportment and more about the gendered expectations of female athletes.

Guys fighting in sports – whether ice hockey or baseball – is considered a “natural” by-product of intense play and, well, testosterone. They can’t help it. When women get heated in competition (ask any high school female athletes about trash talking and you’ll get an earful) there is a perception that they’re supposed to act…differently.

In a season of throw-backs, you can add this to the list: Just as our grandmothers insisted that girls don’t sweat, they “perspire,” there remains a narrow range of acceptable behavior for female athletes. Such rigidity is not new (in previous eras women basketball players were required to wear makeup in competition and submit to half-time beauty contests), but until Lambert we had thought the rules had evolved – at least a little.

The increasing skill level and intensity of women’s sports even at high school and college levels should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Problem is, of course, many have not been paying attention. Women’s sports remain poorly covered by the mainstream male sports media. News outlets hardly feel obligated to report on even major events (it took digging to get the result of the WNBA final). And chatter about Lambert on sports talk radio last week on the Boston station I listen to was preceded by the admission that “we have never talked about women’s college soccer on this program and we will probably never talk about women’s college soccer again, but…”

The fact remains that while female athletes have developed skills, hard-charging attitudes and leave-it-all-on-the-field seriousness about their play, we still view them as grown-up girls (in ponytails) who might be doing cartwheels in the backfield if they thought they wouldn’t get caught.

Some little girl-female athlete affinity is purposeful marketing. That’s the justification for Saturday afternoon college basketball games and cheap tickets. And, certainly, why shouldn’t women’s teams, from college basketball to professional soccer build a fan base from those who can relate to them as role models? Isn’t that the NFL’s goal fulfilled when millions of boys paste Ladanian Tomlinson Fatheads on bedroom walls and wear Peyton Manning jerseys to school?

Promoting athletes as role models, of course, is always tricky. But where men get a pass for bad behavior, women draw fire.

We forgive Michael Vick, and gasp when Serena Williams screams at a line judge’s late call at the U.S. Open.

We must get past the notion that female athletes are “nice” first and good second, and women’s games should be peddled as “family fare.” It is tiring to hear enlightened men describe themselves as “supporters” of women’s sports as if they are charitable donors. No one likes dirty play. But if Elizabeth Lambert just made people see that women’s sports are highly intense, competitive, and exciting, well, good for her.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Carter

    First a possible conflict of interest: my entire soccer career was spent playing defense.

    I marvel at the disconnect this author has from what is the real subject matter of the Lambert case. It is not a case of an excuse plagued broken person. It IS a case of an elite athlete, who made the wrong on field decision when facing gamesmanship presented by an opponent. At the elite level, all athletes have long ago cycled through all of the on-field “sportsman-like” methods of attaining a competitive advantage. They have refined their training, polished their skills (the activity’s technical aspects) and studied their strategies (the activity’s tactical aspects).

    This athlete’s issues are not with excuses, they are with the correct response to an opponent’s gamesmanship. As a closer review of the video evidence will show, this athlete responded to minor provocations with escalation. By doing so, she forfeited most of what she had prepared for in her training. When an athlete “sees red”, the activity shifts from discipline to aggression, from creative to destructive.

    The only additional information provided by this athlete’s interview in the NY Times that is relevant is: “In each of her two previous matches, Lambert had received a yellow-card warning, but those were the only cautions in more than 2,500 minutes of play at New Mexico”. Yellow cards for a defender, especially in tournament play, are not unusual (where tactical fouls to stop the run of play are often appropriate). What is relevant is that the video in evidence came from the third game in a row where the athlete was cautioned. Clearly, this athlete has deviated from the pattern of discipline that got her to this point in her career.

    Again, and if this is getting redundant – oh well: all that is relevant is what has changed in the last 3 matches to explain the first 3 cautions of her collegiate career? Why has she chosen to escalate when faced with gamesmanship, when she hadn’t before?

    The histrionics of “soccer-moms”, those parents of children who participate in recreational sports, fail to recognize that their children are playing an entirely different game. Their children are not simply at the other end of long spectrum, but are participating in a qualitatively different activity. It is like trying to compare taking a walk on a path to climbing in the himalayas.

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  3. Logan

    It’s not about sexism. It’s about entertainment. Womens tennis is fun to watch. Womens basketball is dull. Put an exciting product on the floor and you will get coverage.

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  6. David Weitzler

    One Lambert move where two going after the ball end up on the ground: that was sports intensity. The famous ponytail tug: that was malicious greed.

    I haven’t forgiven Michael Vick and Lambert doesn’t deserve his kind of cell time, but nor does she rate “savior of women’s sports from gentility.”

    Instead she has made it quite clear that I may while on a walk get mugged by a woman. Great.

  7. rogue

    It’s high time that we start pitting men vs women in every walk of life…that will show them…
    Yes serena can defeat any male except the ones in top 10 but that doesnt mean whr can take on top ten…and tennis is probably the closest that a woman can come close to men standards in sports…
    It’s timr when from football to chess male and women play against each other rather than amingst themselves…so that they can be showed their place…imagine a soccer match the german mens soccer team and the best soccer team of women…or djokovic vs serena…or magnus carlsen vs ehoever is the no1 female chess player…y do women refrain from playing 5 set tennis matvhes like men??
    They want equality thrn bloddy work that much hard…i would humbly accept my foot in the mouth if any femalr runner can run faster than usain bolt…its not likr women cany compete…hell top femalr athletes in any sport will kick ass of 99.99%of males in worlf in their particulat sport.. But that 0.01% will always prevail over them…and frankly we as fans have not rnough time yo watch the 0.01% male atletes play so y care about the rest(male or female)…
    And no point blaming us…you women blame the media for not showing women sports…hell how muvh do you watch yourselves i can guarantee that in any major sporting event if females there will be more men ib the stands than women…in the recently concluded soccer world cup(the most famous singular sporting event in the world)…there were millions if women in the stands…ask how many of them attended or will attend womens soccer world cup…seriously women may try to be intense in the field but they lack the playing skills to draw the focus away from the top male athletes of their sport…maybe thats y women were told to stay at home…its not that they couldnt play…iys just that who will watch yhem play when there is someine betyer playing…(ask yourself.. Would you rather watch usain bolt run or someone else??
    (Male or female is irrelevant?))
    The day women start beating men at the higgest level only then eill anyone watch them(spectators being both male and female)… And it true…
    Top women tennis players havr more viewers than males ranking outside 25..

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