Soccer hair-pulling fuels debate over sport sexism

Soccer hair-pulling fuels debate over sport sexism

Published Nov. 22, 2009 12:11 a.m. ET

The vicious hair-pulling of an opponent was inexcusable. But prominent advocates of women's sports say that so, too, has been much of the commentary generated by the popular video of college soccer player Elizabeth Lambert's combative tactics in a recent game.

"Catfight" has been a term commonly used in cyberspace reactions to the video clip now seen by millions of people around the world. One Web site ran a poll: "Do you find violent women sexy?" Some bloggers - lapsing into old stereotypes - suggested Lambert's menstrual cycle was a factor.

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"It's clearly sexist," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, as she assessed the overall reaction to Lambert's rough play in a Nov. 5 game between her New Mexico team and Brigham Young.

"It's obvious there are still some people in this country who just can't accept that women want to play sports, and sometime sports get rough."

Lambert, a junior defender who was suspended indefinitely, issued an apology through the university, saying, "I let my emotions get the best of me in a heated situation."

She was involved in several incidents of hard-nosed play during the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal, mostly notably when she grabbed BYU's Kassidy Shumway by her ponytail and yanked her backward to the ground.

Laura Pappano, co-author of a book about gender in sports and a writer-in-residence at Wellesley College, has written a couple of blogs assessing reactions to the Lambert video.

"The image of female athletes as more than skilled players - as good, wholesome people - is a centerpiece of women's sports and a staple of marketing, promotion, and ticket-selling," Pappano wrote. "This has been both a benefit and a limitation that has helped shape women's sports as 'gentler' fare."

This feeds into a situation in which male athletes often get a pass for bad behavior, while women draw criticism, she argued.

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

Lambert herself, according to the New Mexico athletic department, is not giving further interviews at this stage beyond one she gave Tuesday to The New York Times in which she did suggest there is a double standard for women's sports.

"I definitely feel because I am a female it did bring about a lot more attention than if a male were to do it," Lambert told the Times. "It's more expected for men to go out there and be rough. The female, we're still looked at as, 'Oh, we kick the ball around and score a goal."'

Let it go


Are people still getting on Elizabeth Lambert's case for her pulling some hair? Yardbarker thinks it's time we leave her alone already.

Blogger and author Michael Tunison, in a blog for, was among the male commentators who didn't fully buy that argument, saying Lambert brought the attention on herself because her conduct "was so brazenly outlandish."

"Most of us have long accepted the fact that women's sports aren't dainty, aimless affairs," Tunison wrote. "To suggest the reaction to her dirty play is merely the result of condescension is a weak attempt to deflect criticism."

Other men pointed out that plenty of male athletes had incurred disciplinary action and public criticism for acts of unsportsmanlike violence - such as Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount for punching a Boise State player, and Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes for seemingly trying to gouge the eyes of a Georgia opponent.

However, Carl Cannon, deputy editor of, suggested the intense public reaction to the Lambert incident was different from cases involving male athletes.

"It's as though we expect women to play fiercely competitive sports - like men - and yet retain some of the traditional notions of femininity," he wrote.

Alexis McCombs, Los Angeles-based host of talk show "Instant She-Play" on AOL Sports, said there was no doubt that Lambert and other female athletes are held to an unfair double standard.

She recalled the vehement reaction to Serena Williams after her outburst of profanity at the U.S. Open.

"Think of Andre Agassi - people would relish his bad behavior, while Serena got blasted," McCombs said. "For some of the men, it almost benefits them - they're able to cash in on their bad behavior."

McCombs also suggested that sexual factors were part of the reason the Lambert video became such an Internet sensation.

"The bottom line is it's the female being sexualized," she said. "Some people like the fact that two women are fighting."

NOW's O'Neill said she was dismayed by some of the misogynistic sentiments directed at Lambert, who told the New York Times of one message suggesting she deserved to be imprisoned and raped.

"The only thing we can do is stand in solidarity with women athletes," O'Neill said in a telephone interview. "Obviously what Elizabeth Lambert did was wrong. But you have a right to try to be winners - being tough, being aggressive, wanting to win. That's what women athletes everywhere should be striving to do."