Was Elizabeth Lambert's meltdown a guy thing?

The soccer player acted like a jerk. Why does that mean she acted like a man?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 11, 2009 7:12PM (EST)

When University of New Mexico defender Elizabeth Lambert faced off against Brigham Young in the Mountain West Women’s Soccer semi-finals last week, she did not bend it like Beckham. She tantrumed like Tyson. She punched. She went old school and pulled hair. She racked up an alarming number of penalties and got herself suspended indefinitely from her team. Inevitably, she also went viral, as footage of her going medieval on her opponents hit YouTube. In the ensuing days, she’s been called “the dirtiest player in soccer” for her “despicable losership.”

Lambert’s acts of aggression were unequivocally extreme, but they were not without provocation. In footage of the game, BYU’s #7, the ironically named Carlee Payne, moves in front of Lambert and then clearly delivers a neat elbow thrust to her chest. That’s what known in sports as writing a check your ass is going to cash. Lambert promptly responds with a swift, deliberate punch to her back.

Oh, but Lambert’s just getting warmed up. Later, BYU’s #21, Kassidy Shumway, sidles up in front of Lambert and subtly grabs her shorts. Lambert replies by yanking her ponytail so hard the girl lands face down in the field. Taste the turf, Utah! There’s more: A compilation of her greatest hits from the game shows Lambert in a variety of unsporting and borderline violent plays. Brigham Young had the last laugh however, defeating New Mexico 1 – 0.

After her suspension, Lambert promptly apologized, saying, "I am deeply and wholeheartedly regretful for my actions... I let my emotions get the best of me in a heated situation." But the mea culpa did little to quell the hoopla, as fans and pundits alike have scrambled to make sense of a young woman behaving in such an unladylike way. USA Today’s Mike Lopresti tut-tutted yesterday that women acting like “knuckleheads just like the men” amounted to “another proud day for Title IX, ” adding that ”I'm not sure that's a slice of gender equity that women's athletics should desire to have." And ESPN said, “What is rare is when women athletes are involved in any type of misbehavior,” gasping that it was "practically unbelievable." Fancy that, women misbehaving! The only explanation must be that they’re acting like men!

Those big brutes with the facial hair, it’s true, have been acting out in sports forever. In tennis, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase are remembered almost as much for their meltdowns as their victories. Roberto Alomar’s main claim to Major League baseball fame is his 1996 spitting incident. One of the most famous moments in recent professional soccer wasn’t a triumphant goal but Zinedine Zidane’s decisive head butt during the 2006 World Cup. And then there’s Mike Tyson, whose taste for Evander Holyfield’s ear managed to take a sport that’s all about pummeling the daylights out of your opponent and make it seem somehow brutal.

Yet a woman behaving aggressively is still something of a novelty. When Serena Williams got into it with an official at the US Open over a foot fault in September, the Daily News called it a “display of testosterone… proof that women athletes can behave every bit as irrationally as men."

 And speaking of Lambert in today’s New York Times, North Carolina women’s soccer team coach Anson Dorrance said that “The world has changed. Women play with just as much intensity, work ethic and sometimes aggression as guys,” adding however that “women are held to a different standard.”

Adding to the Lambert fascination is that where there are physically fit 20-year-old women playing dirty, there are those who find their actions hot. CBS News’s 48 Hours called Lambert an “attractive, aggressive…” player. On YouTube, meanwhile, a truly stunning number of the comments have been expressions of disappointment that Lambert and her opponents did not proceed from blows to making out, proving yet again that some people have difficulty distinguishing between real life and Cinemax After Dark. 

There you have it: whupass opening women are manly. But sexy! Gee, no wonder so many sports fans are feeling confused.

Without disputing the basic fact that men and women are physically, hormonally and socially conditioned to be different, maybe it’s time to put aside the facile explanation of aggressive behavior as strictly maculine. Because along with it is the gentle hint that if sports are aggressive and men are all foot stampy and tough, then women’s actions aren’t quite real. And tangled up  in the "Don't be like us big bad animals, ladies!" message is a boastful subtext of athletic machismo.

Maybe anybody, male or female, who’s in the throes of an intense soccer game and gets elbowed and crotch grabbed might react in a spontaneous and physical way. That’s not excusing it, by the way, that’s simply not assuming it’s a guy thing. As Gotham Girls roller derby player Miss American Thighs told me today, “There aren't a lot of aggressive sports for women, but women are just as competitive.” She added, “What Lambert was doing wasn't aggressive (in the sportsmanlike category), it was illegal. That has nothing to do with balls or penises, just assholes.” Lambert, the most despicable person in sports and the hot warrior babe, is in fact like any other  athlete out there. She fouls and fights and screws up and plays her heart out.  And she does just like a woman. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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