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Only boys throw punches: the ponytail scandal with University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert

November 20, 2009

Elizabeth Lambert (image via Rick Sciabelli Jr. for the New York Times)

Women’s soccer in the U.S. rarely gets this much attention (positive or negative) as it has been since a video was released on Youtube about two weeks ago. Elizabeth Lambert was suspended from playing soccer on the women’s University of New Mexico team due to physically attacking another player. The video of the physical assault by Lambert can be seen at ESPN here—it’s a pretty graphic video (in fact, she apologized for her wrongful actions). And like Lambert, I’m not going to excuse her horrible actions, but I find that the media surrounding this incident is treating her differently than if she were a man.

On ESPN, commentator Julie Foudy, a former captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team says that “jostling and even hair pulling were part of the women’s game, but ‘if you’re going to pull someone’s ponytail and about snap their head off with it, that’s going over the line,’ “(via NY Times). Other commentators and sports fans have condemned Lambert’s actions, including a Facebook page that calls her a “sexy butcher.”

Lambert is being treated differently by journalists and sports fans because of the stereotypical perception of masculinity: only men are masculine, and masculinity is about being tough, strong, and aggressive. People are surprised that a young, 20 year-old would act this aggressive. Only boys push each in sports, right? In an interview with the NY Times, Lambert says that:

I definitely feel because I am a female it did bring about a lot more attention than if a male were to do it…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. But it’s not. We train very hard to reach the highest level we can get to. The physical aspect has maybe increased over the years. I’m not saying it’s for the bad or it’s been too overly aggressive. It’s a game. Sports are physical. [Emphasis added]

Men assault other players viciously in games, and therefore Lambert does not deserve this unwanted sexist attack. Her actions were wrong, yes, but it is time to move on from this incident. Perhaps one thing that people should take away from this, is that women can be aggressive, and yes (dare I say it?), women can be masculine. While I hope that Lambert will not continue her violent behavior, I hope that the media and sports fan can now focus on what soccer is really meant for in the spotlight.

  1. Kelly permalink
    November 20, 2009 2:28 pm

    I completely agree Emily. There are no excuses for her actions, but if she were a man this would not have been as big of a deal. On a news program the other day there was a whole story that was something along the lines of what “sports are doing to our women” – has this ever been a topic about men and sports? I don’t think so!

  2. trickygirl permalink
    November 20, 2009 4:38 pm

    As a Brit, and a soccer fan, I completely agree that there are absolutely no excuses for behaving like this – but this incident would have been almost completely ignored if Lambert were a man playing in the English Premier League, for example. There might have been a bit of tutting in some of the newspapers, but nothing like the coverage that this incident has provoked. It’s the double standard at work again within society – women must behave in a womanly fashion or risk being ostracised, whereas men can get away with much more without comment.

  3. November 22, 2009 3:43 pm

    The appropriate response is not letting Lambert off the hook, but holding male players to a higher standard. A man player who did what she did should receive the same suspension.

    Anybody who has experienced a fair slice of life knows that some women can be violent, and that a fair number of women have a masculine side. That masculine side is little frowned upon nowadays.

  4. November 22, 2009 11:16 pm

    I’m also a Brit: I’ve watched a lot of women’s soccer (I wrote press reports for the local team for a while as well, which is a grassroots level organisation) and anyone who thinks, as the ESPN dude seems to, that it is “rare” for women players to behave aggressively is just bonkers. As Lambert said, it is a physical game.

    However, I am also trained as a soccer referee and the offences included in the video were not classed as “unsporting conduct” under the laws of association football (soccer). All of them are considered “violent conduct” or “serious foul play”, and those offences are deserving of a red card (being dismissed from the game) in any branch of the game – men’s, women’s, youth, whatever.

    The first incident shown was an initial foul against Lambert by BYU #7 but a thrown punch (even a short jab to the back) is a red card offence.

    The second incident shown was a messed up tackle but continued aggressive behaviour against her opponent; it was certainly unsporting conduct (a yellow card “caution”) and were I referee I would adjudge that to be “serious foulk play” (red card).

    The third incident is a dangerous tackle from behind taking out the player rather than the ball. the laws of the game currently list this as “serious foul play” and a red card offence.

    The ponytail pulling incident clearly “serious foul play” – red card.

    The fifth incident was a deliberate foul, but in the men’s game that would normally be ruled as “unsporting conduct” and be a yellow card “caution”. However, kicking the ball into a player once play is called dead, is violent conduct and a red card offence. The referee is shown FINALLY taking action and giving only a yellow card caution after that incident.

    The 6th incident would be a second yellow (which still adds up to a sending-off) if the collision was judged largely accidental; if the punch thrown is deemed deliberate, then it should be a straight red card for violent conduct.


    In short, the story here shouldn’t be about Lambert’s behaviour; it should be about the appalling refereeing standard in that game! How on Earth does a referee miss THAT many red-card offences, and take no action? (It should be noted that even at the grassroots level here, the referees would have issued red cards for those offences).

    Indeed, in the New York Times article, Lambert made that point: “If the referee Joe Pimentel had issued more yellow cards or a red card, Lambert said, ‘It would have been a very different game.'” I noticed Lambert said that there was a very tense, aggressive atmosphere at the game, and part of the referee’s job is to calm such things down, have a word with players who look like they’re wound up, or have a word with the captains of the two sides to get them to calm their players down, to make sure that t here isn’t a need for cautions and sendings-off.

    I like a good, close, hard-fought physical game of soccer (and I admire greatly the England women’s side, who tend to play in that style). But Lambert’s behaviour was like the worst that’s seen in the men’s game, and it isn’t tolerated there (the FA in England would impose heavy bans and fines for conduct like Lambert’s in the professional game here and rightly so) and it shouldn’t be tolerated in women’s soccer either. That the referee DID tolerate it for so long is the real story, and it may well be to do with gendered assumptions about women as less violent than men.

  5. Andrew permalink
    November 23, 2009 2:41 am

    Do you even watch shows with sports analyst features? When a male athlete breaks the rules in an overtly violent manner and/or with malicious intent, they are often featured on those shows and depicted in a negative light. I can think of three off the top of my head: Brett Farve throwing an illegal block to the knees of a defensive player while playing wide-out, Bill Romanowski spitting in another player’s face, LeGarrette Blount punching another player in the face post-game.

    If a male soccer player had grabbed another male soccer player by the hair and dragged him down voilently, it would be featured as well.

  6. Brian permalink
    November 23, 2009 9:49 pm


    The ignorance displayed in your post is, in a word, astounding.

    First, let’s approach this from what your say is the “stereotypical perception of masculinity:” “masculinity is about being tough, strong, and aggressive.”

    Please, I would love to hear a single person who has described Elizabeth Lambert’s actions as “tough,” “strong,” or “aggressive.” As SnowdropExplodes mentioned above, Lambert’s actions were “violent.” That is the entire point. Lambert’s actions were dangerous, harmful, and could have resulted in serious injury. Jostling and shoving are as much a part of the women’s game as the men’s. That is “tough” and “aggressive.” Lambert was violent and dangerous.

    Now, let’s approach your implied definition of masculinity. You say that this proves that “women can be masculine,” thereby implying that Lambert’s violent behavior is “masculine.” If you are implying that violent, harmful behavior is “masculine,” then congratulations, you’re now sexist. If Lambert played a fair game, and did not “prove that women can be masculine,” as you say, then (to follow your nomenclature) Lambert’s behavior would have been “feminine,” which is apparently responsible play that is well within the rules. As a man, I take great offense to that. Your point is, apparently, that both men and women are capable of throwing punches, but that the act of throwing a punch is masculine. Way to contradict yourself.

    Now I apologize if what I am saying sounds condescending, but I assure you that is not my intent. It is just that, as both an avid follower of women’s soccer and a journalist, irresponsible writing such as yours hits close to home.

    You say that “Lambert is being treated differently by journalists and sports fans,” yet the only source you quote is Foudy, who gives an entirely reasonable and appropriate assessment of the situation. The only evidence you give to back up your claim is a quote from Lambert (who is about as bias a source as you can get) and an unattributed quote from Facebook, which is about as ambiguous as saying “it came from a book.” Furthermore, Facebook is about as responsible a place for to go digging for evidence to reinforce your claims as Wikipedia; Hell, if you give me a few minutes, I could create a “Emily Heroy Deserves a Pulitzer for her Writing” group, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win an award.

    Furthermore, what an outrageously poor choice of the picture to attach to your post. Rather than putting a picture of Lambert up from the game itself (which is, as you know, what started this whole thing), you chose a picture from Lambert’s photo shoot with the New York Times when she was trying to repair her tarnished image. Instead of using a picture that represents Lambert’s behavior (regardless of whether it was right or wrong, masculine or feminine, it’s the whole reason we are talking about this) you chose to represent her with a picture from when she was going out of her way to paint herself in the best light possible. You wouldn’t write an article about LeGarrette Blount and use a picture of him in a suit and tie to represent his actions on the field, so why this image?

    I’m going to call a spade a spade, Emily. In no way does this article even approach any kind of journalistic standard. If you are trying to make a point, lay the facts on the table, make your argument and let your readers decide. You failed to do this. Additionally, you created an issue where one did not exist. Lambert’s actions were violent, not tough. They were dangerous, not strong. The fact that you would try and glorify and excuse this behavior (even though you say you’re not) is astounding, and to hide it behind a veil of sexism is downright disappointing. Please put some more thought what you write before you hit “Publish” next time.

  7. November 24, 2009 8:26 am


    “Now, let’s approach your [Emily’s] implied definition of masculinity. ”

    No, actually it’s the implied definition by ESPN. On the linked clip from ESPN in which Foudy offers analysis, it is the introducing presenter who casts the issue in terms of men do/women don’t. It is his comment, “what is rare is when women are involved in any of this type of behavior” that carries the implied definition of masculinity about which you get so wound up. It is ESPN’s coverage that, in your analysis, “created an issue where one did not exist.”

    You complain about journalistic standards, but your own fall well short of the mark here!

    The whole point about this issue is that it is differing standards for men and for women that current society places on us: the standard script of “em are violent, women play fair” is not coming from feminist analysis like Emily’s but from mainstream sexism (what we feminists term “the Patriarchy”) and yes – it’s damaging to men as well. That’s why I, a man, consider it in my best interests to support feminism.

    Elizabeth Lambert did receive different treatment because of being a woman, both in terms of the referee’s failure to apply the proper sanctions and in terms of the way in which the media covered the story (while it is true that male sports personalities receive censure for their violent actions on the field, in Lambert’s case the censure was specifically gendered to reinforce the roles that the Patriarchy lays out for men and women).

    • Brian permalink
      November 24, 2009 11:20 am

      I am willing to retract that part of my argument. In re-reading my post this morning, I will admit that it was the weakest part of my post, and I jump to a number of conclusions in it. The only thing I can say in my defense (regarding proper journalism) is that my post was written in the heat of the moment, which I will also admit is not an excuse, but rather an explanation of a poor argument.

      I don’t, however, agree that Lambert’s treatment was any different from someone like, for example, LeGarrette Blount, the University of Oregon running back who punched a Boise State player after the game was over. The media covered both of these events for about a week, commentators talked about how despicable the actions were, and then moved on to something else. Both were suspended indefinitely (although he was ultimately reinstated about 2.5 months later), and both were called out for their actions.

      I, too, support feminism, and I don’t want that to get lost here. My concern about Emily’s post, however, is that it does more to harm the cause than to help. Keep in mind that the event in question took place almost 3 weeks ago. It was something I, personally, had not heard much of anything about for almost two weeks.

      The timing of this is important. Had Emily written this while the rest of the media was still discussing the issue, maybe I could look past it a little bit more. But instead, we get a rehash of Lambert’s own defense in her New York Times interview, right down to using the same photo-shoot photo of Lambert that the Times used. Emily says she wants everyone to move on, but here she is dredging it back up more than two weeks after it happened. The media has moved on already; Emily, apparently, has not.

      If you or Emily want to claim that Lambert’s punishment or the media’s reaction was unnecessarily unfair because she is a woman, I would respectfully disagree, and probably would not have felt the urge to respond.

      But Emily’s irresponsible writing damages both her credibility and the feminist cause. To do anything other than condemn her actions on the field is disappointing. But to say that the lesson we should learn from this is “that women can be aggressive, and yes (dare I say it?), women can be masculine”, I’m sorry, but that is astounding. Lambert’s violent, harmful actions were NOT simply “aggressive” and “masculine.” They were despicable, just as LeGarrette Blount’s actions were.

      She is correct when she says “Men assault other players viciously in games.” But they ARE punished for that, and there is usually an uproar when the cameras catch what the refs miss. But Emily implies that, at some level, Lambert’s behavior is acceptable, by adding emphasis to Lambert’s quote: “Sports are physical.” Yes, sports are physical, but Lambert’s play was violent, dangerous, and does not belong on the pitch. There is no excuse for that, there is no lesson to be learned from her behavior.

      I accept your criticism and I respectfully retract that section of my post. We may disagree about whether the response from the media was sexist or not, but that is simply a part of civil debate and I would respect your (and Emily’s) opinions. But to suggest, in any way, shape, or form, that Lambert’s actions ON THE FIELD were positive in helping the feminist cause or deconstructing sexist beliefs is simply irresponsible and harmful to feminism in general.

  8. KGE permalink
    November 24, 2009 9:28 am

    I don’t know where to begin.
    Your entire argument is flawed because your premise is flawed.
    Where did you get the idea that unsportsmanlike conduct is somehow considered “masculine”.
    In fact, unsportsmanlike conduct is considered cowardly by every sportsman (person) I know. It’s cheating, and winners don’t cheat.
    Strong (which I guess to a sexist like yourself is the same as masculine) players (men and women) play hard, don’t quit, play by the rules, and win or lose with grace. She did none of these things.
    She deserves to be pilloried, public opinion is right on target… it’s not sexist. It’s a reaction to her cheating, not her gender.

  9. November 24, 2009 12:36 pm

    I am glad that this has brought discussion and that people can put forth their own opinions about the issue. However, let’s keep in mind that this is a blog post and an opinionated one at that; this is not a news source so I can say whatever I want. I have my say, you have yours. I don’t find that I am rehashing anything—if I was rehashing, I would have posted the video directly to the post and described in detail what had happened during the Lambert physical assault. But I didn’t. I wanted to criticize the media’s reaction.

    Again, I am in no way excusing Lambert’s actions—they were despicable. But, I think you’re assuming statements based on my opinions. Through this very incident, I am trying to dis-associate that masculinity should only be a “guy’s thing.” Contrary to that belief, everyone has feminine and masculine characteristics, male or female.

    Additionally, I never implied or said that unsportsmanship was masculine. What I did say, was that aggressive acts are considered masculine. Many of you, here in these comments, are doing what the media has been doing all along in regards to this incident: assuming that masculine means what boys do, and feminine means what girls do. Go back to paragraph #2 for that explanation.


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