When I first saw the now-infamous footage of New Mexico defender Elizabeth Lambert on a rampage against BYU, I was standing in a very soccer-friendly sports bar in the company of my futsal teammates, after one of our Thursday matches. And I have to say that Lambert’s “incidents”—including the headliner ponytail takedown—galvanized the pub in a way few other spectacles on the five or so TV screens have. I believe I had three more or less simultaneous thoughts:
1. That is an outrage and a disgrace to the game!
2. That is totally awesome!
3. The only reason I’m thinking points 1 and 2: these players are women.
In a rather moving New York Times profile today, Lambert herself makes the same points, essentially. (Well, not point 2.) She’s suitably embarrassed and contrite, and is undertaking what sounds like a reasonable course of personal “rehabilitation” with aim to earn reinstatement by next spring. She has also been subjected to the insane bastinado of modern micro-celebrity—the obscene phone calls, the d-baggy blogs (ahem), the emails from people who think she should be sent to prison and violated. Really.
All that, sad commentary on our society as it may be, was to be expected. Lambert’s comments on how soccer, gender and sexuality fit into the miniature storm around her are much more interesting. To wit:
“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.”
“A lot of people think I have a lot of sexual aggression. I was like, ‘Whoa, no, I don’t feel that way at all.’ That’s bizarre and shocking to me.”
“I’ve never been in a situation like that, where I was out of my element. There were times in the game where I was literally like, ‘All right, Elizabeth, you’ve got to get control’ of myself.”
The fact is, soccer has an entirely undeserved goodie-goodie reputation in this country, which dates back to its adoption as a football alternative by hippies and bobos in the late ’60s. The game was—and still is, in some quarters—perceived as a non-contact sport. Anyone who has actually played it with anything like a will to win knows this is complete bullshit, but there it is. You can still hear talk-radio morons dribbling on about how football—not the kind with all the brain damage and ex-pros dying in their 40s at Black Plague rates—is a wimp’s game.
Women’s soccer, in particular rose to prominence in the late ’90s, portrayed as a wholesome means of self-actualization for post-feminist girls. It was like women’s soccer was the only elite sport in the world without a bare-knuckled dark side. At the same time, the wider world was pretty frank about its unrequited crush on Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain. Fairly or not, those Class of World Cup ’99 ladies were seen as both sex symbols and role models—a stereotypical profile the sport is unlikely to live down given its marginalization by the mainstream sports media.
In real life, of course, women’s soccer is played in—well, real life. As in all games, the players at the highest levels play at the outer edge of the law, pushing and probing to find advantage. And as in all spheres of life, its players are subject to untamed emotion and irrational action. And, yes—athletes are attractive. They’re young. They’re fit. Latent, unexpressed eros probably has more to do with our society’s sports obsession—with male and female athletes alike—than we would ever care to admit. Let’s just say that when it comes to the NBA, LeBron James isn’t the only one who’s thinking about “switching teams.”
We need to stop being so shocked when an Elizabeth Lambert roughs up an opponent, or when a Hope Solo goes off script on her teammates. It’s embarrassing. And it’s a discredit to the game.