This post begins with a confession: I'm competitive. Freakishly
-- and occasionally obnoxiously -- so. It started early, with a
brother two years my senior, and was fostered by years of Little
League, school sports and travel teams. I remember a kindergarten
afternoon spent in the principal's office after I bit a classmate
on the shoulder, though his perceived slight is lost to me now. I
remember Monopoly boards upended in frustration, friendly catches
turned into not-so-friendly rounds of beanball, and one truly
memorable fight between my brother and me over who liked peaches
On the field, competitiveness makes us better. We run faster,
play harder, train longer -- all because we hate to lose. And I
tend to think that for all its potential pitfalls, competitiveness
is also an asset in life off the field. It makes us work for the
right answer rather than settling for the easy one, helps us set
goals and meet them, and drives us to succeed.
But competitiveness has its limits. And this weekend, something
happened that blew so far past those limits. In a now-infamous
video clip, a soccer player from the University of New Mexico
grabbed an opponent's ponytail and dragged her to the turf in a
conference tournament game. It was quick, ruthless, and looked
painful. It was also a shock, even to the most competitive side of
We tell our girls to give everything they have, to leave nothing
on the field. Softball benches chant "Be aggressive, be-e
aggressive. A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E!" and from halftime huddles come,
"You gotta want it to win it, and we want it more!"
As a former athlete, and one who owes a huge amount of her
self-esteem and confidence to sports, I tend to think this is a
good thing. As stereotypes of women as docile and submissive
continue to erode, and role models in women's sports shine ever
brighter, girls are becoming more aggressive, more competitive,
more physical. It's not that these traits don't naturally exist in
women (though some research suggests testosterone encourages them),
but rather that they'e been suppressed in traditional notions of
I'm not making excuses for Lambert's behavior (for which she was
suspended, by the way, and rightly so). I've seen it two dozen
times on ESPN over the past few days, and it makes me wince every
time. And I'm not saying that incidents like this are the
inevitable byproduct of encouraging our daughters to be assertive,
on or off the field.
Rather, I'm suggesting that there's a teachable moment in all of
this that goes beyond "NEVER, EVER DO THIS." It's that striking a
balance between playing hard and playing dirty, between encouraging
our daughters to be aggressive and strong and physical and keeping
them from crossing a line can be tough, especially when it's going
against decades of (slowly eroding) ideas about femininity and
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