Out of bounds

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 more.

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 me.

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 femininity.

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 forwardness.


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