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There’s a scene in the middle of the '90s Adam Sandler movie Happy Gilmore where his character gets into a fist fight with — and loses spectacularly to — Price Is Right host Bob Barker on the middle of the golf course. But when the matter of his suspension is brought up, the head of the PGA cuts Sandler a huge amount of slack by admitting he’d decided against kicking him off the tour because, “Our ratings are the highest they’ve ever been.”
It’s a throwaway line — more of a plot device than anything — but it’s disturbingly on point with the way Americans consume sports entertainment.
In this country, the majority of people only tend to get excited about women’s soccer every two years, whenever the World Cup or Olympics roll around, and only then when the games are played during primetime. One notable exception to this rule was in 2009, when the University of New Mexico’s Elizabeth Lambert left her mark on sports history:
In that single game she crossed the lines of acceptable physicality practically non-stop; that blind elbow to the back and pony tail pull were — to use the phrasing of the millennial generation — totally f**ked up. Lambert was subsequently suspended indefinitely from the team (she was reinstated after two games) and spurred several days of coast-to-coast news coverage and debate about her actions.
The New York Times ran a story following the incident called For All The Wrong Reasons, Women’s Soccer Is Noticed. Now, let’s be very clear: this is not the type of attention we think women’s sports needs. Poisoning the food at your new restaurant will make headlines, but it’s not the way to attract customers to the business. That said though, the Lambert incident does raise some interesting questions.
There’s no doubt that what Lambert was doing crossed the line. But if you’ve watched any professional sport... hell, ever, you’ve probably seen much worse behavior that likely ended with less severe consequences for the guilty parties.
Three years before Lambert pulled on that ponytail, soccer legend Zinedine Zidane (now the manager of Real Madrid) legit headbutted a player to the ground during the World Cup Final. While the Lambert story was going on, a former captain of the Women’s National Team admitted that she didn’t think the headbutt “had the [publicity] this has had.”
And that’s just one isolated example. Think of the late hit penalties every Sunday in the NFL, the elbows thrown in the paint during NBA games, the completely acceptable fist fights during the middle of a hockey game? Why do we not react so strongly to those blatantly absurd infractions?
The easy place to start is with long-ingrained societal expectations. You expect to see a linebacker occasionally hit a defenseless quarterback far later than the rules allow. What you’re not expecting to watch is a young blonde female soccer player to throw her opponent on the ground — no matter how often it happens in the men’s version of the game.
Anson Dorrance, the famed UNC soccer coach, was quick to say she would “never endorse [Lambert’s] behavior,” but followed that up by pointing out we have completely different standards for women’s behavior in sports. “It’s almost like they crossed a gender line they weren’t allowed to cross, like we want to take them out of the athletic arena and put them in the nurturing, caring role as mothers of children.”
For a less violent example, political philosopher and feminist Iris Young points out the different way boys and girls are, from a young age, taught to throw a ball. Boys are encouraged to put all their strength into it for maximum effect. It doesn’t vary that much for a girl, of course — throwing a ball is still throwing a ball — but society's expectations of how young women should carry themselves, how appearances matter more for their gender, and that they are inherently physically weaker hinders them from ever reaching their full potential.
"Throwing like a girl" becomes a real thing, because in trying to mold girls to our conscious or subconscious expectation of women, they become handicapped.
One of the most often cited games in this debate is hockey. It’s a rare example of an extremely physical sport that’s played by both men and women. And yet even here we see societal standards being enforced in the rules for checking — meaning making contact with an opponent.
The technical definition for legal checking is only subtly different in the two rulebooks, but basically, men are allowed to make intentional, aggressive physical contact to an opponent’s body to make him lose the puck, while women only allowed to make contact during a clear attempt to take the puck away, and they’re not allowed to overtly force the loss of the puck with physical contact.
In other words, if you have a penis you can wreck the other guy with your shoulder and take his stuff; if you don’t, you have to pick her pocket and not bump her too hard in the process.
What is this saying to young women in the sport? At best, it’s a subtle message that they’re more fragile than men; at worst, it’s a patriarchal society dictating that, if you want to play a man’s game, you have to do it in a more feminine way.
Opinion amongst top-tier American female hockey players is split on this issue. You’ll find quotes from some that whole-heartedly want the freedom to play the game like the men, while others embrace the fact that their gender-specific rules lead to a more fluid, precise, and poetic version of the game.
But, here’s where the Happy Gilmore argument comes back into play. Literally nobody wants their sport to be watched less. So if increased legal contact between players becomes OK, it would make the game more exciting — per American’s undeniable love of violence in sport — and thus make the girl's game more watchable for hockey fans in general. More attention leads to more young girls getting involved in the sport, more revenue for professional players and leagues, more… well, more everything.
The UFC is a good example here. Imagine if the women fighters were disallowed from executing some of the same attacks as the men because the people in charge (who are likely all men) decided it was too violent for women? How would you react then? And beyond that, would the female fights ever have become as mainstream as they are now, where they’re shown in the same pay-per-view timeslots as the men’s? Would Rounda Rousey have gained the same degree of popularity, which she used to inspire young girls all over the world?
There are other considerations, most notably that increased legal contact can lead to more injuries — but there are several examples of safety rules actually hurting more than helping (the NFL has seen a drastic increase in serious leg injuries ever since modifying their contact rules to protect player’s heads). In women’s hockey, if you reasonably increase the amount of violence legally allowed in a check, there’s an argument that players will be more aware of their surroundings and thus more safety conscious, more defensive and less prone to injury.
But the real issue here is the subconscious coddling implied by the contact restrictions in women’s sports.
Because we’re so conditioned, over thousands of years of civilization, to treat women as the more fragile half of the species, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You tell girls from a young age that they have to play games less aggressively than the boys — from throwing a ball to checking a hockey opponent — and it echoes through society. The girls start seeing themselves as unequal physical matches to the men, and young boys learn the same lesson. Thus the adults, consciously or not, spread gender inequality to the next generation.
And then, everyone acts appalled when a female college soccer player tries to play the game like a man.