Earlier this month, the soccer world was all in a rage about the aggressive play during a college women's soccer tournament. To recap, the hullaballoo arose when a University of New Mexico junior, Elizabeth Lambert, was filmed elbowing her BYU opponent in the back, shoving her and ultimately grabbing her ponytail and throwing her to the ground.
This video has led to some excellent analysis. Politics Daily has had two pieces reporting on the broad phenomenon of the increasing violent behavior by women. Bonnie Erbe
pointed out that violence in women's sports is "nothing new" and neither is woman-on-woman violence outside of sports. Christine Wicker
noted that although women can be mean, that meanness does not translate into violence the way it does with men.
While many are rightly concerned about these broader issues, the matter of aggressive play strikes very close to home among the millions of families whose children play soccer. These families, who spend countless hours attending matches, might have had the same reaction to the video
that one mom on my daughter's team had:
"This is appalling!"
Other parents reluctantly accept that aggressive play, and even violent play, has become an element of the game. Here are some of their comments:
"I understand that soccer is a rough sport. Anytime you are jostling for position, there is going to be some pushing and shoving. However, there is clean play, where players respect the rules of the game and use their skill, technique and strength to gain the edge. In the case of the New Mexico player, inflicting serious injury to players on the other team did not seem to matter. Any and everything to get the win!! It was appalling, and I could only think, what if that were my daughter on the receiving end or -- worse -- the one doling it out!"
"I am appalled at the level of dirty play I have seen on the girls' soccer field this season. I am more appalled that few referees ever call fouls on the plays or give yellow cards. Both of my daughters have been hit, tripped and pushed (one hitting her head so hard that she sustained a concussion and missed several days of school). No foul was called on that play either. These are 12-year-old girls, and it is ridiculous how brazen some of these 'children' are in what they will do to best their opponent. . . . I hope that the referees will start calling these plays more before more young players get seriously hurt. Think about it: The only protective gear these girls use are shin guards!"
Some fundamental questions loom beyond those comments: Has soccer become too violent, or is aggressive play an essential element of the game? Do the girls release their aggressiveness on the field and thus become less aggressive off the field? Should the referees, coaches and parents restrict aggressive play?
The verdict is not yet out on whether the New Mexico player's conduct was just part of the game. (In a statement released by her team, Lambert, who was suspended from the team for her actions, said that she let her "emotions get the best of me in a heated situation." Some commentators to the video posted on YouTube defended her actions, saying that she was provoked and that her opponent had committed similar actions off camera.).
But there is a growing concern about the link between aggressive play on the field and violence off of it. Researchers Benny Peiser and John Minton wrote in Science and Soccer that empirical research shows participating in soccer, rather than acting as a socially sanctioned way to discharge pent-up hostility and frustration, often has the opposite effect.
"Far from reducing the level of aggression, playing or watching soccer regularly reinforces aggressive impulses and occasionally leads to violent behavior on and off the field," the authors say. They further note that spectator violence is a direct response to observing rough play on the field.
Given the role soccer plays in the world --- some 3 million children between the ages of 5 and 19 participate in the United States Youth Soccer Association, and the Federation Internationale de Football (FIFA) estimates that 400 million to 500 million people are involved around the world --- we all should be concerned when aggressive play spills into aggressive behavior in society.