The increased violence in sports has become a heated discussion among players, commissioners, and fans alike, but the rise of violence in women’s sport is being framed as an even larger problem—why is that? The problem lies not only in how we define violence, but in how we regard female athletes.
One of the issues in the discussion of violence arises when we try to define violence itself. People have different definitions of what constitutes violence. The words assertive, aggressive, and violent are thrown around interchangeably, but when discussing violence in sport, they each have a specific meaning. Let’s use Jim Parry’s definitions in this discussion:
- Assertion is the use of necessary force to defend or protect one’s self
- Aggression is a proactive means of attaining a goal without the use of violence
- Violence has to do with the intent to hurt
Both assertion and aggression are deemed acceptable by sports fans and athletes alike—they are both encouraged as “part of the game.”
When examining violence in sport, let’s reference Michael D. Smith’s 4 types of violence in sports:
- Brutal body contact: physical practices that are common to sports and are accepted by the athletes as part of the action and risk involved in participating – e.g. collisions, hits, tackles, blocks, body checks
- Borderline violence: physical practices that violate the rules of the game but are accepted by players, coaches, referees, and fans – e.g. strategic elbowing/kneeing in soccer and basketball, fighting in hockey
- Quasi-criminal violence: physical practices that violate formal rules and informal norms accepted by players and may result in a fine or short-term suspension – e.g. cheap shots, late hits
- Criminal violence: physical practices outside the formal rules of sport and the laws of society – e.g. assault that occurs after the game ends
Brutal body contact, borderline violence, and quasi-criminal violence are expected at the professional level of sports—for men. Violence in sport is viewed as an appropriate to strategy to maintain excitement and drama. Violent acts can even be deemed heroic. When women show aggressive or violent behaviour it is often deemed over the top, unnecessary, or a loss of self control. Though violence and aggression are acceptable methods for men to establish dominance and strength, women are not taught to practice violence and aggression, and they are frowned upon when they do. For example, a video of defender Elizabeth Lambert during a soccer game at the University of New Mexico in 2009 went viral after Lambert was spotted pushing, shoving, and finally, pulling her opponent down by the ponytail.
After the video surfaced, there were many mixed reactions from spectators. Some were shocked and horrified by Lambert’s actions, and others saw it no differently than what male athletes do on the field. It was agreed that the hair pulling was unacceptable, but what made Lambert’s actions most shocking was the fact that she is a female. Though women are being afforded more opportunities to play sports, they are still being held to the higher standards than men. In addition to being athletes, they must also be women. Women’s bodies are not yet equal to men’s and clear markers of femininity are still called for.
Iris Young presents a unique perspective on the way women are taught to use their bodies. Her example is a comparison of two young children, a boy and a girl, learning to throw a ball. Boys are taught to throw the ball with all their might, engaging as much of their body as they need. Girls, on the other hand, are taught in a similar way, but with an emphasis on fragility and self-consciousness. Because females are objectified in almost all aspects life, they are prone to viewing themselves as objects, rather than agents. This emphasis on femininity teaches girls to be conscious of how they look performing a task, rather than on the task itself. When women view themselves like everyone else does, as objects, they begin to hold themselves to different standards. Because women are assumed fragile and overly conscious of their actions, when female athletes show the slightest bit of aggressiveness during a game, they are immediately scrutinized for being too violent.
This perfectly illustrates how young girls feel the need to express their femininity in a venue where that shouldn’t matter.
How can the perception of female athletes change in order to allow them to play aggressively without being accused of being overly violent? What would you suggest?
For further reading:
- Violence Becoming Norm for Women’s Sports?
- Is Violence on the Playing Field A Male Issue?
- For All the Wrong Reasons, Women’s Soccer Is Noticed
- Chapter 7 of “Issues and Controversies: Sports in Society” by Jay Coakley and Peter Donnelly
- Pages 137-156 of “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality” by Iris Marion Young
- Chapter 12 of “Ethics and Sport” by Jim Parry