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In Defense of the Ponytail-Puller

Elizabeth Lambert, the 20-year-old former University of New Mexico soccer player on scholarship, gave her first interview this week since the incident earlier this month when she pulled an opponent to the ground by her ponytail, and was permanently suspended from her team.

The New York Times reported that Lambert “watched the video a handful of times and does not recognize herself pulling down Brigham Young’s Kassidy Shumway.”

I recognize her. A former competitive soccer player myself, I played against plenty of Elizabeth Lamberts, and I played defense aggressively, like she did.

Pugnacious play is not uncommon in soccer, particularly at the highest levels, where it so often separates a winning team from a losing one. Does that make what Lambert did kosher? Of course not. Are forceful actions like hers more common than most people think? If I had 2010 World Cup tickets, I’d bet them that they are. The game-changer is that the incident was caught on tape. The video’s viral propagation has removed Lambert’s action from the context in which it occurred. It has been misappropriated in some pretty disgusting ways that are bad for women everywhere, whether you care about sports or not.

Lambert told The New York Times that she received an email that said she “should be taken to a state prison, raped and left for dead in a ditch.” The cat-fight angle couldn’t help but creep into the discussion. She told The Times that she has received invitations from people who thought the incident “sexy,” and that “people think I have a lot of sexual aggression.”

Another disturbing example of the baseness of Lambert-gate is the offensive “Elizabeth Lambert Dating Video,” inspired, I imagine, by the story’s magnetic media pull.

In it, a Lambert look-alike beats on people, talks about dating someone who “can take what I dish out” and says, “my vajayjay could kill you.” It has been viewed more than 150,000 times on YouTube.

To me, this is more of the same picking at women who exhibit behaviors deemed “unlady-like.” I’m confused by the quickness to explain female aggression, albeit inaccurately, in a sexual context. This reminds me of the women tennis players at Wimbledon who took a media beating for making noise called grunts on the court. There seems to be an increasing amount of women’s sports coverage devoted to criticizing how women act on the field or court and what it implies about their character. This incident, which has been called “violent” in one breath and “sexy” in another, could be the most public attention paid to women’s soccer in recent years. Yikes.

Had a referee caught this ponytail pull, he or she would have given Lambert a red card, a violation, which would cause her to sit out for the remainder of the game and probably subsequent matches because of the gratuitousness of her infraction. She is being publicly rebuked for what, in a men’s game, would easily garner such a red card and not make the news. Her suspension from the team, and from the sport that she loves is an excessive punishment.

Lambert is extremely apologetic, in fact she sounds completely broken in The Times interview. She’s a young woman who made a mistake; she’s not the villain or the brute that she’s being made out to be.

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