Women Behaving Badly: Unsportsmanlike Behavior Sparks Debate

Baylor University's Brittney Griner was recently suspended for punching another player in the face. This incident, coupled with Elizabeth Lambert's hair-pulling infraction, leads Jeré Longman to wonder what's up with the ladies?

Longman, reporting for the New York Times, speaks with several experts about the "trend" of women behaving badly on the court or in the game. Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist from the University of Colorado, argues that the culture of masculinity promotes such behavior among men (duh) but women have recently begun to measure their success along similar lines, especially when entering into a male-dominated arena like competitive sports.

"An athlete's identity for a man overlaps with and reaffirms his manhood," said Coakley, the author of "Sports in Society."

"Because of that, they're going to be more likely to engage in aggressive and assertive behavior. You don't show who the better woman is by going out and dominating another athlete. At least that's the way it's been. But our culture is very diverse. Some young women are growing up now not as concerned about traditional ideas of what womanhood is all about. In some cases, I guess being able to kick someone's butt makes you the highest-status girl on the block or in the group."

And this so-called "trend" is not just limited to the players:

Anecdotal evidence suggests a coarsening of behavior in women's sports among coaches, players, parents and fans at various levels.

Ten players and an assistant coach were suspended after a W.N.B.A. brawl in 2008. Serena Williams unleashed a threatening verbal fusillade at a line judge at the 2009 United States Open. Last November, fights broke out in the stands and on the field during a high school girls' state championship soccer game in Providence, R.I.

Longman provides several more examples of "coarse" behavior, but we have to wonder: even if he found 50 examples of unsportsmanlike behavior at women's events (both college and pro) would that come close to the number of times men have done similar things while playing sports? I'd be willing to put money on Hell No.

And this is the bigger problem with Longman's piece, and Coakley's analysis. They're assuming that women aren't naturally violent, that we won't fight when provoked, that we've been effectively tamed by society and no longer harbor the same assertive or aggressive urges as our male counterparts. But competition can bring out bad behavior, and appeal to the most base level of the human psyche. In explaining her actions, Griner perfectly sums up what is really going on here:

"A lot of people look at it as the women's sport isn't as competitive as the boys', so when something happens, it's more shocking," Griner said. "But really, it's just as competitive as the men's sports."

While women have been conditioned to suppress this instinct, and according to the stereotype, funnel it into backstabbing and gossiping, physical competition encourages an immediate, physical response. This does not necessarily mean violence, but it certainly can. There is no reason to celebrate Griner's actions, but given our society's obsession with sports, dominance, and aggression, it shouldn't be remotely surprising that women entering into a male-dominated space will begin to measure their success in similar forms. And lash out in similar ways.

Revisiting Stereotypes In Wake Of Griner Incident [NYT]