Female Student-Athletes and Sporting Violence

March 25, 2010

Elizabeth Lambert was suspended indefinitely after her aggression on the soccer field vs BYU

Last year, Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount sucker punched Boise State’s Byron Hout at the end of a hotly contested football game after Hout mouthed off. This month, Baylor’s Brittney Griner decked Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle after a Lone Star shoving spree during a women’s basketball game. The events were remarkably similar: a college athlete overreacted with a swinging fist during a tense game. The only difference is that Griner’s actions seem to accent a growing trend of violence and aggression in women’s athletics; something that the public eye is finding both a novelty and a blight.   

A recent New York Times story highlighted some of the more recent high-profile events attributed to over-aggressive female college and high school athletes: New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert slammed her BYU opponent to the ground by the ponytail; women’s basketball rivals Georgetown and Louisville threw some pre-game punches; and a Providence, R.I., high school girls’ soccer game erupted in fights on the field and in the stands.  

Whether or not women are becoming more violent during sporting events, the real question is “why?” 

Dr. Jack Watson, chair of the Department of Sports Sciences and an associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University, said that in order to get a better understanding of why women athletes may be trending towards violence, we should take into account the very nature of women’s athletics today compared to a generation ago. 

“We’re putting more pressure on women’s sports,” said Watson. “It used to be about merely having a coach, but now there is a lot of competition and we’re putting more money into coaching, and coaches need to win.” 

West Virginia University professor of sport and exercise psychology and psychologist for the school’s athletic department, Dr. Ed Etzel remarked that student-athletes, regardless of sex, are influenced by role models and media outlets.

Watson echoed the sentiment: “It’s all a form of societal learning.”

In the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, the following excerpt appeared in the article “Aggression and Violence in Sport,” which was published in 2003: 

[A] recent article in Referee Magazine . . . presents the view that poor sportsmanship at the professional level has led to similar problems among high school athletes. Mike Pereira, Director of Officiating for the National Football League (of American Football; NFL) is quoted as saying, “The pros and college sports have a huge impact on the play of the game at lower levels.” 

One could argue that college sports are on a “lower level” just as much as high school sports; both collegiate and high school athletes, male and female, have access to the same media outlets that broadcasts MLB brawls and WNBA scuffles. And both male and female student-athletes seem to respond similarly, if recent events are any indication of what is to be commonplace. 

“If [students] see a particular modeling of behavior in the media by peers and others in professional sports, they begin to change what they see as acceptable behavior,” said Etzel.

As students adopt new attitudes toward what is acceptable sportsmanship behavior during competition and training, they carry those attitudes with them as they become new parents. While this is old hat for men, the territory may be new for most women.

“We’re now seeing children born to moms and dads that were post-Title IX kids,” said Watson. “We’re into the second generation of females now.” 

Because of the inroads laid by Title IX and the work of countless women, female student-athletes now have unprecedented access to sports—and increasing competition—when it comes to sporting activities, and they are working as hard as their male counterparts. Watson observed that women are spending as much time in the gym as men, but their determination extends well beyond training. “Women are just as competitive as men on the court,” he said. 

Brittney Grimes was handed a two-game suspension for her punch that broke Barncastle’s nose. LeGarrette Blount was punished by a season-ending suspension, but was reinstated late in the season. The Oregonian reported that Blount’s incident dropped his NFL stock, and he went from “probably a second round draft pick to pretty much undraftable.” 

Although Grimes’s and Blount’s punishments were drastically different, repercussions and penalties for violent and aggressive behavior vary greatly. Lambert, for example, was suspended for the season after her hair-yanking fiasco. But how should athletic organizations find common ground when punishing violence and aggression?

“I have a radical idea,” said Etzel, “Perhaps we should consider these behaviors as crimes as they would likely be seen off the court and on the street?”


Dr. Ed Etzel is the editor of Counseling and Psychological Services for College Student-Athletes and is coauthoring a chapter in a forthcoming handbook on sport and exercise psychology with Dr. Jack Watson; these books and the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology are published by Fitness Information Technology and are available at www.fitinfotech.com.