Sports Transgressions

The angry athlete

Female Violence in Sport: Maybe It Isn't Just the Testosterone

Are violent female athletes reflective of sport or society?

This past week, nineteen year old freshman basketball player Brittney Griner, of Baylor University, connected on a right cross that would make anyone say, “Damn!”  After numerous battles in the post where referee’s whistles didn’t always control the aggression, 6-foot-8 Griner responded to Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle throwing her like a rag doll with a haymaker that left Barncastle bloody.  If you didn’t catch it, YouTube can provide quite the visual.  The coaches immediately responded saying all of the right things: “I will handle it”, “There is no place for that behavior in sports”, and then in the days after, Griner’s behavior was explained as “she just snapped”.

Rewind to November, 2009 where college soccer match pitting Brigham Young University against New Mexico saw New Mexico player Elizabeth Lambert kick, punch and trip BYU opponents until her actions culminated with Lambert yanking an opponent to the turf by her ponytail.  Suspended for her behavior, but shocking to see nonetheless.

How could these incidents take place?  There are some out there, who swear that competition, especially that found in sports, represent the devil’s playground and all that comes of such “games” are evil, violent people who trash the self-esteem of those with less athletic prowess.  There are academics out there who hate the scholarship athlete that barely makes scholastic muster, even if they ignore the impact that the sports revenue has on the university’s financial viability.  But, in any case, with women now becoming violent in sports is this a sign that Armageddon is upon us and sports must go?  Don’t take the bait, this is bigger than sports.

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What we are seeing when these incidents crop up in sports is what we have seen building in the criminal world for the past couple of decades.  Violence is not a male-owned behavior.  Traditional gender-typed roles where the men are violent and women are docile have been replaced by androgyny.   It wasn’t that long ago that if groups of males were anticipating a fight in the neighborhood, the presence of women had a buffering effect.  Very often now, the women will instigate the violence themselves.  Gang recruitment of women has spiked.  The idea that violence is intimately related to testosterone has had glaring contradictions for years.

So seeing female athletes transgress should not be a particular surprise to us because sports are a microcosm of our society.  We have people with anger problems throughout the world and some of these are women; why wouldn’t there be some of those represented in the athletic population?  Of course there would be…but what is being done?

When someone has a violent transgression and it is later explained away by, “They just snapped”, this should catch our attention.  The reaction to provocation is understandable, but it is not excusable.  When athletes transgress, there needs to be consequences to try to deter future behavior.  Yet, how much is done to give athletes the skills ahead of time to recognize when their emotions are escalating and find ways to calm themselves down before they engage in behavior that cannot be taken back?  Not enough.  There are a few programs out there.  I developed one of them.  But truly, how many people will learn how to better manage their emotions when there are people all around them that don’t?  The answer is fairly simple to describe but difficult to implement: don’t blame it on sports, don’t use a hormonal explanation: it’s not as simple as testosterone or estrogen levels are to be blamed; teach people accountability…all people: athletes and non-athletes, male and female.  It is our society tolerating violence that is the most predictable reinforcer; increasing the incidents and providing little incentive for tranquil coexistence.  We can get there, but do we really want to? 

Mitch Abrams, Psy.D. is a clinical sport psychologist specializing in anger management, sexual assault prevention and the treatment of trauma.

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