Nevertheless, She Played: What It Means to ‘Play Like a Girl’

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It’s 2017.

Sports is still a major part of our American culture, and more and more women are playing them. 

So why does it seem like there’s still a double-standard when it comes to female athletes and aggressive play? When a woman appears to play aggressively on the field, they’re called dirty, or classless, or told they shouldn’t be playing in the first place. But on the other side, the world of men’s sports relies on its aggressive play, it thrives on its villains and it encourages that kind of play in just about every major sport and especially in the NFL and NBA.

In the National Women’s Soccer League, we have players who, in the five years that this league has existed, have become the ones who are known for an aggressive style of play. Those include Jessica Fishlock, Carli Lloyd, Merritt Mathis, Kelley O’Hara, and Shea Groom. Now I’m not saying these athletes are perfect–they have all made some questionable plays–I’m simply saying the spotlight is certainly on them every time they step on the pitch for their respective teams.

When athletes taunt their opposition, I don’t think that’s a dirty thing to do, but that does depend on how far they are willing to go. Every time I hear about taunting I’m always reminded of a certain NBA legend who made a choking sign in 1994 at Madison Square Garden. For those who may not know, Reggie Miller was taunting the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In that case, I loved what Miller did. He clearly knew how to get the attention of the opposing fans. That’s just how other sports operate, sure some may not agree with it, but it’s literally a part of sports and it’s not going anywhere.

One player who always has the “Is she too aggressive” spotlight shining on her is WNBA star Diana Taurasi. Taurasi recently became the all-time leader in points, but is also a player who has always been aggressive and that’s her style, that’s what makes her so great. She is known for getting a technical every now and then or having calls go against her. But Taurasi hasn’t changed her game because of it, not in the 13 years she has played in the league. And no one should expect her to.

Another WNBA player just as popular as Taurasi is Australian legend Lauren Jackson. She was best known for her trash talk and assassin-like play and is perhaps most remembered for her encounter with another WNBA great, Lisa Leslie, in the 2000 Olympic games. Jackson accidentally pulled some of Leslie’s hair out and that fueled a rivalry for years to come. Jackson was a dominant and physical presence her entire career, both on the offensive side and defensive side.

In the NWSL, taunting and physicality of play doesn’t seem to sit well with some fans. In other sports, it’s seen as just a part of the game, it’s not usually deemed unacceptable. Just a couple weeks ago, Sky Blue defender Kelley O’Hara was called classless for her play against Portland. She made an aggressive but clean tackle on Hayley Raso, and then, believing Raso was making more of the contact than was necessary, yelled at her to get up. I watched that moment more than once, and I didn’t find anything that crossed the line or that done with malicious intent. She was aggressive, calculating, and trying to help her team win. But there was no ounce of dirty play–yet that’s exactly what she was labeled afterward from the opposing fans.

I’ve seen countless plays in women’s sports where, after a play has been made for the ball, it will automatically be labeled a negative action. Now, sure, sometimes this is just a fan being a fan and they don’t want their team to lose or whatever the case may be. But for the most part, it demonstrates a blatant disrespect towardsthe female athlete, to say it’s a negative thing to be aggressive. And that’s not cool, not in the past, not now and not in the future.

And that’s not cool. It wasn’t in the past, but we can’t change what was said then. It’s not cool now, but we have the opportunity to correct the way we talk about women in sports right here and right now. And it won’t be cool in the future, either, and we damn well better start appreciating our female athletes for their physicality as well as everything else by then). 

One prime example of people overreacting to players demonstrating any sort of aggression or “unladylike” behavior from this very NWSL season is the “swearing game” that took place in April between the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns. Midfielder Stephanie McCaffrey was a little bit heated after a play and was caught swearing at the referee. In her exact words: “Are you fucking insane?!”

In her exact words: “Are you fucking insane?!”

Yeah, clearly she crossed the line. OR WAIT. No, she did what a lot of women (not to mention men!) do in sporting events … she said a “bad word.” (Cue the longest eye roll ever, am I right?)

McCaffrey got comments from all angles of social media, so much so that she decided to write a very on point, hilarious and well-written post on her blog Sporting Chic about it. In her post, she assures readers that she understands swearing at the referee is selfish and that it is disrespectful. But by no means was this her backing down. McCaffrey pulls examples from men’s soccer, how literally every EPL match you can catch a player swearing at the referee. And when this happens, it’s taken in a humorous or matter-of-fact way and no one makes a big deal of it. It’s absolutely ludicrous that we even have to make a comparison or take a stand on this issue because swearing is not exclusive to one gender last time I checked.

McCaffrey went on to say that swearing needs to stop being a taboo in women’s sports. At this point in her article, I was clapping and saying out loud “HELL YES.”

What is so unbelievably annoying is the fact that this is a thing. Getting blasted for swearing? In an intense game? Here’s the obvious catch, guys: she’s a woman so clearly her mouth shouldn’t be allowed to say those words, let alone be caught on camera doing it. (But what about the children!) Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit on that thought right there (and I know I’m not the only one) and stop this ridiculous way of thinking in society.

McCaffrey was showing passion with a big side of ferocious intensity. And none of that is wrong. In fact, let’s celebrate it! She let her competitive fire be shown in a different way, and that’s important to understand. To put it in McCaffrey’s words, we need to “get excited about the fact that NWSL and Lifetime TV are helping to normalize the fact that playing like a girl can get rough and ugly and that’s fucking awesome.”

Another player who grabs a lot of attention around the NWSL is Jess Fishlock, a Seattle Reign midfielder who hails from Wales. In a recent sit down chat with her Reign teammate and goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer, Fishlock talked about her aggressive style of play:

“I am very bold, and just do what needs to be done to win the game. I think that’s a thing that’s kind of lost within the women’s game, you see it in the men’s game all the time. You know that’s a professional foul, they take a booking and that’s a great play, well done. In the women’s game, it’s I can’t believe she did that, that’s so un-lady like. […] It’s very much a part of the game, my game, it has been very disliked by many because it’s not deemed as the lady-like play, right? You like it, you don’t like it, it doesn’t really affect me that much to be honest.”

Fishlock hits it right on the head, some people believe that women should not be playing aggressively. And this is extremely frustrating, not only as a former college athlete but as an avid supporter of women’s sports. This needs to stop, for those who label every single “aggressive” play as dirty needs to understand it’s very much included in the women’s game. It’s very much a part of every game, in fact.

But it’s become clear that women athletes are not afforded the same respect as men when it comes to sports (ok, let’s be real, when it comes to about 98% of things in life, but that’s a whole different story). Women are still struggling to gain the recognition they deserve for going that extra mile, for making that game-changing tackle, for getting physical to win the ball, for simply being an athlete.

It’s time for that to change, appreciate the effort these athletes are putting in, the work it takes just to be an athlete in the professional realm is incredibly difficult and to understand that women’s sports will continue to be fierce and the players will continue to play their part. Get used to it, women are athletes too.

Image courtesy of Kelley Piper

2 thoughts on “Nevertheless, She Played: What It Means to ‘Play Like a Girl’

  1. Agree with the main points here, but want to emphasize there is a definite line between ‘aggressive’ and ‘dirty’. Too often the two are conflated and while much dirty play is aggressive, all aggressive play is not dirty. I would hope that no aggressive play in women’s sport is dirty, just as I hope for men’s sport, but to not expect aggressive play from women is the real double standard.

    As long as play and banter don’t cross the line into unsporting behavior, I’m good. Personally, I think there is a banter deficiency in women’s sport. The players I know are pretty witty and I’d really enjoy seeing more of that on display.

  2. Good article. I try not to hold women to a different standard than men. I have no problem with trash talking, swearing, rough play. I do think some players take it too far. I’m not a Taurasi fan, for example. And I’d feel the same way about it if she were a man, playing in the NBA. She just takes it too far.

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