Sunday, November 22, 2009

Differences in Deviance - Football (Soccer for Americans)

In sports, there are certain conditions and behaviors that lead to male and female athletes being defined by society differently. These gender-based differences become all the more explicit when we pay attention to what makes male and female athletes deviant.

SocProf over on
The Global Sociology Blog spells out one way in which a male athlete can be deemed deviant -- by cheating in a highly significant match that leads to a team's victory. Thierry Henry of France's football team used his left hand to control the ball which led to a critical score over the Irish team, and France's birth in the upcoming World Cup (and Ireland's exit). From The Guardian:

From being an icon to millions and a near deity to fans of Arsenal, Barcelona and France, Thierry Henry awoke this morning as perhaps the most vilified footballer on the planet.

On Wednesday night Henry was seen by millions of TV viewers – but not, alas, by the match referee – creating the winning goal for his country against Ireland with the help of a deliberate handball, in the process ensuring that the French and not the Irish would compete at next summer's World Cup.


By lunchtime today a Facebook page entitled "We Irish hate Thierry Henry (the cheat)" had 34,000 registered followers. Comments on the page ranged from the unrepeatably abusive to the merely abusive and the – very occasionally – conciliatory. Twitter was swamped by a violent unspooling of anti-Henry bile, ranging from "just had lunch in a cafe with a picture of Thierry Henry on the wall - almost spat my gnocchi out" to "Thierry henry est wack" and its endless variations. Topics raised included the feasibility of a boycott of Gillette razors (one of Henry's personal endorsements) and an incitement to lodge formal protests to the French embassy in Dublin. Henry's Wikipedia entry was repeatedly defaced, and eventually locked.

And Soc Prof's analysis:

Note how the hand, a violation of soccer’s norms is depicted as “crime” and an inflammatory one at that. Audience perception is central indeed in the very definition of seriousness of the deviant act. In Europe, soccer is serious business. Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that both teams were playing their qualification for the world’s most important soccer event, the World Cup. The stakes were high. Played at a local level, this would have been a simple incident, sanctioned by a red card (because done so closed to the goal cage) and maybe a suspension.

Conversely, the conditions that lead to female athletes being defined as deviant revolve around their extensive musculature, high athleticism, and/or biological "difference" (e.g., Caster Semenya). Or, as in the case of University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert, female athletes are deemed deviant when playing too violently for societal standards.

Lambert, as I noted before, has been chastised in mainstream media circles for playing very aggressively and in particular for downing an opponent by yanking her hair (seen in video, below, or in previous post).

As of yesterday (11.21.09), this story was still headline news, posted on Yahoo!'s front page, even though the actual match took place back on November 5, 2009. From a Yahoo! Buzz Log:

In the Internet age, a person can become famous in the blink of an eye. Or, in Elizabeth Lambert's case, infamous. The college soccer player became the focus of intense scrutiny this week after footage surfaced of her pulling an opponent down by her ponytail. The clip has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, and Ms. Lambert has since been suspended indefinitely by her team, the University of New Mexico Lobos. For her part, Ms. Lambert has expressed intense regret for the poor sportsmanship, and is seeing a psychologist to "help her better understand her actions."

Of course there are other responses given Lambert's gender and aesthetic qualities that I didn't overview before. While both she and Henry have been ostracized as deviant in some circles (though for different reasons), Lambert's sex appeal simultaneously increased. This is hardly surprising considering males' fascination with "cat fighting." From the previous Yahoo! article I covered:

The junior was deluged with calls and letters after the video went viral. Some of those were threats, but others came from men who wanted to ask her out. She was disgusted by both.


Lambert is probably correct in her belief that her actions got more attention because of her gender. There was a certain titillation factor at play. But the second part of her argument, that it would be OK for men to do this, is preposterous. It's never OK for any athlete, male or female, to pull the antics that Lambert did on the field. It was straight out of the bully playbook.

The Yahoo! author, Chris Chase, is correct that it would never be right for any athlete, male or female, to play in the manner of Lambert. However, what Chase is missing is the ongoing attention Lambert gets for her actions. Male athletes in baseball, basketball, gridiron football, etc. get caught on film fighting quite often.

These fights between men are shown as highlights in sports media for a night and we move on. Unless the fights involve the crowd (e.g., Ron Artest and company fighting a few years ago with fans in Detroit's arena), male athletes are not criticized nearly as much for fighting. In fact, fighting is an accepted ritual in hockey that only in recent years has been critiqued by some. Simply take a look at the title of this 2004 hockey story in The New York Times: "Back Talk, Fighting, Not Penalties, Is Best Way to Settle the Score."

For males, fighting in sport is much more normalized, much more accepted. But touching a soccer ball with one's hand in a high-stakes match is turned into societal grounds for hate.

(Photo via NY Daily News)

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  1. The case of Thiery Henry is something I never really understood. I mean, in the very precise moment of the game he did what he did, and it something that many other would have done. people really like to judge,.