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Monday, November 9, 2009
Physicality a part of women's soccer

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

The evidence against Elizabeth Lambert is right there in full color, a perfect five-minute montage of maliciousness from which the judge, jury and executioner of public opinion can convict her on all counts. That it comes complete with hair pulling violent enough to make Jerry Springer wince is just an added bonus for those in the business of first sowing and later satiating the hunger for canned controversy.

This is how it so often goes for women's sports, from Hope Solo's speaking out about being benched in the 2007 Women's World Cup to Michigan women's basketball coach Kevin Borseth's launching into a rant about rebounding in a 2008 postgame news conference.

Roll tape, ignore the context and let the criticism and mocking commence.

What happened in the game between New Mexico and BYU, as highlighted by the widely seen video clip in which Lambert commits at least five or six bookable offenses without punishment, each more violent than the one that preceded it, was -- at its most basic level -- an isolated example of one individual's losing control. It was no more representative of a sport than the brawl between the Knicks and the Nuggets nearly three years ago. It was also a failure of coaching on a grand scale and an equally galling failure of officiating.

But from the casual references to "catfights" circulating with the clip to the place of prominence it occupied on Web sites and sports talks shows -- attention far more lavish than anything the national championship game will receive a month from now -- it was also a reminder that some segment of the population still finds comfort in mocking the very idea of women's competing with a level of intensity at which such excesses become potential problems.

A majority of fans understandably called for Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes to be suspended after video caught him in what appeared to be an attempt at eye gouging an opponent left defenseless in the pile after a tackle. Few, if any, mocked the idea that the intensity and physical nature of a football game might drive someone to such a place.

It may come as a shock to some, but for the fraction of the soccer-playing population good enough to play at the Division I level (or the Division II and III levels, for that matter), the games matter greatly. And that soccer is in no way, shape or form a noncontact sport.

Speaking after her team's win in Sunday's Big East championship game, Notre Dame senior Amanda Clark was quick to distance her team's de facto on-field code of conduct from what transpired between New Mexico and BYU. But after a game against Marquette in which one of her teammates was injured in a collision and several others on both sides needed extra time or attention before resuming play, she didn't dispute the hard-knock life that is college soccer.

"It's physical," Clark said. "I mean, a lot of people think women's sports are on a different end of the playing field. And it's not. Women's sports have obviously developed [to become] more competitive. … I think [physical play] comes with the territory now. [In] women's soccer, people are getting bigger, faster, stronger, more technical, and that just comes with the game."

Clearly, Lambert didn't just take things too far; she overshot too far by such a wide margin that she'd need a map to find her way back to too far. And that the consequences could have been dire is still seared in my mind by the memory of one of Rutgers' best players, Ashley Jones, who was loaded into an ambulance less than a month ago with a compound fracture of her tibia and fibula after a collision in a particularly physical game.

That's not a clip that generated too many clicks. Perhaps it wasn't entertaining enough.

But the pushing in the small of the back, the elbows to the midsection and so on that escalated into something inexcusable from Lambert are part and parcel of almost any soccer game. Players will take any advantage the referee allows them.

Former Alabama defender Emily Pitek makes no bones about having doled out her share of punishment -- the background image on her Twitter page is, as she proudly puts it, her giving an opponent the business. She's also no stranger to the perils of playing New Mexico. In a 2005 game against the Lobos, with her legs vulnerable as she turned to play a ball out of danger, Pitek was felled by what she felt was a late tackle. The result was a torn ACL that ended her season.

Yet her reaction to the clip of Lambert's running amok was not what you might expect.

"I'm not going to lie; I loved it," Pitek said. "I got up and I said, 'That just made my day.' Because, yeah, she was crazy and, probably, I just like physical play.

"Maybe it does lack official skill, but I think girls in female soccer … they need to hit each other. You need to really show that you're not some dainty little prisspot and just go hammer somebody. You shouldn't play the game if you don't want to get hit."

That's a sentiment that may make some a little uncomfortable. I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with it. But apparently it's not nearly as uncomfortable as many feel at the thought of thousands of women playing as close to the line between physical and dirty as sportsmanship allows -- and in one regrettable instance in the Mountain West tournament, crossing that Rubicon.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.