Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Does the Devil Wear a Red Uniform?

Jeré Longman’s recent article in the New York Times that UNM soccer player Elizabeth Lambert’s now-famous ponytail pulling of a BYU opponent had become media fodder in part because of a double standard. That her fairly violent hair pulling and flinging to the ground of the opponent (whose name no one seems to know because she is the victim, of course, and they do tend to fade into obscurity) was highlighted because people (I’m presuming they mean “men” when they say “people”) are somehow titillated by this act of woman-on-woman violence and that it has some sort of homo-erotic element that brings to mind female mud-wrestling and, perhaps, roller derby.

I have to say that I was intrigued by this act as well although not for any of those reasons. Sure, it is more unusual to see women involved in this sort of behavior than men. But the act itself sort of appalled me because it appeared relatively unprovoked. At the very least, it seemed disproportionate to the act(s) that provoked it. Now I know that it gets annoying when a forward starts backing into you to get position. I played college basketball and as a 5-6 guard, occasionally found myself thinking that I could play with the big girls (sorry, women) under the basket. I was boxed out with the ease that one swats away an annoying flea. But I accepted that contact as part of the game and while it could be annoying, I can’t imagine taking the sort of action that Lambert did. It was almost as if the hair pulling was choreographed. She was standing there behind this player and then “wham” the BYU player is dramatically flung to the ground (which is another topic of discussion).

So perhaps there are some gender issues at play here in the way this event has been reported, discussed, and analyzed. I take that back. There’s no “perhaps” about it. In the BadJocks website, a reader commented on this story comparing Lambert to Lorena Bobbitt and that all the men out there out to beware. So now she is being compared to a woman who cut off her husband’s penis? That reflects a strange combination of titillation and irrational fear of strong women that I can’t even begin to address.

Lambert’s actions were blatantly unsportsmanlike and demonstrate a lack of control over her behavior that warrants some serious intervention. I’m not a fan of mandatory counseling. I do hope that the leadership of UNM can develop a plan that not only involves what was Lambert’s very well-scripted apology but has elements that indicate she may be willing to gain the tools that would ward off this type of conduct in the future. On the soccer field it is a red card; in life the stakes are jail time. She gets hit from behind while in a fender bender while driving her car and she gets out and starts yelling at the other driver? (By the way, I’m pretty sure she won’t get out and cut off the other driver’s penis). The “what are you going to do when you get out in the real world?” question is a tired one that college students grow weary of hearing. But if part of the educational mission of a college or university (or athletic team) is to prepare students for the real world, then such a message can’t be ignored.

Lambert also makes a statement in her public apology that I often hear in my day-to-day life as a college administrator and that is that what she did is not reflective of her true character. I have students who have committed some violation or another, tell me all the time “I’m not a bad person” or “I’m not like the real criminals.” And while I almost always agree with them that they are not bad people, I do need to remind them (and Lambert) that what you do IS reflective of your character. Is character independent of actions? Is it how you feel, not how you act? Or is it how you act most of the time (and I’m not being flip here since none of us are saints and don’t go through life without a little moral slip here and there.) But if your actions could always be discounted as having nothing to do with your character, where would we then draw the line? Just one bad act a year and you still have character? Or perhaps if you only commit minor violations, fouls, or crimes, then you still get to have the “person of character” designation? I don’t know that answer. I don’t know whether Lambert will be forgiven, let alone ever bestowed with the label of a woman of character. I hope she does. She has a good shot at it if she starts to connect that actions, although forgivable, are part of who you are. You can’t discount them as part of your character and if they don’t reflect how you want to be known or how you want to think of yourself, you better figure out a way to avoid them.

In a follow up article on Nov. 17, 2009, Longman quotes Lambert as saying, “I look at [the video] and I’m like ’That is not me.’” She is still trying to sort this out in her own mind and resolve the dissonance. What she did is at odds with how she perceives herself—and she just can’t quite make that connection. In the stories of our childhood, the good guy (or gal) wore black and was just a bad person through and through. Evil. Lambert (who, by the way, was wearing a red uniform) can’t quite come to terms with how she could have done something like and still be the hero – not the villain.

Its variations have been attributed to various people, but the statement “character is what you do when no one is watching” may be useful here. In this case, it could support Lambert’s argument. Her true character is what she does when the video camera is not rolling and can best be understood by the whole of her life: actions, words, and deeds that together, form a person’s character. I don’t know her and only those who know her well could accurately and fairly assess her character. But her initial act and the apology were what she did when people WERE watching. So does that mean they don’t count? I think not. But how she acts from here on in – whether caught on tape of not -- will either prove or disprove her contention that her actions were not indicative of her character.

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