Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Aggressive by Default? Questioning Violence in Recreational Sports

She held the clump of hair triumphantly above her head while coaches, team mates, and fans clapped and laughed in enjoyment. A trophy unlike any other wrapped around her fingers...

This was during the middle, and consequently end, of my women's open league soccer match on Sunday afternoon in West Seattle. A predominantly Mexican league, I've seen more fans and family come to these soccer games than I ever had at my division 3 college matches back in PA. The crowd plays a particular part in this event, which is why I bring them up. This was my third game on this team and the parents and friends here create a fun atmosphere. Our first two matches were blow outs...we won by a minimum of 4 goals each game. I was brought in by a friend to make the team more competitive and I agreed to join, even though I already play in an indoor league Sunday nights. I figured more exercise, practice...I don't really understand what the coach is saying because he coaches in Spanish, but the girls translate for me and the other one or two non-Spanish speaking players. It's been fun and I always enjoy playing more soccer.

Before I left last week, I was told that the team we would play this week would be a challenge. Definitely more skilled and more aggressive...I didn't think much of it. We had just picked up a new keeper, a sweeper, and a center who controls the ball with ease. Unfortunately for us, the center got the flu, the sweeper sprained her ankle, and the keeper would have to pass. The center happens to double for every position on the field, so she took her sick self and put on a goalkeeper's jersey. For this match, at her request, I would play sweeper (the sweeper is the last defensive player back).

And so the game started. These girls were definitely more aggressive than previous teams. Ranging from ages 18 - 35, most of the team was young with minimal skill, but with 2 or 3 decent players. I took a rather tough (and what I would call a foul but the referee chose otherwise) and angry push within the first few minutes of the game and decided it would be in my best interest to play a little smarter than I had. The BS's (the initials of their team name, of course) as well as our team (the TN's), appeared to be talkative at times. There were a few fouls and hard hits on both sides - but not to the point where I was worried. I've been playing 20+ years and I've seen quite a few disputes. But going into halftime with a 0-0 score, I wasn't feeling like something bad was going to happen.

On the contrary, I was too busy getting translated at half time to the team on what "goal side" meant to really take notice of any side conversations or trash talking. So we started the 2nd half - and we started really well. We were pushing up, having less attacks on the defense (i.e. me). A few more elbows or shoves didn't really matter if the ball didn't end up in our goal. I did have a minor altercation with my own team mate...we had a difference of opinion of what an outside midfielder was supposed to do. After some words between us, the coach made a quick decision and moved her up to forward. Believe it or not, this is where the issue started. Seems she wanted to score, badly, by going through the opposite team. Forcefully. This starts the first issue.

* Please note that as the sweeper, I'm standing at the center circle where the kick off occurs. This fight is going to take place around the corner of the 18 yd box closest to my bench. It's a good 30 yds away.*

I saw her ejection coming. Most people don't argue with the sweeper. If a sweeper says run - you run. If they say come back and cover - you do so. A sweeper has complete vision of the field, they usually know best...so when she argued with me on coming back, I figured she may have a teensy attitude problem. And she did. After a foul was called against her for attempting to kick through the opposing team, words were spoken rather loudly and the next thing I know, she's throwing punches. The other girl threw a punch or two for good measure, but by now the referee had come and thrown 2 red cards at both of them.

This should have been the end of argument. There must have been something I missed during the game...something my team mate had said or done that made the next strike the breaking point. Or maybe not. Fresh from being carded and mad as hell, my team mate is being mostly pulled off by one of our girl's - A. As A is pulling mouthy girl off the field, the other team is still shouting at them and staying rather close. As the referee turns away to make sure the opposing team's red carded girl gets off the field, a slap or push of some sort happens behind his back towards my team mates. At 21, I probably/possibly would have done what A did, which was turn around and swing back. At 28, eh...I don't want to get in a cat fight. Unfortunately what was about to come was definitely not a cat fight. As soon as A turned and took a swing at the girl, the forward from the BS's (who was probably only 5-8 yds away from me and had been watching the whole time) made a B line for A and proceeded to whale on her.

At first, I found it surreal. My older brother once did that in a high school game. His friend was playing forward while he was playing sweeper. He saw his friend get slide tackled intentionally and the kid who did it got a yellow card. However, my brother felt that was not enough justice and proceeded to run 30 yds and punch the kid in the face...he was 18. It was stupid. I saw that girl sprint toward the fight and thought, "wow, she's stupid". The difference is my game is a recreational game with one referee. I don't remember the ref blowing his whistle uncontrollably when this fight occurred. I don't remember the referee at all, to be honest, and that's sad. Where the hell was the referee??? As I watched this unfold 20 yards in front of me, the other team's bench came on the field. I thought they were attempting to pull the girls off one another. I mentioned earlier, this league is a family affair. It would make sense. But no, what I saw next shocked me into disbelief. They weren't helping the situation, they were aiding in the assault.

I watched a good 20 seconds before it finally seeped in that these parents, coaches and friends, both male and female, were jumping and kicking my team mate on the ground. My team's parents and coaches were pulling smaller fights apart, trying desperately to get to the middle but consistently running into fists, kicks, and aggression. When I finally made my way around the outside, I saw a woman, probably in her 40's, kicking and stepping on the back of my team mate. I grabbed her from behind and pulled her off screaming, "What are you doing? What's wrong with you?" GET OFF THE FIELD! I forget how high my voice gets when I'm upset. I started yelling at the crowd in my own personal hysteria to get the f*kc off the field. I finally got to the middle and pulled off the sister of A who began screaming at me that that was her sister down there. I tried to explain while pulling her up that all I saw was her on the ground getting kicked, as well, and by the time we turned around, A had made it off the field and her attacker, the small forward who booked it across the field to start the fight, had her hand high above her head, waving around A's hair like a prize, to what seemed like entertainment to her fans.

I haven't slept well the past two nights. In my head, I replay the event with different scenarios. What if one of the times I knocked down (legally, mind you) that small forward and she retaliated against me? Her father was the coach, one of the men who made it a point to hit A - what if that mob came for me? Or what if once I saw that forward running to join the fight, I pulled her up short. It doesn't do well to dwell, I know. But there was something about this fight, the way it went down, and the outcome. Why would that girl be proud about ripping out someone's hair? She missed an open shot. Her team didn't win. They're more likely to be removed from the league due to the police report that was issued. I can't make sense of it and that's probably why it makes me so anxious.

Violence off and on the field has been reported for years now. Parents at pee wee football and hockey matches, fans getting in fights at professional sporting events. Hell, hooligans in soccer are well noted across the world...not so much in the USA, but most other countries. What drives us to the point of violence? What makes a game turn into a brawl? We're supposed to be civilized, right? There are rules to the game to keep everyone in line - so what is it that makes us so ugly? What draws the spectator so passionately into the sport?

If you google "violence in youth sports", hundreds of articles come up. It occurs - sometimes less than reported, sometimes more - in all types of events with all types of people. There are studies about youth sports making children poor sports, parents becoming too obsessive and fanatical, officials not doing enough to restrict the amount of fouls in the game. There are quite a lot of issues in something that was created for children to be fun. Wasn't it? Sport historically wasn't necessarily for fun, but for honor and sometimes survival. So does our aggression come from a primitive spot in our brains that holds on to the instinct to win at all cost?

Truthfully, I don't know. I'm sure there are psychological studies done that can be googled, as well. What I do know is what I witnessed on Sunday, February 20th, 2011, was an ugliness that people have to do harm onto others when retaliation isn't necessary. The team mate who threw the first punch was wrong. The girl who retaliated was wrong, as well. A, trying to walk the team mate off the field should have jogged away from the pushing, or yelled for the referee to turn. She should not have tried to punch or push the girl back. And the stupid girl - the one who ran 20 yards to brawl - was the worst of them all. All she did was advocate for violence on a pitch made for goals and passes and teamwork. She may feel victorious in her battle against an opponent. She may win the cheers of a psychologically unstable crowd. But she lost a piece of the game I'm sure she loved. She definitely lost a sense of self and the knowledge between right and wrong. Sadly, I doubt she'll realize it. I honestly think that because she won, because her hair wasn't ripped out and she wasn't beaten by a crowd that she'll be more likely to throw a punch faster the next time. She'll make excuses she was defending her friend. She'll find a reason for the violence and the use of it. She'll forget she was trying to score a goal, not defend someone's honor. And this cycle will continue. This insanity will proceed to move forward with very little checking.

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