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Merritt Mathias gets angry and that's fine

The unfair standards we place on female athletes.

Seattle Reign vs. Portland Thorns: Photos

The NWSL disciplinary committee suspended Seattle Reign player Merritt Mathias three games for violent conduct, referring to an incident during a Reign vs. Portland Thorns match when Mathias tussled with Thorns defender Emily Sonnett over the ball and ended up pulling her hair.

Mathias’ suspension seems harsh when taken in isolation, but is no doubt also accounting for a previous incident literally the game before when she also gave a hard yank to the hair of Boston Breakers defender Allysha Chapman. Add on to that a general reputation as a player who crosses the line from hard-nosed to foul, and you get a three-game suspension and an undisclosed fine.

Many Reign fans were understandably bummed about the suspension, but ultimately accepting. But some went a step further and claimed this pattern of fouling was indicative of a bigger problem with Mathias.

“She really needs to see a sports psychologist,” said one commenter on Sounder at Heart.

“Yes, she needs to see a psychologist or attend anger management counseling…. The Reign needs [sic] to make sure she gets the help she needs before putting her back on the pitch,” said another.

Mathias undoubtedly has a temper that seems to emerge on the pitch when things don’t go her way. But to jump from having a temper to needing anger management counseling is perhaps informed by the limitations we place on female athletes’ personalities.

There’s another example we can point to here: In an April 29 game against Portland, Chicago’s Stephanie McCaffrey was caught on camera dropping an f-bomb at the referee. McCaffrey later wrote in a post on Sporting Chic about the volume of responses she received pointing out she said a bad language word — responses she might not have otherwise received had she been a male athlete.

Male athletes are caught swearing on camera all the time across multiple sports, but there isn’t the same sense of either tittering amusement or nervous disapproval. Male athletes swear all the time; it happens out of the passion of the moment, and passes without much comment. Women swearing makes people uncomfortable. Men play dirty too, from yanking on jerseys to tackles from behind, and while it’s frowned upon, it’s never suggested they need counseling. But Mathias’ aggression somehow means she needs help.

The handwringing over Mathias’ foul-happy play comes from the same place: female athletes are held to a weird standard of behavior that demands they enact typically feminine behaviors at the same time that they are athletes. Women who participate in any historically male-dominated field are often expected to “prove” or “maintain” their femininity, reassuring viewers that they still fall within gender norms.

Swearing and losing your temper are not considered within American cultural norms as “feminine” so they elicit stronger reactions from audiences conditioned to think female athletes exist solely within the blandly virtuous “grateful to be here, it’s all for the team, our opponents are great” box.

That’s not to say losing your temper to the point of unnecessary physical aggression is good or acceptable from a professional athlete, and fans have a right to want clean play from their teams. But losing your temper in general is a regular human reaction, and to claim that Mathias needs counseling is to deny women the space to be angry. Female athletes getting angry shouldn't be seen as so outside the norm of female behavior that it means something psychological is happening, and even if there is a need for counseling, that’s not a call that your average fan can make just from watching one game a week.

Once again, that doesn’t make it right. Clearly the Reign need to start with head coach Laura Harvey telling Mathias to knock it off, if only because it makes her a liability for the team. But that doesn’t mean Mathias needs a psychologist. It means at the moment she’s a sometimes-dirty player who needs to reign (hah!) it in.

If a psychologist, sports or otherwise, needs to enter the picture, that’s between Mathias and her doctor and maybe her coach. In the meantime, we can enjoy the great spectrum of reactions on the pitch, from the players who are always smiling to the ones who get aggressively frustrated. Women experience the full range of human emotions and should be able to express all of them, from happiness to sadness to anger to pride. Maybe just cool it with snatching people’s hair, Merritt.

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