Courting issues

With the tennis season in full flow, the French Open, which concluded this weekend with Women’s and Men’s finals matches on Saturday and Sunday, threw up a few issues which highlight some of the ongoing issues with gender and sexuality in sport.

Anyone following the action would have been hard pressed to miss the long series of news articles about the controversy surrounding Margaret Court, a legendary tennis player and awful human being. Having risen to hero status in the sport, she has spent much of the rest of her life proclaiming hatred and intolerance under the guise of faith, and the response has been one of shame and outrage.

Many prominent figures, including another hugely important player of the history of the sport, Martina Navratilova, have called for an Arena at the Australian Open to be renamed, as it currently honours Court despite her prominent views. Navratilova herself is a vocal supporter of LGBT+ rights, and has often stood up for other lesbians in tennis, claiming the sport has many such people in its ranks.

Margaret Court (L) has been vocal in her opposition to Martina Navratilova’s (R) right to love and live the life she chooses with the woman she loves

A few individuals have questioned the relevance of this cause, as the player is being honoured for her sporting achievements rather than her current pursuits. The problem is that any such venue reflects the values and legacy of a society, and promoting an individual who preaches hatred and oppression can only shame our liberal society.

The venue is also used for concerts and events, which the Icelandic band Sigur Ros have used as a platform to support equality in marriage. Having such a venue named after someone with such radical views is unpopular with the people of Melbourne, and sets a bad example for generations to come.

In more heartening news, the French Open organisers have responded firmly and swiftly to an incident involving French player Maxime Hamou, who has been banned for an outrageous and completely unprofessional mistreatment of a female reporter. While his actions are reprehensible, the swiftness of the disciplinary action demonstrates that at least the French Open take inappropriate actions seriously and will punish them, in order to set an example of what is appropriate for sports professionals to say and do in their role as public figures.


Beating the boys

One of our dedicated readers recently forwarded me this article from the NY Times, which links in nicely to our post from a few weeks ago about girls and boys playing football together.

The article describes how a team made up entirely of girls participated in a junior football league, a sport which is almost entirely dominated by males in Spain, and won convincingly against the boys. When I was growing up in Spain myself, I remember playground kickabouts never included the girls, and in all honesty I cannot recall a time in twelve years there when I saw a girl take part in football. Your writer set out stock early by purchasing a whistle and some cards, and simulating refereeing… some things never change.

The article itself highlights what a difficult achievement this was, with women’s football in general marginalised and mostly ignored in Spain, which largely retains a strong machista culture. It doesn’t surprise me to see that this team emerged from my own region of Cataluña, an area notorious for its large progressive population and liberal values. It just shows what can be done when the psychological barriers are removed…

Who wears the trousers?

One of the areas of our society in which gendered clothing most prominently features and differentiates between people is school uniform. From a very young age, children are forced to align themselves with a particular set of clothing, chosen from (typically) one of two prescriptive lists. This is binary reinforcement at its strongest, and it is hard to unpick this at a later age.Charlie Whitehead

This highlights how unusual it is for a school such as Highgate School in London to open a dialogue about allowing all children to wear a number of different options, including normally gendered garments, according to their choice. This, along with unisex toilets, are generally being more and more favoured, especially among young, progressive-minded people.

What is most encouraging about this shift in attitudes is that it seems to be driven by responsive teachers listening to outspoken students, including more and more students who are questioning their own gender and feeling able to communicate this. This is
partly brought about by a significantly better access to information and ideas on this subject, including through the internet.

Recognition for these ideas is also gaining momentum on a wider scale – notably, student Charlie Whitehead, of Impington Village College, recently received an award for challenging school uniform rules, while other cases have also hit the headlines.

Perhaps over time these brave youngsters challenging perspectives will allow for a more inclusive and understanding educational system.

Roller Derby poll

I’ve long admired the world of Roller Derby, which not only embraces, but actively creates spaces for queer sportspeople. Despite a few internal issues, about which I hope to publish a guest post from one of my Derby friends, the sport does an awful lot of things right in terms of inclusivity and LGBT+ issues.
One of my contacts in that world has asked me to publicise this, which is an attempt to address some of the internal questions of the sport. If you know anyone who this might apply to, please pass this on!
If you play Rugby or Roller Derby in a women’s team and identify with any gender that is not male then please help a sister out and fill in my questionnaire! It is a research project comparing Roller Derby and Rugby. It will only take a minute or two!

Gendering the Laws

A while ago now I wrote about how the terminology of sports can affect our perceptions of the genders involved with participating in it. My regular boardgames group and I frequently discuss (‘righteously rage at’ might be a better description) games instructions which use exclusively ‘he’ and ‘him’ to describe player actions. Some are wising up to this  now and using a mixture of pronouns (though rarely ‘they’), although there is still much ground to cover.

It was heartening, then, when this week I read an article on the new Laws of cricket, coming into force this October. Much to my surprise and delight, around halfway through there was an announcement that gendered terms such as he and him are also to be removed from these. It’s a shame that they didn’t go further, and remove terms like batsman and third man, but it’s at least a progressive step in making the sport more inclusive and welcoming to people of all genders.

Same strip, same sport, a unified set of laws?



Playing like a girl

Long-term readers of the blog will know I have often advocated for a greater mixing up of male and female sports players on teams, given the standard deviations for both ‘groups’ are massively overlapping and a considerable number of female (potential and active) sportspeople would comfortably match male counterparts, at least in terms of ability.

In particular, this seems only sensible to do at younger ages, where different growth rates and pre-pubescent childhood really does leave very little to distinguish between those we consider boys and those we classify as girls. If anything, early teenagers usually see taller and stronger girls in their teams than many of the boys.

U10 ACM Comm Games 2015
They all look pretty enthusiastic to me…

That is why it is excellent to see one of the biggest clubs in London football, Arsenal FC, breaking the conventions and entering a team entirely made up of their enthusiastic and skillful U10s girls into a league normally designated for boys. Thanks to my friend MK for forwarding this to me.


The article covers several key areas which highlight the challenges faced by such a team, but also the positive attitudes and outcomes which result from the decision. A parent who expresses concern about the dangers of tackles on the girls becomes one of the main supporters of the initiative, and the girls themselves find that playing against boys starts to “feel normal”, which would seem to be the ultimate success of the move.

Because of the historical greater levels of coaching and support that these boys teams have received, the girls who face them also naturally see their own level advancing faster, as they rise to the challenge. Until recently, the FA explicitly disallowed football matches between people of different sexes, so this represents a major overhaul and one which can only benefit those involved.

Fighting her corner

Many people in the sporting community are derisory about the idea that video games competitions could be classified as a sport (pro gamers, as they are often termed, ardently disagree). Some gamers would also find the idea of being classified as sportspeople horrifying, given the prejudice many face at the hands of sports-minded people, particularly at younger ages.

Wherever you stand on that particular debate, which will no doubt rattle on for a while yet, it seems one particular pro gamer has found a huge amount of support in her pro gamer community, during her transitioning process. As many of the people featured in the video state, the meritocratic and competitive nature of the tournaments, coupled with the emphasis on skill over physique, mean that the main focus is on achieving victory, not the features of the opponent. If only the more traditional ‘sports’ could move more in this direction.

The best candidate?

I recently received a phonecall which offered me an opportunity to make some real change, to work with the sports community in a way which could bring about some positive differences. More on that later. For now, I want to mention one of the primary reasons I was given for being suitable for the role.

Aside from some very kind and flattering comments about my organisational skills, my dedication, and my tractability (they clearly haven’t seen me before 10 a.m.!), I was put forward for the role due to my – I paraphrase here, but only a little – lack of a wife. Of course, this was intended as a lighthearted quip, but as with many such comments there is a significant underlying factor here.

I have seen this played out within the sports community more widely, with players often stating they will play a future match ‘if the wife allows it’, or referencing nagging or chores (as I mentioned in my post on senior cricketers). Of course it’s important to check with your partner about future plans, but the sentiment here relates to a sense that men have fun unless their wives put a stop to it, as if marriage is a limitation of male fun rather

Sport during pregnancy is possible, but challenging, as this writer suggests

than a shared enterprise.

It does also lead me to wonder how many women are able to go out and do sport on a Saturday when their husband does not, rather than both doing it as part of a sporty couple who then co-ordinate childcare. Women who choose to have children are especially affected by this, as their maternity period affects sports more than most activities, and returning after giving birth is especially tough.

In any case, as of next season, I will be in charge of umpiring appointments for my county in hockey. This should allow me to ensure that competitive and important matches receive high-quality umpires regardless of gender, and I will certainly hope to encourage more women to progress in umpiring. Any other thoughts on ways to use this role to aid social progressiveness will be gratefully received!