Rainbow devils?

Those of you who have engaged me in conversation about kickball (more commonly known as football), will know I am as guilty as any other fan of arbitrarily disliking certain teams over others. If you’re especially fortunate, you will have even been exposed to my favourite football joke*, which is particularly unflattering to a certain team – Manchester United. Yet my feelings about them may have just shifted a little.

I was very pleased to see a notification in the most recent Stonewall newsletter, which announced a new partnership between the Premier League side, commonly known as the Red Devils, and the UK’s most prominent LGBT+ charity. This agreement, based around an initiative called Team Pride, aims to help create a more fair and equal sport, which those of you who have read this blog for a while will know is much needed.

*My joke, for the record:

  • Q- Which three football teams in the English leagues have rude words in their names?
  • A – Arsenal, Scunthorpe, and Manchester f***ing United

United by sport, divided by prejudice

In the last few months of my (to date) ten year hockey umpiring career, I have been very fortunate to have the support and encouragement of two very experienced local umpires, one of whom is at National League standard, while the other has umpired some international matches. The resulting opportunities and progression has also brought the attention of the region’s coaching team, who have observed me and given me pointers for further development.

As part of this process, I have been party to quite a lot of conversations about the state of umpiring both locally and nationally. The standard shortages of decent umpires, as with most sports, come up a lot in conversation. One area of umpiring in particular, however, has a notable dearth of good officials: the higher end of the women’s leagues, up to National standard.

My first reaction on hearing this was one of purely cynical opportunism: here’s a way, I thought, I can actually make use of other people’s prejudice to work my way up the ladder and do a (hopefully) really good job where others have decided, for their own reasons, to avoid progressing. I’ve always stuck by my principles on this one – as far as I’m concerned, it’s 22 people, some sticks, and a ball, and I’ll umpire the game in front of me.

When I mentioned this to my mentors and coaches, however, the response was universal opposition to my plan; and this was despite some of these people themselves being women. ‘Don’t umpire women’s hockey,’ they told me. ‘No one will respect you and you won’t be able to switch across to umpire any men’s matches at the same standard. Only umpires who “failed” in the men’s route become women’s umpires.’

I have heard some very legitimate and reasonable arguments in favour of encouraging women to umpire more and at higher levels, especially in women’s hockey, as a way of boosting female official visibility and thus pushing more women into considering doing that side of the game themselves. However, even with this, for the women’s higher leagues to be considered a virtual graveyard for any umpires hoping to progress up the ladder is massively harmful and derogatory to the women’s game.

Female hockey umpires, as with many sports, face challenges because of player and supporter prejudice, but this is groundless and unfair

As has already been commented in this blog, women’s sports often draw from a much smaller pool of players (largely because of such prejudices) and to have a lower quality of officiating as a result of this is only contributing to the cycle continuing. If umpires of a good standard are appointed equally across all leagues, it will help to ensure those games flow better and are better managed, as well as cutting out the perception that the speed and pace of either game are purely down to biological factors, rather than also training, expectations and overall player numbers.

Questions arising from this week: how do we break down the prejudicial assumption that women’s sport is inferior to men’s? How do we ensure a fair coverage of officials across all areas of sport in a binary-divided game?

Update on Muirfield

Those of you who have been following the blog for a while will remember our condemnation of Muirfield Golf Club, who refused to allow women members to join the club in the face of widespread protests from the media, pressure groups, and celebrities. It was heartening, then, to see in the news that they have held another vote and reversed the decision.

Fledgling, who many of you will remember from her post on sweating as a woman, pointed out to me that this decision was taken as a response to the R&A, golf’s governing body, removing Muirfield from the list of venues to consider for hosting the prestigious Open Championship. For me, this reflects well on the governing body and its stance, which demonstrates how political pressure and good leadership can bring about change and challenge inherent prejudice.


Made in Japan, conceived by the patriarchy?

I’m not sure quite how to respond to this video from Japan, which uses a sequence of unexpected action scenes to sell ramen noodles.sumo-face-off

I do know that I love how the female-presenting protagonist of the first ninety seconds or so is presented as fearless, skillful, and physically very able, defying male-presenting individuals at their sports, even the conventionally extremely masculine sumo wrestler.

She races around showing off her parkour talents, beats the boys with silky football skills, and flips over the sumo wrestler to obtain her noodles. The message up to there is clear – anyone who wants something (like their noodles) is capable of mustering the strength and skill to get it.

athletic-womanIt is refreshing to see someone wearing a skirt performing stunts with flame-throwers in the background and warehouse rubble tumbling nearby, even if the purpose is to catch the audience’s attention by the unusual contrast. I also love the support and enthusiasm show for this demonstration of athleticism by the (unconventional-looking) woman seen hanging up her washing in the background.Washing lady.png

However, the video moves into a rather diverse montage after that, with a series of
contrasting shots from different genres and hobbies to demonstrate the range of interests which come and go in people’s lives. Some of these are much more conventional in their gender roles, and then there is an unexpected change of gender presentation for the protagonist.

I am curious to know if anyone more familiar with the culture can shed a light on this – is it so unthinkable for the Japanese psyche that a girl could perform such feats, and therefore this is an effect of fragile masculinity, or is there something more positive going on? Could there be an interpretation of this that suggests that gender is irrelevant or simply a construct? I would love to hear what others think on this one.

Murray, Motherhood, and Microaggressions

At the end of last year, British tennis player (now Sir) Andy Murray managed to top off an amazing year, in which he won both Wimbledon and the Olympics for a second time, bymurray-ticker-tape achieving and retaining the world Number One spot in the rankings. He consolidated this at the end-of-season ATP World Tour finals, at which he beat perennial rival Novak Djovokic for the title.

Yet as the ticker tape flew and Murray celebrated, it was the words of his rival which most struck me. Djokovic was polite, magnanimous, and courteous to Murray, and then proceeded to credit his wife:

djokovicHe deserves to be in the moment and to take in what he achieved. His team as well – and his wife. She has to get some credit, guys. She gave birth this year. He has travelled all over the place. I know how it is with my wife, Jelena, what she had to go through as a mother back home with a little baby. So, Kim, well done. She’s maybe made even a bigger effort than Andy.

While his intentions in crediting Kim Murray with her efforts were well-intentioned, this did throw up an uncomfortable convention – praising women for their twin ‘expectations’ of supporting their husband’s ventures and bearing his children. This would be less of a problem if it weren’t for the wider sexism in society and tennis as a sport.

Thankfully, in recent years prize money has been levelled out in most major tournaments (Wimbledon the last in 2007), to bring women tennis players on a par with their male counterparts, but the media still contains many sexist comments even now.  Djokovic himself opposed the equal pay decisions, sparking controversy.

By contrast, Murray is actually one of the best figures in opposing these sexist attitudes, as can be seen from his rebuttal of experienced journalist John Inverdale when he forgot the women’s game entirely. This was also clear when his choice of coach Amelie Mauresmo prompted strong responses in the media, as this was the first time a woman had coached a well-known male player, but Murray completely downplayed this in interviews.murray-mauresmo
Perhaps, rather than congratulation the support of his rivals’ wives, Djokovic might want to be more supportive of the incredible efforts and achievements of some of the women in the sport, including the remarkable Williams sisters, who recently met at the US Open final, nineteen years after their first professional match at the same venue.

The beautiful gay

Recent social developments in the UK would make it very easy to think that, at least for male homosexuals, prejudice is so minimal that they scarcely even count as a minority group any more, nor require focus or assistance in carrying out their daily lives. With marriage now legal for all, gay characters common and normalised on film and TV, and even most socially conservative political parties largely expressing at least acceptance of gay people, life could be considered quite rosy for them.

Come on you Reds flier
Some independent campaigns are already championing the issue

Such is their position of relative comfort to other groups in the traditional LGBT+ grouping, that the NUS recently told their individual societies to abolish any extant gay reps, and some societies have even called for a rebranding to LBT+, or similar alternatives, to focus their energies where they consider the need to be greater.

While this may be true of society at large, it is adamantly not true in sporting circles, particularly professional ones. Football, inevitably as one of our most prominent and popular sports, receives much of the focus here, and is also one of the worst at tackling issues relating to homophobia. When even the chairman of the FA acknowledges that it would be difficult for a professional to come out of the closet, and given the incredibly scarce numbers of players who have come out while playing in English leagues, this is an institutional problem. There are scores of teams across the various professional tiers of football, each with at least two dozen players on their books, and yet we have only ever had one prominent professional player come out, with tragic consequences.

Whenever I have been to see a match at my modern-presenting, family-friendly, London-based club, which even has (shock, horror!) a woman as Vice-Chairman, I have heard fairly regular  insults directed at players and officials on the basis of their perceived masculinity and sexuality. Phrases like ‘get up, you poof’, ‘ref, you’re such a faggot’, etc., shouted out irrespective of families and young children nearby, are so normalised that no one even reacts when they echo across the crowd.

Such is the extent of the problem, both on matchday and in social media, that it can make it impossible to play or officiate while being out and proud. Given the UK has no examples of such a sporting figure, we must turn to Spain, where the first referee to come out openly was unable to continue due to the abuse he faced. It hardly bodes well for our domestic officials or players who might consider coming out…

Some local communities are setting up their own anti-fascism and anti-homophobia groups, in imitation of ‘ultra’ fans, like this Brighton gang

If this problem is going to be tackled, it must come from within the hierarchies of football. The FA have proven to be very pro-active in dealing with the issue of racism, through their Kick It Out campaign, and could very much do the same for homophobia. It is surely only a matter of time. In the meantime, there are at least some clubs boldly standing up for the rights of LGBT+ people in their community.


Signs of hope

Stonewall have recently relaunched their LGBT+ equality Rainbow Laces campaign, with the new winter season starting (football, rugby, hockey, etc.), and anyone keen to support them can sign a petition on their site as well as purchasing some very snazzy laces to wear on the playing fields.


Anyone who claims racism or LGBT+ abuse is no longer a part of modern sport is being completely naive. My previous posts have highlighted a number of these issues in just my own experience of sport in a relatively progressive, liberal part of the world, and I have plenty more to share. This is definitely one of the most crucial battlefields on which these issues are being fought on a daily basis.

By supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign, you can show support to and help with normalisation on a daily basis among other LGBT+ players, audience members and officials. Not only this, but the money raised from these goes towards helping fund Stonewall’s work in the community.