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!

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.