Unlevel playing field

 
 

With female sports receiving much less funding and attention than they deserve, Jack McCann speaks with Cliona Foley of the Irish Independent about the prevailence of sexism in sport

“You throw like a girl.” Anyone who has played any sport in their life has more than likely heard this phrase being directed at them or somebody else. However, since the onset of the 21st century, the tide has begun to change with regards to attitudes towards women’s sports.

Now, the constant campaign to push for women to be universally accepted as being on an equal playing field in all aspects of society, not just in sport, is in full swing. This sort of progression has made us question whether we should really be accepting even a minor amount of discrimination of women’s sports?

Certain sports like rugby and football are seen as a man’s game, but sport in general has been seen as the domain of the man and in days past women were thought of as only good for making the tea at halftime. This incorrect stereotypical view that women are physically inept at playing sport is completely unwarranted and goes against the clear evidence of womens’ sporting success over recent decades not only here in Ireland, but worldwide.

In Ireland, athletes such as Derval O’Rourke, Fionnuala Britton, Sonia O’Sullivan, Annalise Murphy, Katie Taylor, and the Ireland’s senior women’s rugby team are household names. While on a global platform, personalities like Jessica Ennis, Li Na, Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsey Vonn, Linda Cohn and Danica Patrick are top of their respective fields.

Cliona Foley of the Irish Independent spoke about sexism in sport at the National Media Conference at Trinity College in November of last year. Foley says the wording is key in the argument about misogyny in sport. “I think a lack of respect for women’s sporting skills and achievements is the big problem. I also think there is a lot of sexism, formal and casual, in some sports but misogyny is a strong word, which implies hatred of women and I don’t think that’s widespread.”

When asked what can be done to change the attitudes of certain people Foley replies, “You won’t ever change someone who is truly misogynistic, but I think women athletes are increasingly so stellar that it has become impossible to ignore them. In sports where they compete directly with men, such as horse racing and three-day eventing, some women have smashed the preconceptions and stereotypes and earned respect by proving that they can compete equally at the top level.”

In a recent Twitter Q&A session, British Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle was subjected to horrific and completely unnecessary abuse from online trolls where she was asked questions such as, “Are all sportswomen lesbians?” and “Do you think pregnancy is a poor injury excuse and women should be able to run it off?”

The questions came about on the ‘Women in Sport’ program on Sky Sports News that takes place every Tuesday morning. Tweddle was of course expecting to be answering questions about gymnastics and participating in London 2012, where she won a bronze medal on the uneven bars.

The abuse was condemned by Sky Sports, but very little action can be taken due to the fact that the abuse occurred on a social media platform where it is very difficult to properly identfy the mysogynistic culprits.

One of the only cases where there were serious consequences for the offenders was the one involving pundit and presenter Andy Gray and Richard Keys. In the 2010/11 season during the game between Wolves and Liverpool, both men were caught on microphone talking about the female assisant Sian Massey saying, “Women just don’t understand the offside rule.”

Sian Massey was officiating only her second ever game at the top level, but had started officiating when she was 15-years-old and rose through the ranks in the ten years that followed. Gray was duly sacked and has ended up working at Talksport as a radio pundit. Richard Keys resigned after apologising to Massey.

It is now three years since this high profile instance of sexism, and it still follows both presenters around. In recent weeks, there was significant disapproval from a lot of quarters about Gray returning to punditry on BT Sport.

His appearance coincided with the popular podcast, The Football Ramble, releasing an unseen video of Keys and Gray making a sexist slurs at presenter Claire Tomlinson as they did a soundcheck before a game at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff in the early 2000s.

Foley feels the increased number of women working in sports journalism might help the matter. “The greater numbers of women now working in sports journalism and broadcasting has probably helped to shift the balance as they are more likely than their male counterparts to be aware of female athletes and raise their achievements at editorial level.”

She also highlights the incredibly long journey it has been for women at the Olympic Games. “For centuries, women’s place was in the home and sport was played by and primarily watched and reported on by men.

“It was 1928 before women were allowed take part in track events at the Olympics and the women’s 800m was subsequently dropped and not introduced until Rome 1960, the year I was born. Women weren’t allowed run a marathon in the Olympics until 1984.”

Sexism will continue to be a problem unless sporting associations take serious action against the culprits to show that it is not acceptable to ridicule female athletes. They have the deserved right to showcase their talent on a level playing field.

The statistics are truly worrying. Only 5% of sports media coverage features women. For every 53 articles written about sporting men, there is just one about a sportswoman, while women’s sport receives only 0.5% of the total sponsorship income into sport.

As long as prejudices against women exist in the sporting world, the Dark Ages are not over. Women should be duly hailed for their achievements their efforts whether that be on the field of play or as an official, as well as in punditry. Sports reporting and in the stands for their opinions and thoughts on the world of sport.

Foley says that change is happening, but there is still a long way to go. “Twenty years ago women’s boxing and rugby was still in its infancy. Now Ireland’s only current Olympic champion and Grand Slam champions are females. The progress in standards and recognition received by women in the past 30 years ago has been immense, even if it’s slower than many women would like.”

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