”It’d be stupid not to be on my own side” (beware, there’s a curmudgeon in the ranks)

British sport’s annual celebration of itself has passed, with the 2014 BBC Sports Personality of the Year on 14 December. SPOTY, as it is known, like a tragic adolescent is marked by slightly insecure self-congratulation. The 2014 award went to Lewis Hamilton – there no real surprise there, except among those who question the extent to which Formula 1 should be seen as a sport. More interesting was the presence of several women in the nomination list – middle distance runner Jo Pavey came in third (after golfer Rory McIlroy) while women Olympians were placed fourth, fifth and sixth in the popular vote (Charlotte Dujardin – dressage, Kelly Gallagher & Charlotte Evans – skiing, and Lizzy Yarnold – skeleton), but then these three sports have a long way to go before they have a significant hold on the British public imagination (and I am loathe to mention a good walk ruined or success only where the athlete sits down, or that I was paying attention only because I had voted – first time – to support a former student on the list; she came in 6th). By the standards of sport’s usual celebration of blokes, this presence of women is impressive.

There has been justified celebration of Jo Pavey’s place on metaphorical podium, but the big excitement has been the Team of the Year award going to the English women’s rugby team. This was well deserved: they won the World Cup – leaving aside the men’s rugby team, this is not something many English teams have done on recent years. But they have won it before, and in the years that I have been paying attention to women’s international rugby (about 20 or so now) England has been a major force in the game, consistently ranked in the top two or three, and unlike the men’s team the women have been consistent in their ranking rather than peaking in World Cup years. Until this year, New Zealand has always been there as well (much as it pains me to say, they aren’t and they don’t deserve to be): there is no doubt that the England team is the dominant women’s team in rugby.

The response to this award has been fulsome; for the most part just a little excessive in the claims that the world of sport has changed as a result of this recognition (coming on top of the 45,619 who turned out to see women’s football teams from England & Germany play at Wembley in November, the excitement is easy to explain). [I just know I’m going to be held up as a curmudgeon, cynic and scoundrel for this……. including by many chums whose Sunday night social media excitement seemed to get the better of them.] Other than winning the world cup this year, which they have done before (although not for quite a while), it is hard to see any ‘objective’ change in the England women’s team that should have resulted in this award – that is, that resulted in the recognition of the team’s years of success and quality by the sports establishment, so maybe the ‘excess’ has some basis and this is a change in the sport establishment’s outlook, but I am sceptical. If they haven’t already, wait for the right-wing commentators to point out that 2014 was an abysmal year for men’s teams, so the England women’s rugby team didn’t have much competition – but then most years are abysmal for England’s men’s teams in most sports.

The danger of the ‘this changes everything’ rhetoric is not how these misogynist dinosaurs respond to this award, but the way it can be used to feed sports’ dominant anti-feminism – the line that, in its polite form, resembles the ‘things are getting better, so tone down the complaints’ statements we seem to hear so often. There have been plenty of things in the current year that tell us that feeding the ‘things are getting better’ beast should be avoided: not entirely at random, I turn to four cases of a very different kind, but a common theme – things might be getting better, but there is a hell of a long way to go before we might even start to hope that sport is a welcoming place for women (let alone gay men or transgender/transsexual athletes).

Case 1: the British Parliament. In July 2014 the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee issued a report on Women and Sport that spoke of “persistently low participation in sport by women and girls” who had been “deterred from participating in sport”, often in a school system where there is “a perception … that schools care more about, and spend more money on, sport for boys than for girls”. Public institutions and sports bodies were criticised for a lack of imagination in programmes offered for girls and women, often in “dilapidated and outdated facilities”, while women administrators and coaches were subject to “sexism and lack of respect”, while both media and other industries marginalise women’s sport coverage and funding. It does not make for celebratory reading, but as with many official reports what it doesn’t say is as significant. The report praises the support given to “dance, running, swimming, tennis” in their efforts to increase participation of women and girls – but these are sports/activities traditionally coded feminine or at least neutral; absent is praise for sports traditionally seen as bastions of manliness – football, cricket, rugby and so forth (which makes the award to the English women’s rugby team all the more impressive). The makeup of the committee is far from radical, and some of its members would likely be horrified to be labelled ‘feminist’; even so, this is an indictment, but far from radical critique, of the state of British sport for women.

Case 2: American Football. I doubt I need to say much here. In February Baltimore Raven’s player Ray Rice beat his fiancé Janay Palmer unconscious; we know this because he was caught on film in a casino dragging her (unconscious) from an elevator. The team’s initial response was to suspend him for two games. I don’t want to get into the role model thing here – I don’t buy it, but mainstream sport does play the role model game, which suggests to me that the Ravens management sees violence against women (as in beating her to unconsciousness) as less important/problematic than recreational drug use. Not surprisingly, there was a public outcry against this decision, and the Ravens finally sacked (the term they use is ‘released’) Rice…… in September, 7 months after the event.

Case 3: the IAAF. This federation sex tests women, not men, only women, but they’re not worried that men might be pretending to be women on the track; the athletes who have been suspended have been suspected of being (various forms of) intersexual, as in the case of Caster Semenya – described as having a ‘rare medical condition that gave her a competitive advantage’ – or the less high profile cases of Santhi Soundarajan and Pinki Pramanik, or of producing too much testosterone. This question of testosterone-production is this year’s sex testing issue, focussed on sprinter Dutee Chand, dropped from the Indian Commonwealth Games athletics team for having hyperandrogenism, even the name of the ‘condition’ is telling – this is not just androgyny, but hyper….. (These are not well connected or powerful women, but they have had strong support from Indian feminist activists in a wider international network, such as Payoshni Mitra who lays out the issues in this interview, in campaigns seeking justice for these athletes.) Dutee Chand’s case is still before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but the bigger issue here is that the IAAF’s actions cast athletics as a male pursuit, normalise masculinity in athletics and treat women athletes as interlopers in a male domain.

Case 4: trop belle pour volleyball. During the Asian U-19 Volleyball Championships in Taiwan in July, Kazakh volleyball player Sabina Altynbekova was dropped from the team for being ‘too good looking’. The story is a little more complex than the headline, but not much; and the team’s coach argued that Altynbekova was dropped because the public and media attention was a distraction for the rest of the team, while her response was to call for a focus on her playing abilities – she became well known for everything other than her high quality play and the institutions of sport failed to support her in that tournament. This is not an isolated case though – just think of all those photos of attractive young women in sports crowds; at men’s world cup matches in Brazil over the summer; during cricket coverage; at the tennis; and, well, everywhere else.

So, let’s celebrate English women’s rugby team’s award – it is a great thing for the team and its members – but let’s not get too excited. I’m delighted to see so many US athletes taking high profile public stand against racist violence by the police (#blacklivesmatter) and pleased that many sports teams and franchises seem to realise that disciplining these athletes would be likely to backfire on them. As I write, trending on Twitter (from @ShequalityMatte) there is a Maya Angelou quotation: “I’m a Feminist. I’ve been female for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” In that spirit, I’m looking forward to the day when the same number and profile of athletes, globally, shift their focus to coordinated work to change the sexist attitudes that pervade sport and its structures and practices that maintain those views. Until then, let’s stick to the feminist guns and not risk giving the sport’s masculinist forces ammunition to undermine the cause: let’s celebrate the English women’s rugby team’s award but let’s not pretend it changes the world.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the School of Sport and Exercise, and is Research Degrees Lead for the Schools of Health & Social Care, Natural & Social Sciences and Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is also University Lead for Research Ethics and Integrity. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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