On Tricky Words like Privilege

Ah, internet comments; the definition of a love/hate relationship for me. My vague New Year’s resolution of not scrolling through them is but a fuzzy memory, lost behind the indignant rage they so often incite.

The other day, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I found what I consider a positive story; the FA admits to having ‘failed’ women’s football, and, as such, have promised to increase their support in order to double the number of players by 2020.

This, of course, came along with the barrage of comments essentially saying that women’s football is a joke and isn’t worth the time of day. A few of my choice favourites (quoted here verbatim) include:

‘The women’s game would be a lot more watchable if most of them could kick it further than 15 yards!’

‘BBC, women’s football and sport is frankly rubbish. No one cares. OK, maybe a slight minority, but nothing more. I would rather turn my TV off then watch women’s sport.’ [and yet you went to the trouble of clicking on the article, reading it, and commenting…?]

‘I don’t see why Women’s Football expects to be handed everything on a plate by the Men’s game, why don’t they work for it themselves?’

As well as setting off the familiar annoyance that goes hand in hand with anything about women’s equality on the internet, these comments got me thinking. On paper the statistics clearly suggest that bodies like the FA, which is not ‘The Men’s FA’ and never has been, has failed to support women’s football as would be expected of a dutiful governing organisation. It is irrefutable that the FA banned women’s teams from using Football League grounds in 1921 and then spent more than 70 years pretending it didn’t exist.

One commenter had it spot on in my mind when they said:

‘My honest assessment of the women’s game; GK’ing is awful, and they are afraid of heading the ball. Tackling is full blooded when it needs to be, the tactics are of a good standard, and the passing isn’t as fast as it could be. The pace of the women athlete’s is not quite there with the men, but good nonetheless. Women’s sport is younger. It needs time to develop (40 yrs vs 150 yrs).’

And that’s the crux of it. Women’s sport is a baby. Well, not a baby – it’s certainly not helpless – but more a second child, seeing its older brother getting all the praise and support from their parents, while they’re stuck in oversized hand-me-down clothes, chasing impossible standards (he walked when he was 8 months old don’cha’know).

It’s only little, it hasn’t learned how to make the most of sponsors or make itself stronger on its own, and its big brother has already laid claim to most of the good stuff. As well as all the bumps and bruises of growing up and making itself heard, it has to combat the barrage of grown up voices who don’t really think it should bother standing up in the crib. Why would anyone care about a tentative toddle when men’s sport, the big brother, is running around downstairs being an aeroplane?

On the back of International Women’s Day the other week I’ve been thinking about the position of women more widely and keep coming back to the complicated, and often misunderstood, concept of Privilege which, in the context of sport, set my mind running (pun intended?).

Privilege is an unpopular word. It’s a murky word. No one likes to align themselves to it, particularly when it’s being seized by a group of ‘Millennials’ whose motives are murky and confusing. It’s an unhelpful word too, as its antonym is ‘underprivileged’. You are either a have or a have not. Born with a silver spoon in your mouth or a wooden stick. Underprivileged kids have special policies and funding to let them do things which are considered commonplace, like budget group skiing trips, privileged kids go to Eton and have private skiing lessons from age 3.

By creating such a dichotomy, you cannot expect people to cheerfully align themselves one way or the other. A middle-class person who went to a decent state school and maybe to a good university and is basically doing alright but has loans weighing heavily on them will not consider themselves to be particularly privileged. They’re normal, they’re doing fine and there are people worse off than them so that’s ok. This unhelpful black-and-white, I-did-this-so-why-can’t-you framework is as evident in women’s sport as it is in politics and life generally (not just for women, but for every other minority group as well).

It’s been said by people much more clever and much more well informed than me that any step towards equality feels like an attack when you’ve had it your own way until now, and the casual ‘women’s sport is a bit rubbish though’ attitude smacks of this mindset. Looking at women’s sport from the far-distant platform of men’s funding, sponsorship, talent pool, and media coverage does lead one to question why the women deserve any ‘extra’ help. Men’s sport never had handouts, so why should women get to scrounge off the successful men now?

Women’s sport is on the whole not as high quality as men’s yet, that’s absolutely true. The world records are shorter and slower, the international competition isn’t as fierce – walkovers are much more expected. But consider this;  until the last few decades, women weren’t supposed to do sport. At all. It was 1967, in both my parents’ lifetimes, that Kathrine Switzer was physically attacked by a Boston Marathon Official for daring to run in a marathon, because women shouldn’t be allowed to do such a thing. It wasn’t until the late 60s that a few scattered women could make enough money from their sport to be able to do it full time.

With no funding, no investment, and no social support, women’s sport as a whole has limped onwards for decades, fired forwards by a collection of individuals who refuse to take no for an answer. The players, athletes and managers have consistently had to balance investing and improving themselves in their sport with paying the bills and working a ‘real job’ to facilitate their hobby. If you take a look at the team lists for the Women’s Six Nations, the amount of players that are still students completing full time degrees in addition to international training is startling. The late Welsh International Elli Norkett was halfway through a degree in coaching, which would allow her to make a living in the sport she loved where playing would not. You simply don’t get future internationals at university in the men’s game – the talent is spotted and supported when the boys are teenagers.

Boys haven’t been told they must stop playing their favourite sport because they’re old enough to tackle (girls and boys play touch rugby together, but not contact). What we have instead is boys who have grown up seeing their sporting idols make gross amounts of money ($82 million for Ronaldo last year alone), who have been told that with talent, their effort will be rewarded, and who have never heard that they shouldn’t bother.

The privileged lens of men’s sport as being ‘Proper Sport’ has held women’s back for decades. Now that the tide is starting to turn and TV coverage of women’s sport is increasing (in part because it’s more affordable for terrestrial broadcasters compared to the bloated price of the men’s games), now that visibility and support is increasing, we’re becoming more of a threat to the world order of only men getting physical outside of a tennis court.

The world of sport in the media is not a meritocracy – the most exciting sports to watch do not automatically get the most funding or coverage. Questioning whether the quality of women’s sport means that it deserves funding underestimates just how privileged men’s sport has been, and currently is, in the public eye, and helpfully skips over the fact that men’s lower league competition is often more enjoyable than the televised stuff.

It’s easy to hide behind pick-and-mix criticism of poor results (the England women’s football team losing to boys’ teams anyone?), allowing oneself to ignore the massive heap of privilege men’s sport is sat on, and the monopoly it holds.

In a hundred years or so, when the number of professional sportswomen is equal to men, and when screen time (or whatever it is in 2100 – hologram time?) is at a parity between men’s and women’s sport, when the sports boards that make decisions about funding have a fair split of genders and outlooks, then you can penalise women for poor results. For as long as we’re still scraping around for pitch space and funding so we don’t have to fork out for our own kit, men’s sport enthusiasts should fold their sponsored shirts and sit quietly in their changing rooms- that is, unless they’re going to get out on the side-lines and cheer us on.

And until we reach the point where we are legitimately comparable, allowing for the biological differences of course, please feel free to turn off your TV and unsubscribe from women’s sport; and don’t be surprised if you find yourself with less and less to watch, and fewer people to talk about it with. Because we’re coming. And we’re getting faster and stronger every damn day.









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