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It is time to stop talking about ‘women’s sport’ as a sideshow

Football played by men shouldn’t be talked about as the principle version of the game. It is just the male version.

Football played by men shouldn’t be talked about as the principle version of the game. It is just the male version.Credit:Getty Images

Take for example two of Australia’s major football codes. There is no mention in the competition name whether the NRL is played by men or women – it has simply been able to be assumed, because of more than a hundred years of history, that it is the men’s competition. When the women’s premiership was launched in 2018, a “W” was attached to the moniker NRL (to make the competition the NRLW). Similarly the AFL is regarded as the default men’s competition , with “W” attached to signify the competition – the AFLW – that is played by women.

While it was a matter of necessity a few years ago, it is a matter of equality now that we no longer assume that the men’s competitions are the “norm”, while the women’s are the sideshow.

The award-winning Outer Sanctum podcast has railed against this, by calling the AFL the AFLM to distinguish it from the AFLW. And you know what? It’s starting to catch on. It’s now time for it to become official, for AFL to become AFLM. Similarly then it’s time now to start calling the NRL the NRLM.

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It would make no difference to the way the game is played. It would make no difference to the way the game is watched. It would make an enormous difference to the way the game is perceived – especially the women’s game. And perception is reality. The addition of one teensy tiny letter to a competition name might seem insignificant (although in some quarters it would no doubt be viewed as a direct assault on masculinity), but the significance lies not in the single letter, rather in what it represents. It would show that the game is committed to both sexes, that women are not the lesser partner, that their place is not simply in supporting or playing second fiddle to the blokes, but as a valued (and importantly for any organisation) a valuable part of the playing stock.

This will have other flow-on effects, particularly in athlete management and sports science. Historically female athletes have been treated as small male athletes, with not enough understood about the effect of things like the menstrual cycle on performance, or the physiological differences between men and women in determining injury management.

Like all proposed changes – especially to something as passionately supported as sport – there will be resistance. Yet this is not an argument for changing the rules. Or changing the teams. It is simply an argument for a slight shift, which will have an enormous beneficial impact on the women who are playing and watching sport – and who are incidentally the fastest growing parts of sports’ businesses.

Let 2021 be the beginning of the end for women’s sport, and the moment we add “M” to the men’s game.

Liz Ellis is a former Australian netball player and a sports commentator.

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