Don’t dismiss ‘player power’. It’s driving change in women’s sport

It’s Sunday morning and English actress Emma Thompson has just been on the radio with Miriam O’Callaghan. She noted that things are better for women in society and we need to be appreciative of the change that has and is happening. At the same time, she remarked that we have to keep pushing, especially when opportunities arise to do so.

Don’t dismiss ‘player power’. It’s driving change in women’s sport

It’s Sunday morning and English actress Emma Thompson has just been on the radio with Miriam O’Callaghan. She noted that things are better for women in society and we need to be appreciative of the change that has and is happening. At the same time, she remarked that we have to keep pushing, especially when opportunities arise to do so.

In sport, there is no denying the landscape is getting better. In terms of inclusion and equality, things are only going in one direction. The Women’s World Cup is in full flow and generally seems to be a really good news story for sport, evident in match attendances, viewership figures and column inches but also through the day-to-day emergence of interesting content around players and teams. There’s a lot happening off the field too and it is clear that this event, the pinnacle of the game, is being used as a forum for bigger issues.

USA are the top ranked women’s team in the world. They have been in four of the seven World Cup finals, winning three and have buckets of expectation attached to the 2019 competition. Despite this, or more likely in spite of it, 28 players lodged a lawsuit in March against US Soccer, fighting for equal pay and conditions. A previous submission around wage discrimination in 2016 by five players led to a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with US Soccer, with American players now among the highest paid in international soccer.

Previously, after winning their second World Cup in 1999, the players planned their own victory tour across the US, generating money (to be shared equally among players) but also attracting significant backlash from US soccer administration.

Players were accused of ‘adulterating the sport’, player rep Mia Hamm responded that she and her team had felt like they were cheated on all the time. Hamm and Julie Foudy publicly wondered how Nike would take the news that the USA was walking away from the women’s game.

This back and forth battle ultimately led to the victory tour taking place and a first CBA between the players and US Soccer. There is a very obvious connection between the 1999 and current squad that extends beyond a will to win and perform and moves to a responsibility to challenge, stand up for yourself and fight for your worth.

The impact of the actions of the USA players is far reaching; the Danish women’s team threatened to boycott a World Cup qualifier before agreeing a new CBA; Scotland women’s have their first CBA after a decision to not promote their participation in Euro 2017; the Norway women’s team have achieved pay parity with their male counterparts; and the Matildas (Australian Women’s Soccer) are among those challenging FIFA on pay equality at the World Cup finals through their Professional Footballer’s Association.

To note, the prize money for the Women’s finals is 7.5% that for the men’s World Cup. While this represents a 100% increase from 2015 and there is greater investment overall in the women’s game, the agitators maintain that FIFA can do more given the financial capacity it has — it is difficult to disagree.

Doing more is not just linked to money. The battles waged by the American women and many others are not just about wages. US superstar Megan Rapinoe wants systematic change in the investment, marketing and promotion of women’s soccer at all levels in the US.

Ada Hegerberg, Ballon D’Or winner and absentee from the Norway squad (who have pay parity, remember) notes that her stance is grounded in factors beyond money, and relate to the conditions and support of the female soccer player in Norway.

It might be argued that the World Cup shouldn’t be about someone who isn’t even there, nor about lawsuits and equality campaigns, but in truth, it speaks volumes for the players involved, for their commitment, and courage, that they are choosing the biggest stage of all to have their voice and act for change.

In 2017, the Irish women’s team choose to speak publicly on their experience as international players. The unity and clarity of the players on their core issues around respect and fairness was hard-hitting.

Outcomes included an agreement for the women’s team to have collective representation from the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland and better financial and playing conditions.

Ireland are not at the Women’s World Cup and a breakthrough to the biggest stage likely requires more investment in the current international team but perhaps more importantly, at development level, something referenced by Emma Byrne when she noticed that theirs was a fight for the future.

Players who take a stand and fight for what is right deserve considerable respect.

It is so hard to be an agitator, to be the one challenging and questioning, especially when the message back, all too frequently, is that it is better to be inoffensive and appreciative.

In the Irish Examiner a few weeks ago, Cliona Foley wrote a fine piece with Cork ladies football manager Ephie Fitzgerald. One of the most notable comments by Ephie was that he feels sometimes “girls are too accepting of their position, rather than fighting for them.” But he also mentioned that some of the women are well able to pull the management up on things.

This is so important; athletes give so much to their sport, as they do in a workplace or most other facets of life, so it is only right that they challenge and question, and expect more.

The term ‘player power’ is often used to be dismissive of players having a voice but for me the player group in any sport, with their experience and knowledge of their own game and the game itself, should have a say.

There are individuals across different squads, in all sports, who have been the main advocate for their team.

These players often have a bad rep with officialdom but they are usually at the centre of progression and setting standards, and every team should have them.

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