Eimear Ryan: Keeping politics out of sport is not a luxury most sportswomen can afford 

During the pandemic, so much time has meant spending on Instagram and listening to podcasts, but one of the more successful strategies has been subscribing to the newsletters of writers I admire
Eimear Ryan: Keeping politics out of sport is not a luxury most sportswomen can afford 

Naomi Osaka of Japan wears a mask with the name of George Floyd on it during an interview following her US Open quarter-final win over Shelby Rogers. Picture: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images 

Throughout the last seven months, as all of our individual and collective worlds have shrunk, I’ve started looking for new ways to connect with the wider world.

In practice, this has meant spending too much time on Instagram and listening to podcasts, but one of my more successful strategies has been subscribing to the newsletters of writers I admire. There’s a sense of intimacy with newsletters that’s missing from blogs — look, an email from my favourite writer! — and, with comment sections becoming increasingly hair spaces, you don’t miss the community aspect of blogs as much as you’d expect.

One of the best newsletters I’ve discovered recently is Power Plays by Lindsay Gibbs, described in the tagline as ‘a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism in sports’.

However, this US-based missive delves much deeper than that, giving an incredible insight into the burgeoning world of women’s professional sport in North America, and its historical antecedents. Recent stories include a deep dive into the Silver Bullets, a Coors-sponsored professional women’s baseball team from the 1990s that played exhibition games, mostly against men’s teams.

Gibbs also recently marked the 50-year anniversary of the Original 9, the group of elite women’s tennis players led by Billie Jean King who founded their own professional tour, the Virginia Slims Circuit, due to the lack of support for the women’s code from the United States Tennis Association.

(It is interesting that, in the absence of support from their sport’s governing organisations, American female athletes have so frequently turned to the market for funding; even more interesting that the sponsorship is so often stumped up by beer and cigarette companies. But I digress.) For the most part, though, Power Plays sticks to contemporary stories about women’s sport — and the politics that it so often entails.

Gibbs recently ran a piece about the WNBA’s commitment to the Say Her Name campaign, which raises awareness for black female victims of police violence, inspired by the death of Breonna Taylor in March of this year. She’s written about the Houston-based softball team Scrap Yard Dawgs, who publicly broke with their Trump-supporting owner to set up their own independent team, This Is Us.

The newsletter also analysed a striking photo of Chicago Red Stars soccer players Casey Short, Julie Ertz, and Rachel Hill during a pre-match national anthem, in which Short and Ertz knelt in support of Black Lives Matter, while Hill remained standing with a supportive hand on Short’s shoulder. Power Plays demonstrates that in 2020, many of America’s simmering political tensions are being played out in the arenas of women’s sport.

This trend was also evident in an excellent Sports Illustrated piece entitled ‘The Unrelenting’ published earlier this month, celebrating "the women in sports who are powerful, persistent and purposeful in their pursuits — for athletic greatness, gender equality, social justice and more."

Very few of the 53 women profiled in this list are just merely ‘good at sport’. They are all notable for speaking out, for being advocates, and for being unabashedly political — whether it’s Bille Jean King campaigning for equal prize money for female tennis players, Simone Biles speaking out about the abuse of USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, or Megan Rapinoe, who was the first athlete to support Colin Kaepernick in his kneeling protest back in 2016.

Also profiled was 22-year-old tennis player Naomi Osaka, who, in her path to victory in this year’s US Open, wore seven different masks highlighting the names of black victims of police brutality and racism. In a post-victory tweet, she wrote: “All the people that were telling me to ‘keep politics out of sports’ … really inspired me to win. You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your TV for as long as possible.”

The truth is that keeping politics out of sport is not a luxury that most sportswomen can afford.

Perhaps part of why women’s sport and politics seem to go hand in hand is because women’s sport has always had to fight for its right to exist — to carve out a space for itself in the face of unsupportive organisations and a largely indifferent society. More is asked of female athletes — not to just be great players, but to be ambassadors for their sport, and advocates for resources, coverage, relevance.

Fixture clashes

I am sure that every camogie player and ladies footballer in the country is tired of talking in interviews about fixture clashes, expenses and cold showers, but until these problems are redressed, they have no choice but to continue to speak out. As we saw this past week, with both the Camogie Association and the LGFA refusing to back motions recognising the dual player, sometimes even the organisations that govern women’s sport refuse to take simple steps towards player welfare.

As a society, we are comfortable with asking more of our sportswomen in this manner; insistent, too, that it’s not our problem when issues of gender inequality are raised.

When the question of poor turnouts for women’s sport is brought up, for example, a common response is that it’s up to women to support women’s sports. Which, on first consideration — fair point.

But also, have you heard the distinctly female roars at every camogie All-Ireland final? And secondly, why is it solely up to women to fix the problem of equality in sport, when such a large percentage of those involved in sport are men?

I’m reminded of the ever-quotable Anne Enright adage:

It always seemed to me a double burden that women should suffer the discrimination and do all the work to fix it.

I look forward to a time when women no longer have to be unrelenting in order to achieve their sporting goals; when they can simply be ‘good at sport’ and not have to be advocates as well.

But as long as the playing field is uneven, women’s sports will remain political almost by default.

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