Eimear Ryan: Male allies are a powerful force for women's sport

Bernard Brogan, and former Mayo player Tom Parsons were among those to pay tribute to Noelle Healy who announced her retirement from inter-county football last week.
Eimear Ryan: Male allies are a powerful force for women's sport

Bernard Brogan, and former Mayo player Tom Parsons were among those to pay tribute to Noelle Healy who announced her retirement from inter-county football last week. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

When the great Noëlle Healy announced her retirement from the Dublin ladies football team this past week, the media — both social and print — filled up with tributes.

Videos of her running directly into the heart of defences, causing havoc, were posted on Twitter; journalists and broadcasters wrote of her huge engine and ability to both track back and provide assists; and her high-profile teammates — Goldrick, Aherne, Rowe, Davey, and others — wrote glowing tributes alongside post-match celebration photos.

There were even some very warm messages from Cork. If Dr Healy has been part of a team that has broken Cork hearts for the last number of years, she also helped Mourneabbey to an All-Ireland club title in 2019, when she was based in CUH for a year.

One heartwarming message came in the form of an Instagram story from Bernard Brogan, wishing Healy well in retirement and calling her a “phenomenal servant to a great Dublin team”. Former Mayo player Tom Parsons also tweeted his congratulations on a stellar career, adding ‘serious baller’ and a clapping emoji.

Male players using their clout and platform to highlight women’s sport is a great form of allyship and a whole other level of respect. Not only are these men spotlighting a female player that their audience may not have come across before, but they’re doing good and necessary work to counteract sexism in sport. Their fans might not be so quick to dismiss women’s sports if their heroes show respect and admiration for female players.

Case in point: when the captain and goalkeeper of Real Madrid’s women’s team, Misa Rodríguez, posted a picture of herself alongside one of Marco Asensio earlier this month, with the caption ‘Misma pasión’ (same passion), she found herself the target of online trolls and sexist abuse. Who do you think you are, comparing yourself to a god like Asensio, was the general gist. She ended up deleting the tweet.

When Asensio got wind of the situation, he posted the same caption to his two million followers along with the pictures — he and Rodríguez in similar poses, clutching the front of their jerseys and bellowing with, well, passion. Other Real players followed suit, as did other Spanish clubs, posting images of their male and female players to their social accounts with the hashtag #MismaPasión.

It has now become something of a rallying call in Spanish soccer, with several teams posing with a #MismaPasión banner before La Liga games.

The Americans, with their culture of cheerleading, have long been good at this sort of thing. LeBron James, in particular, has been consistently supportive of his female counterparts in the WNBA, recently helping player-turned-owner Renee Montgomery to purchase her team, the Atlanta Dream, from former MAGA politician Kelly Loeffler. But one of LeBron’s most striking shows of solidarity was also one of the simplest.

Last July, when the NBA was in its Disney Bubble, LeBron and several other players including Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, PJ Tucker, Victor Oladipo, Devin Booker, and CJ McCollum, wore the official orange WNBA hoodie to promote the start of the women’s season.

Photographing players in the tunnel as they walk to the dressing room before games is a ritual at this stage, a mini fashion show in which players show off their new runners, headphones and man-bags. That the players coordinated to wear the orange hoodie on a particular weekend shows their commitment to sharing the spotlight with the women’s game, and also their awareness of their own power.

The move had the intended result — #OrangeHoodie trended all weekend. When you’re at LeBron levels of visibility and influence, a light touch is all you need. Simply wearing a garment or sending a tweet is powerful. It’s as if these athletes are taking the principles and lessons gleaned from years of endorsement deals and are now applying them to allyship.

Sometimes, commerce and mutual respect coincide. A recent TV commercial for CarMax, a used-car retailer in the States, went viral after featuring both Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Steph Curry and Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, widely regarded as the GOAT in the women’s game. In the ad, a CarMax salesman closes a deal on a car with Curry, saying: ‘Man, if you’d told me this morning I’d be working with a four-time champ …’ Curry then gently corrects him: ‘Three-time champ.’ The salesman shakes his head. ‘No, I sold a car to Sue Bird. Eleven All-Star appearances. Can you imagine?’ The camera cuts to Bird cheerfully waving from her new car, a giant ribbon on the bonnet. ‘I mean, I’m working on it,’ Curry adds defensively.

The ad works on multiple levels — even the thought of millionaire athletes like Curry and Bird buying used cars is kind of cute. But perhaps its greatest achievement is that in the space of about 30 seconds, it calls attention to gender bias in sport — but gently and humorously, rather than beating the audience over the head. Curry’s ability to poke fun at himself, and his comparatively meagre seven All-Stars, all in the name of elevating Bird, is what makes the ad work.

I’ll admit it — I get a bit misty-eyed when male players show respect for their female counterparts. This is not to suggest that men supporting women’s sport is an unusual thing — far from it. It is so often dads, brothers, uncles, male cousins, and classmates that induct girls into sport: encourage them, train them, play against them, help them realise that they’re good.

But it’s natural to be supportive of women in your immediate sphere, or to whom you have a familial relationship too.

Think of the many well-intentioned men who come alive to the necessity of feminism as soon as they have a baby girl, or whose introduction to watching women’s sport is through supporting their daughter’s team.

It’s different, I think, when men support women that they don’t know personally, or when elite players pop their heads over the parapet of men’s sport to say: I admire you. You’re a legend. Serious baller.

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