Larry Ryan: Not so easy for women to dig a sports moat

There’s much to recommend this simple life, this means of stripping things down, of operating from game to game on a need-to-know basis.
Larry Ryan: Not so easy for women to dig a sports moat

SMILING THROUGH THE PAIN: Republic of Ireland manager Vera Pauw with supporters after the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 qualifier against Sweden at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The  book Tossary of Terms coined ‘sportsmoat’ — a way of life that “avoids the complications of the outside world by sealing yourself into a bubble of sport”.

If anything really important happens, the book reasons, it will surely leak into the sports news.

“Several race meetings are canceled this afternoon due to an ongoing nuclear attack. Coming up next, darts from Lakeside.”

There’s much to recommend this simple life, this means of stripping things down, of operating from game to game on a need-to-know basis.

It would certainly have kept you sufficiently in the loop, on the pandemic front, over the last couple of years, had you confined yourself to this section of the paper. Would you have been any less informed had you tracked how things were going out there by keeping an eye on match attendances?

And if you are that keen to stay relatively up to speed on geopolitics and human rights standards, the Premier League and Champions League will see you right for the foreseeable. Though you may have noticed certain Geordie legends dig deeper into their moats, until they can barely see the light.

It seems to be the recommended frame of mind for the professional athlete — a singular focus on the next game and if it does take place you’ll know the world is still in one piece.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a lot harder to protect yourself in a sportsmoat if you’re a female athlete.

Your bubble lets a lot in. The complications of the outside world, and your place in it, always seem to be encroaching.

Before the Irish women played Sweden the other night, RTÉ anchor Peter Collins wondered how big a distraction it might be for the players and management, having to constantly field questions about the abuse allegations that have emerged in American soccer, some at the club where Denise O’Sullivan and Diane Caldwell play.

Megan Campbell more or less assured him it would be grand because there is always something. There’s always a bigger picture, looming over even your biggest games.

So used is Vera Pauw to dealing with business outside the moat, she took 30 seconds to decommission the vaccination question that bogged down Stephen Kenny.

Of course it helped that all the women in the Ireland squad are vaccinated. It’s not clear why there’s this disparity with the men — the WNBA also set a vaccination pace other American sports couldn’t match.

Does it reflect a similar gender gap out there in real life? Could it be that the shortage of gated mansions in women’s sport makes it harder to seal themselves into physical bubbles too, so they feel more vulnerable? Or are they more aware of the outside world and their responsibilities to it?

With that business sorted, Pauw knuckled down to the abuse discussion, wearily acknowledging that “it is all over the world and it happens on a daily basis”.

She assured us the Irish squad would have a players’ meeting about sexual misconduct in the sport. And it didn’t even sound that outlandish, that this might be something you’d have to delve into in international camp, before even sorting out who’s picking up who at corners.

There is always a bigger picture. Whether it’s equal pay or better conditions or fair coverage, there is always a need, as Vera put it, to “stand on the barricades”.

Even in good times, it seems women can’t really just concentrate on the next game, because they’re constantly on duty to inspire the next generation. As though the prospect of thousands of small girls ever kicking a ball is hanging on you striking the right note whether you are jubilant or disappointed or stressed.

Are they fully appreciated for lugging around all this baggage, this Irish team?

The corporate world may be starting to notice, judging by the Sky and Cadbury deals. Though marketing departments may be keeping an eye on the bigger picture too, rather than on individuals.

A Marketing Institute of Ireland survey this week named five women among Ireland’s six most marketable athletes: Kellie Harrington, Katie Taylor, Rachael Blackmore, Leona Maguire and Ellen Keane.

There was no mention of Katie McCabe, competing weekly for Arsenal as an equal among the world’s best, in the sport with by far the deepest competition.

That kind of recognition will come, perhaps, if the World Cup is reached. If it’s not, other difficult questions will knock on Pauw’s door. At times, focus on the bigger picture around Ireland internationals has obscured smaller failings.

Last Thursday, though, was not really a night for picking holes in the gameplan. In one sense, it was a throwback to the kind of game some supporters of Irish football seem to hanker for. The plucky, physical Irish hanging in there against the crack continentals, then putting it in the mixer late doors.

“It became unnecessarily exciting,” rued Swede star Stina Blackstenius afterwards, a touch patronisingly.

If you were looking at the big picture, it was to bemoan how such a gap was allowed to emerge with reasonably small nations like Sweden who treated women’s football with respect for decades.

But Ireland made it exciting and though it can also seem patronising, many less deserving Irish teams have been called brave in that kind of scenario.

Is that like praising the postman for delivering the mail, as Roy Keane would put it? Or should you take into account that many of the Irish players on duty are paid less than an average postal worker?

There was another look at the big picture this week on The Atlantic, in a piece entitled “The most famous low-wage workers in the country”.

It pointed out that the majority of players in the American NWSL, while quite well-known, earn $31,000 a year or less, salaries not dissimilar to England, where most of the Irish team is based.

It went on: “Typically missing from this conversation is a discussion about the kind of work environment that can develop when women are paid these low wages.

“As the recent, chilling reports from the NWSL have proved, calls for equal pay have never been just about the money. Meager wages make women more vulnerable to abuse and less empowered to speak up.”

By joining the dots, it reminded us that protecting yourself in a bubble of sport isn’t a luxury everyone can afford.

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