Women running the line, if not the world

Eimear Ryan - blowing the whistle on the week’s sport.

Women running the line, if not the world

I’ll never forget the middle-aged hurling fan behind me on the terraces in the autumn of 2014, yelling at a referee who had made a few polarising calls: “He couldn’t ref a camogie match!”

It sticks in my mind partly because the spectator took a shine to the phrase, and repeated it several times, while I took deep breaths and tried not to strangle him with a headband. (It was, in fairness, probably one of the more family-friendly lines he threw in the ref’s direction that day.)

This illustrates some obvious truths: it’s tough to be a referee and, given the strain of casual sexism that runs through much of sporting culture, it must be twice as hard to be a female ref. No wonder we don’t see too many of them.

At the launch of the Referee Development Plan 2018-21 in Croke Park last month, national match officials coordinator Pat Doherty admitted that the number of female refs on the books could be counted on one hand. Soccer and rugby are ahead of the GAA in this respect, but even those sports have some way to go before normalising female referees.

In October, Coleraine Rugby Club was fined £5,000 after referee Gráinne Crabtree was subjected to sexist insults from the sideline. Female officials are still something of a rarity, and it’s always going to be hardest for those who first stick their heads over the parapet.

And sure, referees of all genders have a tough gig. There is a cultural tendency, especially in team sports, to foil the authority figure. As writer Colin Barrett (@ColinBarrett82) tweeted during the World Cup: “Another reason that football is the people’s sport is that players & fans implicitly understand that the ref — on-pitch cop & bureaucrat — should be undermined & antagonised at every opportunity.”

There are sociological reasons for why it feels so satisfying to serenade the ref with less than complimentary chants.

So if male refs struggle to maintain authority, it’s even harder for women, since as a society we’re still not used to seeing women in authority in most contexts.

Women make up 22% of the Dáil, and fewer than one in five Irish CEOs are female — hardly reflective of the wider population. Female authority is sometimes not even trusted on topics that are about women, an uncomfortable truth that emerged during the Repeal the 8th campaign. There were several anecdotes of men who only decided to vote yes after hearing other men — Cillian Murphy, say, or Blindboy Boatclub — advocate for repeal.

Even sympathetic men were uneasy with what they saw as ‘aggressive’ female campaigners, who more or less demanded their rights and weren’t shy about advising people which way to vote. As a society we’re okay with women being authority figures in domestic settings, but public life?

And yet, there are positive stories. The mighty Joy Neville has racked up a rake of firsts in the last 12 months, becoming the first woman to officiate a professional European rugby match and also the first to referee a PRO14 game.

Earlier this month, 28-year-old Sara Cox became the first woman to referee a UK Premiership rugby game. Soccer ref Rebecca Welch, meanwhile, has been steadily building a profile in the UK’s National League and Women’s Premier League, and may well become the first woman to officiate at a Premier League match in the coming years.

Where is the GAA equivalent of these groundbreaking women? We could certainly stand to do better, especially since the visibility of female refs is poor even in camogie and ladies football.

It’s terrible to say, but I’ve been on many a camogie starting 15 that despairs when a female ref walks onto the pitch. “They pull for everything!” is a common refrain. It’s true that many camogie refs came of age at a time when the rules of camogie were much different to hurling and far less contact was allowed. Male refs, on the other hand, tend to apply hurling rules to camogie, which is what most players want. Essentially, we want to be able to sledge and be sledged. But this is a wider question for the Camogie Association regarding their rulebook, and not just for the female refs who apply it.

Maybe progress of this kind is incremental. My partner, a regular Shed patron, recently came home from a Cork City game reporting that a lineswoman officiated, smashing stereotypes by knowing her way around the offside rule. (As a woman who likes sport, I understand the offside rule — I just don’t understand how it’s perceptible to the human eye.

You need to be looking in two places at once!) I was intrigued. I’ve been in Turner’s Cross when things haven’t been going City’s way and I know how swiftly the mood can change.

“Did she get a lot of abuse?” I asked.

“Well…” he began tactfully. “I mean, no more than any other lines … er ... person.”

And that, my friends, is what progress looks like.

Five things I’ve learned from injury

1. Your injury will probably not occur under heroic or dramatic circumstances.

Most likely, it will happen in the opening minutes of an innocuous Sunday morning session when the squad is playing tag to warm up. You’ll swerve to avoid a teammate. Your foot will go one way, your knee will go the other. You will hear the thwock.

2. You will receive conflicting advice.

To knee-brace or not to knee-brace? To rest the injury or to attack it with a vigorous rehab programme? To ice or apply heat or both? The options are endless and very, very confusing.

3. The mental strain is worse than the physical.

“Does it hurt?” your concerned teammates will ask. “In my heart, yes,” you respond. “Oh, you mean the knee? It’s not too bad actually.”

4. Your sideline manner could use some work.

If you can’t play, then by god you will march up and down the sideline screaming yourself hoarse, for all the good it does.

5. If you get to 32 years of age with only one major injury, you’ve probably gotten off pretty easily.

Notwithstanding the trials of the Summer of the Quad Strain and, subsequently, the Summer of the Groin Strain, you have had relatively little to complain about, injury-wise, throughout your career. Suck it up. Take your medicine. Do your rehab. Touch wood that you get through next season niggle-free. Remember the fact that your hurley is made of synthetic materials and find another bit of wood, a table or something, to touch. There we go.

Heroes & Villains


Cora Staunton: The Mayo and AFL legend’s honest and entertaining biography should be top of every sports fan’s Christmas list.

Oksana Chusovitina: In a sport with a notoriously short shelf life, the 43-year-old continues to hold her own against teenage competitors, making the vault final at the world gymnastics championships last month.

Seamus Hennessy: The former Tipp hurler is tackling the 60km Antarctic marathon next month in aid of Pieta House. Search ‘Running for Josie’ on social media for more info.


Gonzalo Higuain: The AC Milan striker had what can only be described as a ‘mare’ against former club Juventus last weekend, missing from the penalty spot and then losing his cool with the referee to earn himself a second yellow.

Miguel Cardoso: The new Celta Vigo manager made a freudian slip at his first press conference, thanking the directors of Real Club Deportivo for appointing him. By confusing Celta for their Galician neighbours and fiercest rivals, he perhaps betrayed his future ambitions.

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