BRENDAN O'BRIEN: How can women’s sport catch up travelling in a second-class carriage?

Only someone living in a cave, and maybe the odd cave man, could deny that there has been a long overdue change in perceptions when it comes to women in sport.

The increase in presenters, pundits, and commentators on our screens for the World Cup and GAA Championships is just the most recent manifestation of more enlightened times.

Of course, not everyone has been so taken by such progress.

Jason Cundy, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea defender, was forced into an apology when he complained that female commentators at the global extravaganza in Russia were too ‘high-pitched’.

It’s hard to know what must have been worse for Cundy: Suffering the wrath of millions or being lectured from the higher moral ground by Piers bloody Morgan on ITV’s ‘Good Morning Britain’.

Cundy still had his public defenders. Social media has a tendency to bring out the 1970s sitcom character in vast tracts of society so there were those who dismissed such things as virtue signalling and moves such as Norway’s to introduce equal pay for their male and female international footballers as ‘PC gone mad’.

Events in Mayo this week remind us that we still have a long way to go.

Mayo’s ladies footballers, lest any of us forget, faced Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland final and a record crowd of over 46,000 people thought that was worthy enough of their presence.

The Mayo team before the 2017 All-Ireland final
The Mayo team before the 2017 All-Ireland final

Another half a million tuned in to events as they unfolded on TG4.

And yet this is the squad imploding in the same week as they begin an All-Ireland campaign with a game against Cavan.

To be clear, then, this is one of the top teams in the country.

The issues concerned have been only touched upon rather than bullet-pointed — and the Mayo LGFA have pointed out player welfare is of fundamental importance to them — but you don’t have to dig far beneath the surface of the ladies game to understand that players are living as second-class citizens when compared to their male counterparts at inter-county levels.

How long, for instance, can we ignore a situation where financial support of our elite inter-county footballers is decided on the basis of gender?

Is it right that we still live in an age where our male inter-county players can avail of travel expenses and individual government grants while their female counterparts merely dream of similar backing?

The list of differences in resources between the men’s and women’s games is long but the expenses issue strikes at the heart of the overall imbalance and Cork ladies manager Ephie Fitzgerald was among those who touched on the subject in Croke Park last week when the 2018 All-Ireland Championship was launched.

It is about respect for the girls as well,” said Fitzgerald whose time managing in the men’s game included a stint as coach to the Clare senior footballers.

“Why should the girls be out of pocket because they are representing their county? It’s alright for the likes of me who is down the road in life and it doesn’t really matter to us. A lot of these girls are in college or starting out in jobs.

“They wouldn’t be that well paid and they make huge sacrifices to make training. That is replicated around the country. We are lucky in Cork in that our county board is as good to us as it can be but I know other counties are struggling to field teams because of the commitment and the financial restraints.”

Ephie Fitzgerald
Ephie Fitzgerald

Nobody, Fitzgerald included, blames the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) for this.

The financial restraints on the association are all too obvious despite an improving commercial portfolio.

Some would no doubt argue that the diminutive attendances that provide the backdrop for most of their games is argument enough as to why the players should not receive the same grants and expenses as the men.

As in other countries and sports, there is a fallback position along the lines of: Come back when you guys have TV companies offering big bucks for live rights and punters scrambling for tickets.

But this is surely about more than mere economics. How can women’s sports play catch up if they continue to travel in a second or third-class carriage?

The question surely has to be asked again as to why, in the early years of the 21st century, our national sports are still divided along gender lines with the GAA catering for one half of the population and the LGFA and the Camogie Association taking care of the other 50%.

Talks of mergers have long swirled about but it’s beyond time that such a consolidation happened.

Hearing what Mick Bohan, manager to the All-Ireland champion Dublin ladies team, had to say last week on the subject of male and female games being played on the same bill going forward, crystallises that.

The ethos of the GAA is family-based,” he said. “Just look at our set-up. You have John Caffrey’s daughter Leah, Johnny Magee’s daughter Lauren. Sarah (McCaffrey) is not with us this year, she is travelling, but another noteworthy GAA family.

“Those families just eat and breathe GAA every day, so why would they not have their sons and daughters playing on the same bill? It’s a little hypocritical that we wouldn’t have it that way, isn’t it?”

It’s high time the GAA was one big family.

Email: Brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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