LARRY RYAN: Playing her invisibility card

By now it’s among the reliable All-Ireland final traditions that somehow never die. Camogie’s answer to Up for the Match — the annual audit of how things stand with coverage of women’s sport.

Retired Cork dual great Rena Buckley got the ball rolling last week, wondering why the media is only interested in controversy. Cork captain Aoife Murray takes up the theme in today’s paper, lamenting the scarcity of positive coverage.

Every year feels like a watershed. Until the tide goes out again.

The last 12 months have brought many adjustments, dramatic and subtle, to women’s imprint on the sporting landscape.

Saudi Arabian women allowed into soccer stadiums. Nike’s sports hijab. A Manchester United women’s team. Outcry over grid girls. A Fifa broadcast ban on scouring World Cup crowds for ‘hot women’. 

More camogie on TV. Scorn for sexist dress standards in tennis. A flood of female pundits.

The Cora Staunton documentary lands next week, then the book. Ireland’s hockey women powered a bandwagon. 

Katie Taylor is still loved. A record crowd watched the All-Ireland ladies football final.

There is still no Up for the Matchfor the women but there was Blues Sisters, the documentary about the Dublin team who won that final. A story of togetherness and friendship and determination and fun and achievement. A watershed, maybe, for many women and girls and men who watched it.

Dublin manager Mick Bohan met a 12-year-old who’d seen it 33 times. Which spoke of how it struck a chord. And perhaps her lack of options.

My small girl watched it. She is in the sweet spot, seven, the age where none of the studies figure much difference between girls and boys, when it comes to sport.

Nine of the 13 girls in her class play Gaelic football. By 14, half will have kicked their last ball, the studies tell us. A dropout rate three times that for boys.

The small girl often cried at training. She loved kicking the ball but not so much the quite rude idea that other people might want to take the ball from her. There seemed no competitive streak.

It might be a coincidence, it may have been a natural blossoming of confidence, but since she watched Blues Sisters, there are no more tears. There is even the odd tackle and then one day, at training, a goal. A joyful watershed that sprung an appetite for more goals.

Even money she’ll lose that soon, if the world doesn’t change enough in seven years.

Rena Buckley told the Sports Chronicle last week how it was Sonia O’Sullivan who inspired her. 

“She was so tangible. She was so Cork, like.” 

 

Dublin All-Ireland winner Sinead Finnegan has sensed a watershed, sensed there will soon be lots more role models to choose from.

“Among the media we have now come to a point where teams and individual athletes are being reported on based on their abilities and tokenism is en route to extinction,” she said this year.

But Buckley and Murray aren’t sure. Why did ‘handbags’ during the pre-match handshakes dominate coverage of the 2016 camogie final? Why are the Mayo row and fixture clashes for Cork’s dual players the stories of this summer?

Is controversy women’s only trump card?

You could read that more optimistically. If we’re ready to pour that special sauce of ‘controvassy’, surely it’s a sign we care?

Just as various high achievers, such as our rowers, typically make news when they run into funding problems. We might not read much about their stroke-rate, but they have impinged enough on the national consciousness that we worry about them. Just like we do when Cora’s not playing.

There are worse things than controvassy. Researchers from the University of Southern California and Purdue University carried out a study last year into the evolving tone of American women’s sports coverage over the past 30 years.

The nineties was an orgy of leering and objectification when Anna Kournikova cashed in.

During the noughties, the drool dried up. Even Soccer AM retired the soccerette. But media continued, the research concluded, to frame coverage around “athletes’ adherence to heterofeminine norms: women’s roles as wives or mothers”.

Nowadays, however, the authors found, “the most remarkable thing about coverage of women’s sports is how unremarkable it is”.

They call sports media “a ‘mediated man cave’ — a place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments”, with the women’s sport box ticked in a lacklustre way “as if they were discussing the latest city council ordinance on parking restrictions”.

It’s an evolution they call “gender-bland sexism”.

And Maya Moore, regarded the WNBA’s best player, has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ it creates and her worry that role models can’t be invisible.

“The ball of momentum is deflating before my eyes. Think about what you know about LeBron James. What do you know about me?” 

American sportswriter Lyndsey D’Arcangelo has wrestled with that invisibility, drawing a conclusion it’s impossible to get away from:

“The WNBA’s biggest problem isn’t lack of interest from men. It’s women.” 

 

She wrote: “I’ve pitched sports stories to female publications before and they are just not interested. It’s not the right audience, they say. But if women aren’t the right audience for women’s sports, then who is?” 

Yesterday, I purchased five women’s magazines. Three of them had ‘Woman’ written in large font on the front, in case you had taken a wrong turn. And the other two were on the same shelf, so hopefully the assumption was fair.

In a combined 384 pages, there was one story tangentially related to sport, or at least exercise; a short piece on an Essex recreational running club.

I found one sportsperson, a photo of Dessie Dolan at a golf classic for the Marie Keating Foundation.

In the month of the camogie and ladies football finals, the September issues of Stellar and Irish Tatler feature no camogie players or ladies footballers. Nor any hockey players, a month after their World Cup final. Is there no place for sportswomen in women’s caves?

“Maybe we can’t complain until we get 5,000 down in Páirc Uí Rinn for a camogie match,” said Aoife Murray, from outside that cave.

The small girl might be in the sweet spot, but she notices things. She asks why the cartoon on the back of Examiner Sport every Saturday seldom features a woman.

She will eventually flick through her mother’s magazines and see no sporting role models.

When it was announced there would be camogie players and ladies footballers included among the 2018 Cúl Heroes trading cards, she was bought the odd pack, whenever her brother got Match Attax.

When she eventually found Kilkenny’s Katie Power among the 100-odd male players accumulated, it was like she’d landed on Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.

At least she has skin in the game in tomorrow’s final.

But she has also learned about market forces and embedded assumptions. And tokenism.

Seven years will slip by pretty quickly.


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