Whose sport is it anyway?

Debbie Spillane Columnist

By , Debbie Spillane is a Roar Expert

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    It’s been an extraordinary week for me where the pieces of a puzzle have fallen in to place in a fashion I never imagined possible.

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the mantle of ‘crusader for women’s sport’ because quite simply I’ve never seen myself as having a special affinity for women’s sport.

    What can I say? I was never the female athlete.

    I was the pathetic, unhealthy kid in primary school that the nuns thought they’d need to call an ambulance for if I ran around too much. In those days I suffered acute exercise-induced asthma.

    Also I was unco, slow and prone to sunstroke. Apart from that though I went alright!

    Despite this lack of physical prowess, my weekends were filled with sport. Every Saturday in winter I went with dad and his family to watch rugby league at the SCG.

    In summer dad played cricket and I often went along, or I stayed home and listened to the races. My mum’s father started taking me to the races when I was 10 or 11 and I loved it.

    I was the kind of kid who carried a form guide around with me on Saturday then cut out the photos of my favourite horses from the Sunday papers and put them on the cover of my school books.

    In short, I was reared on the traditional ‘male’ sports. Loved them, learned them, lived them.

    When I got my dream job in the media many years later, I was gobsmacked to find some women thought I should be a flag bearer for women’s sport.

    What did I know about women’s sport? I’d worked assiduously at building my sports credentials. I was umpiring men’s cricket from the age of 16, getting my entry level rugby league coaching qualifications when I was 19, even running an SP bookie operation on Melbourne Cup day at my high school – telling the nuns I’d figured out how to run a sweep where everyone got the horse of their choice.

    For the first several years I worked as a sports journalist I felt a sense of ‘otherness’ – akin to that which besets the offspring of immigrants.

    I was not universally welcomed by the group I sought to join, those who reported on established male sports. And I was seen as a sell out, and sometimes berated, by women who were increasingly militant about their sporting endeavours getting the short end of the media coverage stick.

    For a long time I went out of my way to avoid women’s sport and those lobbying for it.

    I didn’t want to focus on covering what they were doing or pushing because I didn’t relate to it. Besides, it wasn’t what an ambitious sports journalist aspired to do. Those at the top of the sports media tree covered the sports I’d cut my teeth on and I wanted a piece of that action. I wanted to prove a woman could do it.

    Over the years, ups and downs notwithstanding, I’ve had enough success to carve out a career covering, and occasionally working within, traditionally male sports. I’ve been very lucky.

    But as the years have passed I’ve also mellowed.

    I’ve met some wonderful female athletes, watched some inspiring women’s sport, been embraced rather than upbraided by some female sport activists and learned enough to feel I’ve got the basic knowledge to talk about women playing sport – something that didn’t come naturally to me.

    Some years ago I decided that female sports journalists and female athletes were fighting a parallel battle rather than the same one. They share many challenges and obstacles and can learn from each other. But neither is the solution to the other’s problems.

    In recent years, I’ve felt the camaraderie between women sports journalists and sportswomen more keenly. The opportunity to do a program like Hens FC on ABC Grandstand has consolidated that.

    I started it as a forum for women who work in sports media, marketing and administration to chat on air and show they understand, appreciate and have opinions on sport. It seemed a natural counter to the plethora of sports talk panels loaded with men, who in moments of great generosity would allow one representative of the female gender a seat at their table.

    Gradually a selection of current and former sportswomen showed interest in appearing on the Hens FC panel – Lisa Sthalekar, Alyssa Healy, Julie Dolan and Katherine Bates to name a few. Bringing together female sports reporters and communications people with female sports stars was great because we all met on fertile common ground we loved, talking about sport.

    It’s such a ridiculously straightforward concept it almost seems a fraud to claim it as innovative, but that’s how it’s been treated. Through it, I’ve met so many women I didn’t previously know who are involved some way or another in sport. It’s been invaluable, and some of us jokingly refer on occasion to “the Hen’s network”. But it’s not really a joke.

    Which brings me to the events of the past week.

    On Tuesday night I was the MC for a Women’s Sport NSW showcase event in Sydney where administrators of sports and representatives of local councils (who control most suburban sporting facilities) discussed ways of achieving more gender equity in sports participation and administration.

    Seems a dry old topic, but during the evening politicians and academics talked about the need for more women to be on boards of sports controlling bodies. Councillors talked about the difficulty of sharing limited facilities around when men, who’d had sole use of some sports grounds and stadiums for many years, felt they were permanently entitled to have primary access to those facilities.

    Sports women discussed ways they could build spectator interest in their events and competitions and proposed solutions for stemming the drop out rate of girls in their teens from organised sport.

    But most significant for me were the comments from Cricket NSW CEO, Andrew Jones, who admitted the “male skew” of cricket fans (live at the ground and via TV) was something his sport was keen to address.

    Getting more girls playing cricket he said was a one strategy for addressing that problem because he felt playing the game promoted understanding and appreciation of the sport.

    At the very least, more women playing was likely to lead to more women equipped for managerial positions and coaching roles in the sport. Not to mention the likely long term benefit of encouraging their own children to play and understand the game.

    And this was the point where it all came together for me.

    Just a couple of days before I’d been flattered to see Phil Rothfield go in to bat for me in the Sunday Telegraph, saying the SCG Trust had erred in not inducting at least one female sports journalist into it’s new Media Hall of Fame and suggesting me as the woman they should have included.

    The Internet wave of support for that proposition stunned me with the recurring theme being “sport belongs to women too”.

    It resonated more clearly when I heard the speakers on Tuesday night.

    It’s not just that a lot of women want to be involved in and recognised in sport. Sports are actually realising they need women. Why? Well, bottom line, all sports need numbers — be they in the ranks of players or supporters. And there’s more potential females ripe for recruitment because they’re relatively untapped compared to men

    That’s why women on sports boards, on sports show, in sports sections and on sporting arenas and, yes, in damned Media Halls of Fame matter. Because those appointments, those voices and those images all break down the message that sport belongs primarily to men, and that women are interlopers or outsiders.

    And that’s how it hit me. I am a crusader for women’s sport. I can see now ‘women’s sport’ is a term that doesn’t just denote a specific gender playing sport, it’s a reference to ownership of sport.

    It’s ours too. And most sports have now realised they need it to be that way.