The gaslighting of women’s sport: I thought it was finally over?

Sarah Leach Columnist

By , Sarah Leach is a Roar Expert

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    2017 might be remembered as the year that women’s sport has finally broken through.

    The changes are clear and obvious – the televised AFLW competition, a new national netball competition and bonanza broadcast deal with higher audience figures than ever, women’s cricket on TV, the Matildas doing well, our women’s rugby sevens side are killing it, and even the V8 supercars have taken note by injecting female talent to the competition after realising the marketing and role-model value.

    I could go on, but I’m interested in one point: has the gaslighting of women’s sport, that has seemingly filtrated Australia, finally lifted? With incidents like Steve O’Keefe’s recent drunken incident involving female cricketer, it makes me wonder.

    The term ‘gaslighting’ refers to when someone manipulates you into questioning and second-guessing your reality. It derives from a 1944 movie and has been thrown around in the US since Donald Trump was elected, in the context that Americans believe the President and current administration is gaslighting them.

    Flashing back to 2012, News Limited reporters Phil Rothfield and Darren Hadland named Black Caviar as Australia’s sportswoman of the year, and this sparked plenty of offence. Little wonder. According to them, Australia’s golden girl Sally Pearson was pipped to the post by a horse. Disgraceful.

    Black Caviar wins an historic race at Derby Day Randwick. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

    This tongue in cheek review of the year in sport that vomited up on the sports pages was labelled misogyny at its finest and has certainly been a contributing factor to the underlying attitude towards women’s sport and sportswomen in Australian culture over the years.

    It makes me think: have Australians been gaslighted to believe women’s sport and women playing sport isn’t really worthy or watchable? Is it really going to take another whole generation to clear us of this negativity?

    One would hope not.

    In my netball playing days, at one point I juggled a full-time job working for the ARL with training and games, in which I was told to focus more on “where I was getting my bread and butter” rather than playing netball.

    While I fulfilled all my working duties for the company and when training and games were outside of working hours, it was more the attitude that really got me down. I was disappointed, and clearly in an unsupportive environment.

    For me, I loved playing netball at the highest level and am grateful for all the netballers gone before us that have helped build the game to where it is now. Playing competitive netball in 2017 is now a genuine paid career thanks to the new broadcast rights deal, and players can now be renumerated for the time and effort they invest into it. It’s a huge achievement and it feels great.

    Thankfully, I grew up being able to watch my role models play on the ABC and was inspired. Cricket legend Belinda Clark, however, forged her formidable path off the back of her 1970s childhood.

    “I played many sports and my first heroes were tennis players, anywhere from McEnroe to Navratilova, Evert-Lloyd, that era, Boris Becker. And then the Australian cricketers in the late 70s, so Kim Hughes, Greg Chappell, Kev Lavesael, those sorts of people,” Clark said.

    “I had no understanding that a role model should be male or female, I just enjoyed all of them and I didn’t really see any barriers there. I didn’t really understand that there was an Australian Cricket team at the time, but that didn’t stop me playing cricket or wanting to emulate my heroes in the backyard.”

    The broadcast and media coverage of women’s cricket in Australia is now brilliant, and it’s a viable product. Women like Ellyse Perry and Meg Lanning are shining examples for young girls and grassroots cricketers to look up to and be able to say, “Okay, there’s an avenue for me to do this professionally.”

    Ellyse Perry batting Sydney Sixers WBBL

    Clark, who holds the women’s record one-day score of 229 and represented Australia from 1991 to 2005, and captained from 1994, also said, “I take great pride in the fact that we’ve reached this point. It’s been a lot of hard work for a lot of people.

    “From an overarching perspective, I think it’s terrific we’re in this position.”

    Clark is a trailblazer for women’s sport. She magically combined her player and captain duties with that of chief executive of Women’s Cricket Australia, and today she is one of Cricket Australia’s top administrators, working as the senior manager of team performance.

    The AFL should also be congratulated. The women playing in the top tier AFL competition, the rights for which broadcasters have paid for, are the same girls that were exposed to the game in primary school, when the Auskick program kicked off.

    If girls and women can keep fit and enjoy playing AFL, then that’s fantastic. If they can make a paid career out of it, even better.

    Steve O’Keefe’s recent misbehaviour might have signalled a big step back, but there’s little doubt women’s sport in Australia has taken two steps forward.

    Sarah Leach
    Sarah Leach

    Sarah Leach is a former netballer who played at a national level in both Australia and the UK. She is currently a broadcast journalist and creative producer based in London, as well as a lover of all sports and giving high-fives to the ladies dominating on the big stage. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.