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Women's sport needs personalities like Sam Kerr

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Expert
21st June, 2019
16

With the Matildas’ 4-1 win over Jamaica in their final group game at the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this week, the team has progressed to the next stage of the tournament and will now compete in the knock-out phase.

Their next game will be against Norway on Sunday morning, so set your alarm clocks.

There was jubilation across Australia with the progression, but the mood in some parts of the country was certainly more subdued a week and a half ago after the Matildas’ first game in the tournament where they lost to Italy 2-1.

It was bitterly disappointing to see Barbara Bonansea’s second goal in the 95th minute, which won Italy the game.

Following this loss, there was plenty of criticism – of the coach, of the players and of the tactics.

The Matildas responded with a 3-2 win over Brazil. But not content to let her football do the talking, in a post-match interview following that win, Australian sensation Sam Kerr responded to the critics with the following comment: “We’re back, so suck on that one”.

And then social media blew up.

Some were very critical of Kerr’s comments, suggesting that given how high profile the Matildas have become, they should expect criticism when their performances are not up to the standards expected, just like any other team would.

Whilst the Matildas may be the darlings of Australian football, some thought that given their last couple of performances, criticism of the team was warranted.

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I can certainly understand this approach. For women’s sport to continue to grow and develop, one of the next stages in our reporting and coverage is the ability to fairly criticise both individual and team performance, just like is done in men’s sport.

For years, women’s sport has simply sought attention and some level of reporting. But now that reporting on various women’s sports is on the rise, I expect that criticism – when warranted – will follow.

This will hopefully be part of the continued growth and increased levels of popularity. This is something that may take some of our athletes time to get used to, especially as they are increasingly in the public eye.

But there’s more to it than just criticism of the way the team is playing. And that might be harder for some of us to understand.

Sam Kerr of Australia Matildas

(Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

The reality is that we still live in a world – particularly online – where women, and in this case female athletes, are targeted with very nasty and personal forms of abuse.

After some criticised Kerr for her “suck on that one” comment, the Australian captain took some screenshots of the online abuse she is subjected to.

You don’t need to look at just those screenshots, simply find a high-profile female athlete on social media and read the comments following their posts or photos – comments that target their sexuality, the way they look, the fact they play a sport that is traditionally male-dominated.

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There have been countless examples of this type of harassment this year alone. The comments in relation to that kick by Tayla Harris provide a good example. Whilst that image has become one of the most celebrated sporting images of the year, the furore around it began after some derogatory comments were made about the way Harris looked when she was kicking a footy.

Our athletes should not be subjected to this type of abuse simply for playing the sport that they love.

So perhaps Kerr was telling those insidious trolls to “suck on that one”.

But maybe I’m just looking far too deeply into this.

Given the popularity and money surrounding many men’s sports, the majority of players come across as cardboard cut-outs in the media.

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In rugby league we make fun of clichés like “full credit to the boys”, “taking it one week at a time” and “we just played for each other”. Many fans cry out for personality and welcome it when we get a small glimpse into who the athlete is.

And we certainly got a glimpse of a real, raw and emotional athlete following that win against Brazil.

For women’s sport to continue to progress and to grow, we need personalities like Sam Kerr. We need more examples of athletes that aren’t afraid to speak their minds like Alex Blackwell, Michelle Heyman and Sharni Layton, who show young men and women that it is absolutely OK to be who they are.

And whilst women’s sport will change over the years, the one thing I hope never changes is the personality some of our players demonstrate, their desire to play the sports that they love and the focus that they have on role-modelling for the next generation of young athletes coming through.

I hope Sam gets to stick it to the haters once again as Australia enters the knock-out phase.