Full credit to the boys girls

@FletaTheTweeter: I was sent to interview Chris Gayle a couple of years ago. He said no to the interview before hitting on me. Dickhead is his default mode.

IN JANUARY 2016, Chris Gayle made a highly inappropriate pass at Mel McLaughlin, cricket’s Big Bash League sideline reporter, on live television. I thought my tweet, sent as I watched the cricket while packing to go overseas the next morning, was fairly innocuous. I purposely didn’t use any hashtags – an act of self-censorship to make my voice as small as possible on the platform – but I felt I had to note that his behaviour was not a one-off. A colleague tweeted a reply, in jest I thought: ‘Be careful or you’ll be asked to write a first person piece while on holiday.’ A few other journalists retweeted me.

Within a minute, a tirade of abuse starting rolling in, my phone alerting me every few seconds to another troll telling me how ugly, man-like or butch I was, and that I must be lying about Chris Gayle hitting on me. By the next day, my tweet had been embedded in every news story about the Gayle incident; my Fairfax Media stable indeed wanted a first-person piece (which I wrote on the bus from Canberra); the Daily Mail was calling; and The Project wanted to know where I was to get a camera crew out to me (Sydney International Airport by then – airside). Meanwhile the Twitter abuse kept rolling in.

I’m not the first woman to be harassed working as a sports journalist – and I class the Gayle incident my tweet referred to as mild, certainly compared to the torrent of abuse from keyboard warriors taking the side of a poorly-behaved but beloved sportsman over a woman who dared speak ill of him. It was an eye-opening low point of my working life, but it certainly was not the first time I’ve been discouraged from participating in the sporting sphere.

Whether you’re a sideline reporter, a commentator, a player – grassroots or professional – or even a leader, if you’re a woman in sport, chances are you’ve been made to feel like a lesser citizen at some point. It’s little wonder, then, that women are a minority in every facet of sports; what would make any woman want to be involved?

The answer, of course, starts with a strong love of sport – though even with this, at every stage of life girls will find it harder to participate, or will experience something discouraging that will test their passion. I remain one of the most passionate supporters of sport, but I no longer have the unconditional love I once had for it.

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE of the thrill of a sporting event was at an AFL game when I was two in 1985 – the Sydney Swans playing at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was not the game that captured my attention, though: the Swans had just been bought by the flamboyant Geoffrey Edelsten, who had introduced cheerleaders in an attempt to jazz-up the game for an audience new to the sport, the club having relocated from South Melbourne three years prior. As my brother laced up his boots, preparing to play with his junior team in the half-time exhibition game, toddler-me decided she wanted to be a Swanette, dancing about with red and white pompoms. About three decades later, as a sports journalist with the Canberra Times and prompted by the news that the Canberra Raiders were reviewing the Raiderettes’ place at the club, I publicly called for an end to cheerleaders in all Australian sport.

My anti-cheerleading stance had nothing to do with the fact that my flair for dancing could be summed up by my first and last ballet concert: I forgot the steps and was punched in the nose by the four-year-old diva next to me, whose stage time I was ruining. It had everything to do with the fact that when it came to watching sport in my early years, those cheerleaders were the only girls I saw represented. There were no girls playing for the Swans. There were no girls playing in the curtain-raiser. There were no girls playing anything on TV. As far as I could see, being a cheerleader was the best I could aspire to when it came to a future in football – and the reality is, at the time it probably was.

As a kid, it never occurred to me that I might not be welcome in the hyper-masculine world of sports. My two brothers also loved sport and were wonderfully inclusive of their little sister. Our days were filled with bats, balls, nets, golf clubs and desperate cries of take it outside, there’s a park down the road! When my middle-child brother learnt to Fosbury flop at school athletics, he came home and rigged up a rope in front of my bed to teach me how to do it too. Another time, he diligently picked all the cumquats off Mum’s tree so he could throw them to me one-by-one, to improve my cricket pull shot.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to try many sports, never limited to just traditional ‘girls’ sports – even if I did have to argue my case for ice hockey. I proved to be truly awful at some, and above average at many, but I excelled at none – a blessing in disguise, perhaps, given the lack of opportunities for women to make a career as an athlete in anything other than tennis. My only claim to fame in the sporting arena was winning the Fiji Women’s Open in 2009 with a generous, I-only-play-four-times-a-year handicap. I now try to play five times a year, and hold onto a dream of joining the seniors tour, which I tell myself is possible if only I start playing once a week.

It took me until the age of thirty-one to play my first game of Aussie rules – perhaps not my wisest idea, but it brought me a new appreciation for the game and the unique adrenaline rush of contact sport, which I wish I’d discovered at an age that didn’t require so much physiotherapy. Throughout high school, sport was readily available and kept me out of trouble, but at the same time I saw plenty of friends at my all-girls school jump on any excuse they could to give it up. Keeping self-conscious teenage girls playing sport is a huge challenge, and I could see why.

I remember being thirteen, standing at the cricket crease ready to face a ball, acutely aware that a strong gust of wind had just blown up my netball skirt and I was flashing my undies to some poor dad who had been roped in to umpire at square leg. At the time, it didn’t occur to me how ridiculous it was that we had to play cricket in a netball skirt, when boys the same age were expected to wear cricket whites. As trivial as it might sound, uniforms are a big contributor to the dropout rate from sport for teenage girls, who lack self-esteem and face pressures to look a certain way. An Australian Senate inquiry in 2006 recommended ‘relaxing the strict dress codes in place for many sports.’

IN ADDITION TO playing I watched a lot of sport too. I ditched the cheerleading aspirations and became one of the Swans’ most ardent fans. In 1996, I was just over the fence from Tony Lockett when he kicked a point after the final siren to put the Swans into the grand final for the first time since the team moved to Sydney.

The following weekend’s grand final against North Melbourne was to be played on my birthday, and my dad – whose own seat was sorted through a corporate connection – managed to track down a couple of tickets in the nosebleeds for my eldest brother and me. They were procured via a scalper in a Melbourne laneway – a deal which had my dad’s Victorian intermediary fearful of a shakedown – but as far as fourteenth birthday presents go, it was almost perfect.

The Swans lost. It was devastating, but the experience made their victory in 2005 all the sweeter. I had flown home from London to be there at the MCG again, and I cried tears of joy when the final siren signalled Sydney’s first premiership.

Football was not my only passion, though; the Olympics have also long held a special place in my heart. In 1993, my mum sensed a piece of history in the making and dragged half our neighbourhood into Sydney’s Circular Quay at 2 am on a school night to watch the announcement of the 2000 Olympic Games host city. When Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that Syd-er-ney had won the hosting rights, I was among the thousands of people erupting with joy. It was the biggest adrenaline rush imaginable for a sports-loving, sleep-deprived eleven year old.

Seven years later, the Olympics came to Sydney. I turned eighteen in the middle of them, and studying for my impending HSC exams was all but forgotten. I was hooked. It is one of the very few sporting events that affords women equal status with men. When professional sportswomen have been so few and far between, the Olympics provide athletic female role models and a genuine big-stage event that sporty girls can aspire to.

My journalist mother had for years tried to convince me to do sports journalism, and for years I resisted, completing a degree in PR and organisational communications, then heading off for a working holiday in London. I was en route when I spent the last of my meagre life savings at the Athens games, and while I was envious of the journalists covering the occasion, I soon realised many of them were too busy to enjoy the events
around them.

Those games were deservedly criticised, but the upshot for us few visiting spectators was the ability to buy tickets to any sport (bar the athletics), mostly at discounted prices (bar the swimming). By day I watched sports and by night I partied with athletes of all nationalities, before crashing each night on a blow-up pool bed on the floor of a friend’s rented room.

We mingled with the competitors, took photos wearing their medals and chatted about their successes or, in some cases, their disappointment. I heard about the ‘lay down Sally’ drama from one of the Australian rowers who was still processing the unimaginable ‘scandal’ from earlier that day of rower Sally Robbins dropping her oar and slumping back on her crewmate with five hundred metres to go in the final.

An Australian friend living in the US scored me a dubious plus-one invite to a Sports Illustrated party hosted at an Athens waterfront bar. There I reminisced with Princess Mary of Denmark about the 2000 Olympics, where she’d met Prince Frederik, while my friend, who had no idea who he was talking to, regaled the Danish Crown Prince about his own drunken escapades in Copenhagen, before inviting them both to stay with him in New York. The Prince was very polite, and never let on.

In 2008, I jumped a visa hurdle by fudging the required proof of a hotel booking to get to the Beijing Olympics, where I stayed in the spare room of a Chinese academic couple, who had worked in Tel Aviv with my older brother. Most mornings, I was given homemade pork buns to take to events, and got lost more than once trying to direct taxi drivers who could neither speak English nor read Mandarin.

The next year, I got a job as an Australian government-sponsored volunteer, working with the Fiji National Olympic Committee. From there, I finally made the leap to journalism.

DESPITE MY MOTHER’S regular suggestions (or perhaps because of them), I never had aspirations to be a sports journalist. It’s one of those professions many sports fans covet but, crucially, I saw very few women doing it. Australian statistics aren’t readily available, but studies suggest women still don’t make up much more than 12 per cent of sports journalists in the US, UK and New Zealand

Eventually I started a master’s degree in journalism, still not expecting I’d work in sports although much of my work had a sporting theme. In the end it was not me who made the call, but a Sydney Morning Herald recruiter. I just missed out on a cadetship with the paper, but was invited to intern with their sports department instead, having apparently been the only person they had interviewed who answered all the sports questions correctly in their general knowledge quiz. The barriers – perceived and real – were suddenly pulled aside. This led to a job as a sports journalist with the Canberra Times, a newspaper nationally acknowledged for consistently having the best coverage of women’s sport.

Having been raised on an almost exclusive diet of men’s sport at the elite level, it was here – covering and closely following women’s sport for the first time outside of the Olympics – that I developed a deep appreciation for the skill, strength and dedication of the female athletes, for which they received little reward. My eyes were slowly opened up to the glaring inequalities women in sport face at the elite level, as well as the dismissive attitudes from supposed sports fans. The more I learnt about organised sport, the less I liked it.

It truly is a bastion of male chauvinism.

However, while this may seem like an insurmountable problem, the ability of sport to empower girls and women with self-confidence in all aspects of their lives should make it a priority when it comes to advocating gender equality.

As a female sports journalist, the overt discrimination in being denied access is no longer present. But there is often still a lack of respect, an initial handicap that requires you to earn legitimacy. While it’s assumed men know what they’re talking about when it comes to sport, whether they’ve played it or not, the same assumption is often not afforded to female sports journalists.

If you went by social media, you might think women were in the job to meet sportsmen, or for their employer to meet a diversity target.

Why does the smh get a girl to write about rugby? Growden who was a great journio [sic] and now we have someone who has no idea about the game

That was former Wallaby David Campese, tweeting about Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Georgina Robinson in November 2012, a month after Greg Growden took a redundancy. For every person who publicly airs such thoughts, you wonder how many others share the sentiment but are too politically aware to say it out loud. Campese eventually apologised, but first backpedalled with ‘I was trying to say that the coach is under pressure and sometimes males give it to the coach as some females go a lot easier on them’.

In fact, the opposite is true. Female sports journalists are already outsiders, and so don’t need to curry favour with clubs, teams, athletes and coaches. It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest sporting scandals in recent history were broken by female journalists. In 2000, it was Liz Jackson who uncovered match fixing in cricket. In 2001, Katrina Beikoff uncovered the CJ Hunter Olympic drug scandal, which eventually saw Hunter’s wife Marion Jones stripped of five medals she’d won at the Sydney Olympics. In 2004, Jacquelin Magnay broke the Canterbury Bulldogs sex scandal story, and a cycling drug scandal. In recent years, Caro Meldrum-Hanna has won three Walkley awards for her role in uncovering scandals in greyhound racing, harness racing and the AFL. In fact, the Walkley Award for Excellence in Sports Journalism has been won by a woman (or a team led by a woman) eight times in the last sixteen years, a strong argument in itself to get more women working in the field. But when the sports journalism students tour our newsroom, I get disheartened to see they’re all boys, with very few exceptions.

For all the negatives that can come with sports journalism, it still is a great gig. As they say, when you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

AFTER WHAT I refer to as the Chris Gayle shitstorm in January, I wrote for Fairfax: ‘The day women are completely welcome in sport is getting closer. It’s a shame we can’t say the same for Twitter.’ But I don’t think a day has passed since when something incredible hasn’t come to light about women in the sporting realm, which makes me rethink how close we really are. On the playing field, the obscene gender pay gap is an obvious indicator of the inequalities for women – and it doesn’t only exist at the elite level.

Leading up to the 2017 women’s league, the AFL – a billion-dollar industry – has replicated its boys training academy programs for women and girls. The AFL has realised that in order to promote the game well, it needs to get female players up to an elite standard after years of neglecting them. But the women talented enough to be selected for the academies have to pay to participate. That’s on top of paying their club registration fees, health insurance, physio bills and other costs associated with playing high-level sport. And whether they’ll even be paid a proper wage if they’re drafted to the women’s league remains to be seen. Meanwhile, thousands of male Aussie rules players get paid to play every week in country leagues.

The AFL’s foray into a women’s league has upped the ante for Cricket Australia, which has received much praise for nearly doubling its salary pool for elite women in 2016. But for those not contracted and on a retainer – such as top-up players in the Women’s Big Bash League – it still costs them to play. Paltry match payments don’t come close to covering the leave they need to take from their jobs to train and travel interstate with the team.

In women’s soccer, players in the Australian women’s national team had to go on strike last year just to be paid the government-mandated minimum wage when they were expected to be able commit full-time to the sport. The US women’s national team launched a wage discrimination lawsuit earlier this year on the basis they earn 60 per cent less than the men’s team, despite claiming to attract around US$20 million more than the men for the US Soccer Federation per year.

Wages aren’t the only point of difference, though. Amateur men complain when they have to play a single game on synthetic grass; yet FIFA approved the 2015 Women’s World Cup to be played entirely on the loathed surface.

At all levels of sport, the women’s competitions are rarely prioritised, and their administration is often an afterthought. Girls and women’s teams so often have inadequate change room facilities, play in ill-fitting boys uniforms, and are allocated access to grounds to train only after all the men’s grades have been accounted for. I’ve seen many examples of women’s game development, coaching, media management and promotion falling to volunteers or underqualified administrators. They are token gestures from bosses who want to be seen to tick all the boxes, but have a thinly veiled attitude that their women’s leagues are inferior or suck resources from the men, an attitude which can only be self-fulfilling.

Without the right resources, the women’s game will suffer through lack of improvement, lack of sponsorship and lack of media coverage. This is despite all the known potential financial benefits to sports bodies of having women playing their sport. Women are a largely untapped market to grow their game, and mothers wield considerable influence over what sport their children will or won’t play. Moreover, elite women’s sporting competitions can make money – tennis has been a case in point. They just need to be marketed properly.

For all the tired arguments I hear that women’s sport isn’t interesting because we aren’t as strong, don’t jump as high and can’t kick as far, when Cathy Freeman won gold at the Sydney Olympic Games, people weren’t saying, ‘Whatever, look at her time. She didn’t run the four hundred metres nearly as fast as the men do.’

IN THE LAST couple of years there have been positive developments when it comes to women’s sport. Jockey Michelle Payne deserves huge credit for advancing the case of sportswomen in the Australian media. She overcame all manner of barriers on her way to becoming the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup last year. As an outsider – in odds and culture – she then forced Australia to take notice when she used the country’s most valuable television airtime to call out chauvinism.

TV airtime can’t be underestimated when it comes to normalising women’s sport. Cuts to the ABC unfortunately saw the Women’s National Basketball League lose its TV coverage last season, and along with it, its status as one of the leading women’s sport competitions. But women’s cricket (through the WBBL and the World T20 tournament) and soccer (the Asian Cup, Women’s World Cup and Olympic qualifying tournaments) received considerable coverage on both pay TV and commercial free-to-air channels. Along with some televised exhibition AFL games, in each sport women demonstrated they can achieve ratings and create media interest. Netball Australia also seems to be heading in the right direction.

On the back of that success, Netball Australia signed a five-year broadcast deal with Channel Nine and Telstra in May. The agreement is one of the most promising recent developments for women’s sport as it will put netball in the free-to-air prime-time spotlight, raising the prospect of lucrative sponsorship deals, higher salaries for players and the foundations for the sport to eventually turn professional. 

A change in my role at the Canberra Times means I now only occasionally fill in as a sports reporter, but outside of playing and spectating, I’ve stayed involved in sport by joining the board of the Australian Womensport and Recreation Association, the peak national body advocating equality for women in sport. It’s one part of an increasing brigade of women – and many men – who are determined to make sport fairer and more inclusive. But there are still many issues to overcome.

For one, fans – both male and female – still harbour sexist and homophobic attitudes towards women’s sport and female athletes. But given we’ve seen broader social advances on those fronts, I don’t doubt that sport will follow, if not take the lead. While many queer female athletes still hide their sexuality or cultivate a hetero-normative feminine image for the sake of appealing to sponsors, openly gay sportswomen are becoming far more common and popular, both because of, and in spite of, their sexuality.

It seems sponsors are now more willing to jump on board with strong, powerful and successful sportswomen capable of inspiring female consumers, rather than just those who, like Anna Kournikova for example, hold considerable sex appeal and relatively little else. Not to say sex appeal counts for nothing.

After my call to abolish cheerleaders if women weren’t visible in any other role, Canberra Raiders management ‘reviewed their game-day experience’ in 2014, and held auditions to replace their long standing Raiderettes troupe. A Canberra Times photographer who covered the auditions noted when he returned to the newsroom that one of the groups was wearing attire so skimpy that he thought he may need to censor some of his photos of their burlesque moves. They were the group the Canberra Raiders chose.

So there’s work to do. It seems we might not have come quite as far since 1985 as I would have hoped.

May 2016

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