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'It's important to recognise that men's sport has had investment and privilege that most of women's sport never had'

Anna Kessel is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

THIS WEEK’S GUEST on Behind the Lines is Anna Kessel, women’s sport editor at the Telegraph and author of Eat, Sweat, Play: How Sport Can Change Your Life.

Behind the Lines is our weekly sportswriting podcast here on The42, in which we speak with sportswriters about their career and their favourite pieces of writing. To subscribe, go to members.the42.ie. 

Over the course of the podcast we discussed the phrase women’s sport, and whether the the ambition is to reach a point at which there is no need for a prefacing word, where women’s sport is marketed and understood solely as sport? 

Canoeist and 20×20 ambassador Jenny Egan raised that point in an interview with Emma Duffy of this website over the weekend: “Two, three, four-year-olds need to grow up knowing it’s not women’s sport, it’s just sport. That’s what’s really important. It will take a few years and it is a culture shift but it’s moving in the right direction, we just need to keep the momentum up.” 

Kessel has a different view. 

“I always feel quite conflicted on this question. In some ways I think, ‘Yeah, that would be great, we should be seen as just sport.’ In other ways I think, what if it was women’s sport and men’s sport? 

“If it wasn’t just ‘sport’, and we acknowledge the differences and celebrate the differences. Because they are different, and that’s okay. 

“I think if we pretend we are the same as men’s sport then that will never really work, and all those idiots will never be convinced. They’ll probably never be convinced anyway. 

“I think there’s something important about remembering what the differences are, and recognising that for the most part men’s sport has had so much investment and privilege that most of women’s sport has never had, and to recognise those differences you have to call it out and name it, and I think that’s a helpful way of doing it.” 

Kessel edits a monthly supplement on women’s sport for the Telegraph in the UK, and while she recognises the strides made by women’s sport over the last few years – particularly by football – she worries the cost-cutting wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic may reverse that progress.

“I think that’s a wider question for the whole of women’s sport, and equality generally. There’s a feeling that commitments to equality are being rowed back on as we’re in a state of crisis and quality is now being rebranded as a luxury, but you can’t allow it to affect your bottom line. 

For example, Claire Connor of the ECB [English Cricket Board] – who I respect a lot – said at a press conference two weeks ago that because of a revenue loss of €380 million, men’s international cricket has got to come first and women’s international cricket will probably have to wait.  That’s a classic example of women coming second. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you look to Germany, they have created a system where women can return to play, they have a date, 29 May, when they’ll be returning. There are subsidies to help women with testing and getting the games back on. They are trying to have parity but in England we haven’t seen enough of that.” 

In contrast to German football, the Women’s Super League in England has been curtailed, with a decision on how to conclude the league season off the pitch yet to be agreed. 

“It was a hugely exciting title race, unfortunately, there was so little in it at the top”, says Kessel.

“How on earth can you decide it fairly without playing it, but how do you play it if you’re not prepared to invest money for testing? What it means is how long will it be before women’s football comes back into visibility, and coming back on our screens? 

“Those are the ramifications, at a time we were building crowds, we were trying to get the point domestic broadcast deal: what is this going to mean? Does it mean women will again take a second place to men? That’s deeply troubling.  

“Women’s sport and women are so bloody resilient. We’ve been banned, we’ve been given no money, all the rest of it. Women’s sport has been through all of that and it can go through it again if it needs to, it’s not going to go away. It’s not going to disappear. 

What makes me worried and what makes me cross is we might have to do it all over again. We’ve made all this progress and then we’ll have to climb back up the wall. Is this really what we’re going to have to do, just because somebody looks at the spreadsheet ad says, ‘Actually, the women’s team is going to cost me, I don’t know, a couple of percent of the overall budget, so let’s strip it away and save a bit of cash?’ 

“That fundamentally bothers me, I think it’s such a terrible decision to make.” 

You can listen to the full interview with Anna by subscribing at this link. 

Highlights of the series’ second run of a dozen episodes are available for free at this link. 

 

 

 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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