Sport and our attitudes towards women

Last week I was at an event with some clients. Following some normal chitchat about how busy work had been and how quickly this year had passed, conversation turned to plans for the weekend.

From February to October, my weekend plans are always the same – sport, but mainly rugby league.

Often when I declare that I am a passionate rugby league fan, I am met with surprised looks – “how could a girl like you like rugby league?”

That night though, it went past genuine surprise and I was challenged to respond to how I could possibly support a game that has demonstrated time and time again that women are unwelcome within its ranks.

Whenever I am asked this question I am firstly baffled (what should girls like me enjoy?) and then become determined to change that person’s mind.

I began with pointing out the presence of women in all parts of the game.

From Marina Go, chairperson at Wests Tigers; Raelene Castle, Bulldogs CEO; Yvonne Sampson, the first woman to anchor State of Origin coverage; and referees Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger.

Then there are our Jillaroos who, for the first time this year, were broadcast on Channel Nine, as well as the countless female fans and volunteers who are part of the rugby league family.

My company looked surprised. Instead of stopping there, I felt that this time, it was important to emphasise that while the NRL as a code is not perfect, neither is any other sporting code.

Indeed, neither is Australian society, where there is still an underlying culture of sexism and some frightening attitudes towards violence against women. You only need to look back over the past weeks to see two incidents which demonstrate this.

Incident number one involved a man who I am not afraid to come out and call out sexist – Chris Gayle. We all remember what happened in January this year, when Gayle asked sports reporter Mel McLaughlin if she wanted to join him for a drink after the game, before finishing with “don’t blush baby”.

Despite Gayle being forced to apologise and McLaughlin expressing her disappointment that Gayle decided to ask her out for a drink instead of responding to her questions about his innings, last week Gayle thought it would be appropriate to have a shot at her again.

“You’re a woman in an environment with men. You’re good-looking. What do you expect?” he said.

What do we expect? Women expect to be able to do their jobs without being hit on. Women expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Women expect to be treated as professionals. Sport is an environment involving men and women and everyone should be made to feel welcome.

In January, I commented that I did not want Gayle back for BBL06. His comments last week reinforce my view. The BBL and WBBL is an outstanding spectacle which has built a reputation as tremendous family entertainment with some of the best cricketing talent in the world.

Gayle does not fit the bill anymore and we have much more impressive talent we can showcase. Get rid of him.

If I was unimpressed following that incident, disgust was soon to prevail when Eddie McGuire and James Brayshaw decided that it would be funny to joke, on Triple M, about holding AFL reporter Caroline Wilson under water. McGuire even went so far as to suggest that people should stand around and “bomb” her.

Even if it can be accepted, which I don’t think it can, that this was a ‘joke’, when did it become funny to joke about someone drowning?

McGuire and Brayshaw are two men in positions of influence in the AFL and with comments like that, they normalise violence against women and completely undermine the positive work the AFL is doing in this area (including a game between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong on Friday to support White Ribbon).

And people tell me that attitudes towards women are only a problem in the NRL? Give me a break.

This is a problem in our society and we all have a responsibility to call out behaviour like this as unacceptable. In the Australian government’s campaign, a key message is that “violence towards women does not just begin”. Comments like that of McGuire are unhelpful and embarrassing.

What is also unhelpful, was the response of AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan, who suggested that an apology was enough of a response. It’s a shame that the apology from McGuire blamed Wilson and the way people reacted to his comments. He blamed everyone but himself.

But as is so often the case in sport, it is the actions of the few which undermine the actions of the many. The ‘many’ did something special last Friday.

The highlight of my week last week, apart from the AFL announcing the clubs successful in obtaining a licence for the inaugural women’s competition in 2017, was on Friday, when the NRL, AFL, Netball Australia and the ARU announced that they were teaming up with Our Watch to change behaviours that lead to violence against women.

A leadership statement was signed by the CEOs of each sport, committing to encourage respectful relationships, promote female participation and opportunities in their respective sports, and to continue to be brave enough to challenge stereotypes, existing behaviours and underlying attitudes towards violence.

Together, we can all help to drive change and make a difference. It starts with something as small as hearing a comment like McGuire’s and calling it out for what it is – inappropriate, unacceptable and not funny. Behaviour like that should have no place on our watch.

You’ll also all be very happy to know that at the end of my event last week, a gentleman came up to me and said, “I had no idea women were so involved in rugby league. Keep up the good work.”


Ladies who Leap xxx