Steph Houghton of England in action during a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine in May 2014. Photo: Getty
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Why is men’s football the default “proper” sport, while the women’s game is merely a pale imitation?

Everything a women’s football team does is taken to represent the “quality” of the sport as a whole, while male players are allowed to be judged as individuals. We have to put an end to this sexism.

The mere introduction of women’s soccer as a subject of conversation provokes ‘common sense’ observations from sexists about how “no one wants to watch women’s soccer” because women are weaker, slower etc. That is sexist. That the people who work on women’s soccer have to defend women’s athletic ability in order to participate in any conversation about women’s soccer – that is sexist.”

Jennifer Doyle

I’m never sure whether to be amazed, disturbed or amused at the kind of conversations that can come up when the subject of women and sport, particularly football, is introduced. I’m a little more sure that writing my thoughts about it is going to lead to whole load of grief.

The quote at the top of this blog comes from a revealing post by Jennifer Doyle, a feminist academic who writes extensively about sport, particularly football. Her football writing can be found at the From A Left Wing blog, and her current wider writing about sport at The Sport Spectacle. It is interesting to read Doyle’s piece On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics, or indeed much of her other writing, in the light of the post made by sports journalist and academic Carrie Dunn on this website just a week ago. Or rather, in the light of some of the comments posted on that blog.

Dunn’s blog questioned the routine erasure of women’s sporting achievement from much discourse, and went on to raise some pertinent points about the relative absence of women’s voices in football journalism – about which I’ll say more in a minute. And yet, once again, many of the comments pitched up the old “women’s football is not as good/interesting/lucrative as men’s” argument. This argument spectacularly misses the point.

For many people, myself included, women’s football and men’s football are separate sports. So the discussion about which is “better” is irrelevant. What’s more relevant is why one is seen as the default “proper” sport, and the other a pale imitation. Or why the England women’s team’s failure to progress from the group stages at the last women’s World Cup is seen as so much more of a let-down than the failure of the England men’s team to do the same at the last men’s World Cup. The failure of England’s women was used in many quarters to write off the women’s game, while the failure of the men was merely used to write off individuals. It reflects a wider culture in which an individual woman achieving or not achieving is all too often taken as an emblem of what all women can do, while what an individual man does is indicative of no more than that individual.

Diverting the discussion into the kind of “men are stronger than women” argument that Doyle says she had to deal with as an eight-year-old on the school bus is quite a handy way of avoiding the more serious issues about why women’s sport, and women’s sporting achievement, is treated so differently. And that matters because sport needs an audience, and the commercial prospects that audience offers, to thrive. If the message being constantly peddled is that women’s sport is somehow less valid than men’s, it becomes so much more difficult for women’s sport to develop, and for women athletes to have the same chances as men.

It matters, too, because of the kind of thing that happened to English women’s football team the Doncaster Belles, which I wrote about in a couple of posts last year. Interestingly, it was put to me while I was researching those pieces that much of the press interest in the case came from a media that rarely concerned itself with the women’s game, so criticism of a Football Association that was at least trying to implement some solutions was a bit rich. As Dunn, who I asked for a comment on the piece, said at the time: “It’s almost as if they’re saying ‘Well, you complained when we did nothing for women’s football; now we’re doing something so you should be grateful’.”

The real anger provoked by the Belles case, and many others around women in sport, is over why women should have to prove themselves in ways men would never be expected to, or accept different frameworks that go beyond arguments about biological determinism. And it’s at this point that the kind of links that powerful elites worry about can be made. Because, as Doyle pointed out when she wrote about the Doncaster Belles: “Sexism does not stand alone. The FA did what it did to kill the women’s game in the 1920s not because women weren’t suited to football (that’s the official reason they gave)… The FA did what it did because the women’s game was organised differently. It represented a different cultural possibility.”

What also angers the many women interested in both men’s and women’s football, and the women interested in one or the other, is being told by men how they we should enjoy or consume sports. That comes up regularly in the discussions I have with women football fans and football journalists. And it comes alongside a list of irritations including commissioning men to write pro women’s sport pieces because that carries more gravity, the apparent ease with which a woman criticising anything that can be dubbed “feminism” seems to have in finding an outlet, or simply drivel such as the Telegraph’s “How to sound like an expert while your boyfriend’s watching football”.

I know that because I have conversations with those women. It’s an indication of how much is wrong with this whole discussion that I even have to write that. But discussions of this sort are often marked by the lofty pronouncements of people speaking on others’ behalf, and I’m conscious that, with every sentence of this blog, I’m walking a tightrope.

That pressure on every move is something many women sports writers are acutely aware of. Few I speak to want to go on the record about this stuff, because it further decreases their chances of getting an overwhelmingly male sports journalism establishment to commission them. As one told me: “I could probably earn more money in a year writing about the ‘problem’ of coverage of women’s sports than I could from writing about women’s sports.”

That’s not to say that there are no women’s voices in the sports media. There are many excellent female journalists in print and broadcast plying their trade. But, as Eleanor Oldroyd observed on her Twitter feed in the run-up to Saturday’s England game:

That prompted former Guardian sports journalist Ian Ridley to tweet

The writer Ridley referred to was Hadley Freeman, whose piece on her assignment to the World Cup, published on 2 June, almost prompted a number of people I know to punch their computer screens out. That, incidentally, is no criticism of Freeman, I writer I like and whose dispatches from Brazil have included some sharp observations of the absurdity of FIFAland. But it’s not hard to understand why that piece, with its perpetration of the ditzy female footballing ignoramus, prompted much slapping of foreheads. Raising the point is not so much a criticism of Freeman as of the mentality of the sports department that came up with the wizard wheeze.

As I’ve already said, merely writing this has involved something of a tightrope walk. From checking my privilege to being overly right-on, I’m opening myself up to a comment thread flaying. When I tweeted my annoyance at that Telegraph piece, one female sports writer who is a very good friend of mine tweeted back that she thought it was quite funny. But that’s the thing. All women don’t think the same. A bit like men.

The point is that, when there’s a disagreement among men, the conversation does not quite as rapidly progress into one that challenges their ability or even right to hold an opinion at all. As Doyle points out in the quote at the top of this blog, it’s this seemingly inexorable line of conversation that is the problem.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.