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.

Photo: Getty
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Is Britain about to leave the European Union?

A series of bad polls have pro-Europeans panicked. Are they right?

Is this what Brexit looks like? A batch of polls all show significant movement towards a Leave vote. ORB, a phone pollster, has Leave up four points to 46 per cent, with Remain’s leave cut to four points. ICM’s online poll has Leave up three points, putting Brexit ahead of Remain by 52 per cent to 48 per cent once don’t-knows are excluded. ICM’s phone poll shows Leave up six points, a Brexit lead of three points.

That two phone polls are showing advances for Leave are particularly significant, as telephone polling has tended to show lower figures for Brexit. There is a lively debate over which method, phone or online, is likely to be more effective at predicting the referendum, although no-one knows for certain at the present time.

In any case, whether on the telephone or the Internet, the latest polls have pro-Europeans worried, and Brexiteers jubilant. Who’s right?

There are reasons to start trusting the polls, at least as far as voter ID is concerned

So far, the performances of the political parties in local elections and by-elections has been about par with what we’d expect from the polls. So the chances are good that the measures taken post-2015 election are working.

Bank holidays are always difficult

I would be deeply cautious of reading too much into three polls, all of which have been conducted over the bank holiday weekend, a time when people go out, play with their kids, get wasted or go away for a long weekend. The last set of bank holiday polls gave Ed Miliband’s Labour party  large leads, well outside the average, which tended to show the two parties neck-and-neck.

Although this time they might be more revealing than we expect

One reason why the polls got it wrong in 2015 is they talked to the wrong type of people. The demographic samples were right but they were not properly representative. (Look at it like this – if my poll includes 18 actors who are now earning millions in cinema, I may have a representative figure in terms of the total number of Britain’s millionaires – but their politics are likely to be far to the left of the average British one percenter, unless the actor in question is Tom Conti.)

Across telephone and online, the pollsters talked to people who were too politically-motivated, skewing the result: Ed Miliband’s Labour party did very well among young people for whom Thursday night was a time to watch Question Time and This Week, but less well among young people for whom Thursday is the new Friday.  The polls had too many party members and not enough party animals.

But the question no-one can answer is this: it may be that differential turnout in the European referendum means that a sample of hyper-politicos is actually a better sample than an ordinary poll. Just as the polls erred in 2015 by sampling too many political people, they may be calling the referendum wrong in having too many apolitical people.

These three polls aren’t the scariest for Remain released today

IpsosMori released a poll today, taken 15 days ago and so free from any bank holiday effect, without a referendum voting intention question, but one taking the temperature on which issues the British public believe are the most important of the day.

Far from growing more invested in the question of Britain’s European Union membership as the campaign enters its terminal phase, concern about the European Union has flatlined at 28 per cent – within the margin of error of last month’s IpsosMori survey, which put Britain at 30 per cent. The proportion who believe that it is the biggest single issue facing Britain today also remains static at 16 per cent. Evidence of the high turnout necessary to avert Brexit seems thin on the ground.

Pro-Europeans should be further worried by the identity of the groups that are concerned about the European Union. Conservative voters, the over-65s and people from social grades A (higher managerial, administrative and professional workers) and B (intermediate managerial, administrative and professional workers), are more concerned about the European Union than the national average. The only one of those three groups that is more likely to favour Remain over Leave are ABers, while Conservative voters and the over-65s are likely to vote for Brexit over the status quo.

Among the demographics who are least concerned about the European Union, the only pro-Brexit group that is significantly less concerned about EU membership than the national average are people from social grades D (semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers) to E (state pensioners, casual workers and jobseekers). The other groups that are least concerned with the European Union are people who live in urban areas and people aged from 18 to 24, the two most pro-European demographics.

The prospects of a Brexit vote are rather better than the betting odds would suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.