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1 April 2024updated 03 Apr 2024 11:06am

What I talk about when I talk about Netball

The sport’s rigid contraints enhance its beauty and profundity.

By Lamorna Ash

For the time of the game the players are a single dispersed soul. In winter, when one of their number trips on the ice, they all wince, feel the shock vibrate through their bones, go slow the next quarter. If one of them is wronged (and this happens more often than you would guess – a covert shove, a bib tugged back), the grudge is cultivated by all seven players right up to the final whistle. No matter who scores or intercepts with the greatest consistency, the sum failure or success is absorbed equally between them. It’s only as they split ways that the players come apart for real, arriving home to discover whatever beauty, whatever unbroken totality existed for them those forty minutes on court reduced to a few paltry anecdotes.

I’ve been with my netball team for five years, longer than I have lived in any flat-share, lasted in any relationship, remained in any job. I see my team more regularly than I see my closest friends. I count my team as close friends, too, but it’s a different kind of closeness. Last November a bunch of us took a train up to Manchester for a teammate’s wedding. People kept coming up to us on the dance floor and asking, “Are you the netball girls?” and we would reply in joyful unison, our identities dissolved once more, “Weeeee’re the netball girls!”

We play out the back of a Secondary Academy, whose corridors have a chlorinated tang and an eerie post-school-day hush. The B and C League are on adjacent courts, but really they are as proximate to one another as two solar systems – until promotion or relegation knocks you across through space. Hanging over the courts is a lone wind turbine. When it’s really blowing, the blades clatter and shake like the whole contraption is aching to take flight. The first match after the pandemic, on hearing that turbine, the familiar squeak of trainers, the clang of the ball against the hoop, my marker said, “I wish you could get netball ASMR. I would pay good money for that.”

Netball grew out of an adaptation then a misreading of the rules to another new sport. It was 1892, the year after James Naismith invented basketball, and Senda Berenson, a young Physical Education instructor living in Massachusetts, was tasked with modifying the game to make it more female-appropriate. This meant players could not run with the ball, to avoid over-exerting themselves. It meant outlawing the opportunity to snatch the ball from another’s grasp – it would be uncouth, bordering on erotic, for women to come into physical contact with one another like that.

Around the same time, Clara Baer, another American PE instructor, misinterpreted the rules of the game Naismith had sent over, believing the lines on his sketch of the court were zones only some players could cross. Meanwhile in England, Martina Österberg, a PE instructor and women’s suffrage activist (who advocated for women’s sport as a means of emancipation) imported from the States a version of the game with no boundary lines at all. In lieu of netball posts, she hung up wastepaper bins on the walls. Like all good sports, netball’s customs were formed from a constellation of competing variants, in this case, each designed by a woman. Over time the rules were standardised and disseminated across schools in the UK, America, then the Commonwealth of Nations as part of the continuing imperialist project in the early twentieth century.

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Despite multiple efforts, netball has not yet been accepted into the Olympics. This is both because it’s a sport primarily played by women, meaning it is not treated with the seriousness it deserves, and because it’s still mostly played in Commonwealth Nations, so does not have the required global reach. Ironically, its being set apart and condescended to as a women’s game for so long has afforded it one particular benefit. Where FIFA went as far as to ban women’s association football in 1921, fearing its popularity might be a threat to the status of the men’s game, no one really paid much attention to the netball scene, so it could continue developing in the twentieth century without significant male intervention or censure. The netball world cup began in 1960; women’s football had to wait until 1991.

The sexist limitations imposed on the game in the nineteenth century are also those aspects for which it’s often derided today. “You can’t even run with the ball,” my friends say. “You’re penned off in your little zones.” And in response I say, go watch a high-level game. Note the power of their passes. The fluidity of their movement through the centre third. Yes, it’s technically non-contact, but see the way they use their bodies to hold their opponents back. It has always been the opportunities for imagination and resistance within its rigid constraints that make netball such an exciting game to watch and play.

Georgia Oakley’s brilliant debut, Blue Jean (2023), is the first film I’ve seen in which netball takes a central role. Set in the late 1980s in Newcastle, it’s the story of Jean, a queer PE teacher, as she attempts to navigate Thatcher’s grossly discriminatory Section 28 laws, which made it illegal to “promote the teaching” in schools of the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, and remained in place in England until 2003. Oakley made her protagonist a PE teacher because it is a role that requires physicality, so it would be more obvious to the viewer the insidious ways Section 28 stymied queer teachers in their educative roles, as well as breeding paranoia about being outed. Where once Jean was able to act like “a master sculptor”, as Oakley’s script has it, demonstrating to her students how to make their bodies strong, make them into fortresses against their opponents, now she is afraid her actions might be misread.

For us, in this moment, the netball court feels like a site of freedom, a place where you can take up space, be competitive, care passionately and without reservation about the game’s outcome. Our team gets called scrappy a lot. We are loud and inconsistent. I said in the time of the game we melt into one entity. But also, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been falsely convinced the umpires would name me man of the match. When I was a kid, all my self-consciousness, my anxieties around my body played out on the court, and I ended up shrinking into the background. Now I relish my confidence out there, even when it stretches to the point of delusionality.

For many years we were a yo-yo team, either humbled to the extreme in the top league, or overweening lords of the Cs. Against all odds, we’ve clung on in the B League the last few seasons. It feels so good up here, even if only to witness up close the other teams’ immense skill, to act the fan after they’ve dodged past you, caught the ball and fired it on in one sleek motion, saying, “Wow, that was cool.”

[See also: A requiem for Jürgen Klopp]

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