Thursday 19 April 2018

Katie Liston: The right questions will have to be asked to crack integration code

'Cora Staunton seeks her fifth All-Ireland medal and must surely be in line for an 11th All-Star award after 22 years of playing excellence.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Cora Staunton seeks her fifth All-Ireland medal and must surely be in line for an 11th All-Star award after 22 years of playing excellence.' Photo: Sportsfile

Katie Liston

When Lindsey Peat scored 'that try' against the Welsh in the 64th minute of the seventh-place play-off in Belfast in August, I dared to dream. My dream for the Irish women's rugby team was one of automatic qualification for the next Women's Rugby World Cup in the face of deficits, on and off the field of play.

Within five minutes, this dream was crushed by Wales who scored a well-taken try, helped in no small part by the failure of the home team to secure kick-off possession. The signs were there - and for months previously - but I desperately wanted to believe otherwise, primarily for the players' sake. Despite that disappointment, what a summer it has been for women's sports on the island.

No one can deny the ways in which the women's rugby team embraced their role as ambassadors and physically poured their hearts and bodies into every game.

The UEFA women's under 19 finals were hosted very successfully by the IFA (football not farmers!) in Northern Ireland, who have gained much social capital in the eyes of UEFA for future tournament bids in both the men's and women's codes.

South of the border, Cork reclaimed the All-Ireland camogie title from Kilkenny by the slimmest of margins and Rena Buckley collected a record-setting 18th All-Ireland senior medal.

Today sees a second and no less important round of the Mayo-Dublin rivalry in the women's football code. Cora Staunton seeks her fifth All-Ireland medal and must surely be in line for an 11th All-Star award after 22 years of playing excellence.

The importance of these events lies not only in the quality of the games and the competitiveness and skill on display irrespective of gender, but it also reveals much about the changing status of team sports played by women and their growing social significance.

Viewed in 2D, the picture is rosy. Wearing 3D glasses reveals a more complex picture however - one that requires us to ask whether the voices of women's sports representatives and players have equal place.

All-male team sports exist in a system led mainly by men who have progressed through this system: becoming coaches, volunteers, paid officials, board members, referees and so on. Left concealed, it can be a relatively closed system reproducing an orthodox and powerful gender regime.

Irish women's rugby has been operating in a power deficit since its official formation in the early 1990s. The interview published recently in The Irish Times with retired international Ruth O'Reilly offered a glimpse of contemporary issues with a long history that the IRFU preferred to cleanse in official rhetoric, perhaps because of the 2023 bid and the associated diplomatic capital to be gained from hosting the women's tournament. Ruth is not alone. Player feedback from the Six Nations review did not seem to be well-received. Some were seemingly isolated in, and from, this process.

In Gaelic football, Donna McCrory, chairperson of the Tyrone LGFA, has urged clubs to object to the scheduling of games that clash with today's All-Ireland intermediate final. This scheduling shows a 'disregard and disrespect to footballers'.

In April, we saw indications of a less-than-ideal rapport between the FAI and the senior women's squad. 'Truthy Ruthy' captured this general position best when she described an "unbalanced relationship". For women's sports, the challenge has become one of leveraging greater influence within this system, as opposed to outside it.

The journey towards integration of women's sport into the existing (male) national governing bodies is by no means linear and it requires sustained attention by those to be integrated and by the organisations that will subsume their new members. As a leading representative of one of the women's codes said, it has to be "on the right terms", otherwise it is sheer tokenism.

If integration is to be realised then we must move beyond practical and financial considerations, important though they might be. Less so than the challenging questions: What might equal distribution of power look like in sport? Is this even desired and, if so, why? And whose terms of reference prevail?

It is completely natural for us not to want to think about the consequences of women's increasing participation in sport. After all, it is 'a good thing'. Nevertheless, let's not lose sight of the importance of posing the right questions when players and administrators are showing us a third dimension.

Dr Katie Liston is Sociologist of Sport at Ulster University. She is a former international soccer and rugby player, and also played Gaelic football for Kerry (@kliston14)

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