Saturday 18 November 2017

Ger Gilroy: What chance of our own tremendous accident bringing equal opportunity?

It's our job to recognise the message sent out by women's soccer team

'It might well be time for an Irish equivalent of ‘Title IX’' Photo: Sportsfile
'It might well be time for an Irish equivalent of ‘Title IX’' Photo: Sportsfile

Ger Gilroy

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, right? Well here goes. The sports media in Ireland needs more women and more diversity. As an industry we have underperformed when it comes to helping new women writers, broadcasters and producers emerge, and we are particularly bad at highlighting minority voices. It's reflective of the reality across Irish sport and largely it goes under-reported and is barely spoken about.

Before Christmas the Sports Minister Patrick O'Donovan rattled the cage of the sports governance world when he insisted that certain committees within all sports bodies in Ireland should have a gender quota, with a vague mention that funding might be compromised unless ambitious targets were met. He quickly rowed back, saying he was trying to provoke debate and made conciliatory noises about taking submissions from the governing bodies before taking any action. His first instinct was right, though. We need some radical thinking, and quotas around board participation don't go far enough.

It might well be time for an Irish equivalent of Title IX: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

It's 45 years old at this point and every step of the way it has been fought tooth and nail, but the social engineering wrought by this tiny piece of legislation on American society - and by proxy on sport - is almost immeasurable. You can illustrate its success by pointing out the millions of women who have gone to college who wouldn't otherwise have had the chance to, or the explosion in participation in women's sport in the US, but they're just bald numbers. As a force multiplier for gender equality it's hard to quantify the profound impact this fairly mundane, and obvious, piece of legislation had. For the record the participation numbers for girls in high school have gone up by three million per annum, a ten-fold increase; in college it's been a six-fold increase.

Although Title IX doesn't mention sport, in the popular imagination it has come to be most closely associated with the massive growth in women's sport in the US since 1972. The outcry at the time was swift from the big college sports that drive revenue, most notably college football, which sought to have revenue sports exempted. The fear was that having to give women equal access to sporting opportunities would drain resources from men's sports. The boys' clubs were threatened. Occasionally they even succeeded in hiving off their own little patches through long legal battles, with support from Ronald Reagan, but fortunately various courts saw the merits in equality.

"They could have gotten exemptions for the big sports… if they didn't cry so much about it, it created this media attention that allowed the women to voice the benefits of sport for boys and girls, and they convinced the public and Congress this was important for boys and girls. That was a tremendous accident," Donna Lopiano told Sports Illustrated in 2012 on the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Lopiano was the women's athletics director at Texas from 1975 to 1992 and then CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation from 1992 to 2007. She'd seen the war waged on Title IX by vested interests fail in courts.

Maybe last week was our own 'tremendous accident' because we might be ready for a fairly obvious and mundane piece of legislation ourselves. The women's national team and their list of mundane demands reminded us all that we need to do better when it comes to female sport. Either we believe in sport or we don't. If we think that sport is a thing that binds our communities together, teaches kids how to win and lose and how to integrate on teams, if we see it as having a useful role in keeping people active for their entire lives, if we thrill when someone does something great wearing colours we feel some emotional attachment to, then why do we create so many barriers to entry for half the population? They're the emotional reasons. The factual reasons about health and wellbeing have been documented ad nauseam.

From a purely financial perspective investment in women's sport makes sense. In the US they find "that women and girls have an equal interest in sports and deserve an equal chance to participate". That's the key issue. This isn't about creating a world where Croke Park or the Aviva is full every week for women's games or complaining about the standard when a game is eventually televised, it's about having the imagination to engage half our population in something worthwhile. Our starting point can't be to compare the men's game with the women's game and say no-one cares to watch what's being served up. Our culture has been to demean women's sport as opposed to asking what can we do to help grow the numbers and increase participation, not to make something the same as the men's games but something new and different.

After Title IX male participation in sport also went up. This isn't a zero-sum game, in fact it's quite the opposite. More participants across the board is a transformative moment for everyone in Irish sport. Demanding equal access for girls and women to our sports facilities and coaching networks would be a seismic shift in government thinking, but linking funding to a proven audited set of criteria around opportunities would fix the majority of our participation problems.

The Irish women's football team did the country a massive favour this week. It's our job to recognise it.

Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's Off The Ball

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