Sunday 17 December 2017

Hold the back page: It's time to start playing fair

Julie Ann Russell, centre, Republic of Ireland, celebrates with team-mates after scoring her side's first goal. FIFA Women's World Cup Qualifier, Group 1, Republic of Ireland v Slovenia. Tallaght Stadium
Julie Ann Russell, centre, Republic of Ireland, celebrates with team-mates after scoring her side's first goal. FIFA Women's World Cup Qualifier, Group 1, Republic of Ireland v Slovenia. Tallaght Stadium

Eamonn Sweeney

It's not hard to spot the more spectacular examples of Neanderthal sexism in sport, both in Ireland and further afield. You have those lovely decent gentlemen in Portmarnock Golf Club refusing to grant full membership to women, the sad institution of the men-only sportsman's dinner, Dave Bassett, Mike Newell, Andy Gray and Richard Keys complaining about female match officials in soccer, BBC blandmeister John Inverdale's "never going to be a looker," comment about last year's Wimbledon champion Marian Bartoli and the comments Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington had to endure about her appearance.

These things are so self-evidently wrong that it's very easy to be against them. But, in a way, they're almost incidental to the real disadvantages women face in sport. Sportswomen make less money, play in front of smaller crowds and receive much less media coverage. There are also fewer of them. Given the health benefits of participation in sport, it seems like a situation which needs to be redressed as soon as possible.

Of course there are people who'll simply come out with the lazy sexist line that women just aren't as interested as sport as men which means there's nothing to worry about. That kind of gender-essentialist talk ruled the roost back in 1972 when what would become the most radical measure ever attempted to increase female participation in sport was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. And it's my belief that, if we're really serious about tackling sexism in Irish sport, we need something similar here.

The measure which changed everything in the States was known as Title IX. Part of a series of amendments to the US Higher Education Act of 1965, it was a triumph for the women's rights movement of the time and stated, "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 assistance."

However, it wasn't until 1975 that the implications of the amendment for college sports became clear. Twigging that Title IX was basically a charter which would force colleges to provide facilities for women's teams equal to those provided for men's teams, the National Collegiate Athletic Association came out against it. This wasn't surprising. College athletics was basically a male preserve and Title IX would turn this world on its head.

Protestations that women weren't interested in sport and wouldn't take up the new college places on offer turned out to be utterly ill-founded. Forty-plus years on, Title IX has resulted in a massive increase in the number of women playing sport in the US. The year before it was enacted 294,000 girls played sport at high school level in the US, today the number is over three million. Six times as many women play sport at college level. The average US university has nine women's sports teams with over 90 per cent of them fielding teams in basketball, volleyball, cross-country and soccer. Back in 1972, US women won seven individual and two team golds at the Olympics. Two years ago the score was 19 individual and 10 team golds. In terms of quality and quantity, Title IX has been a huge success.

It was hailed as such in 2012 when the 40th anniversary of the legislation was celebrated at the White House where Billie Jean King, who noted that she'd been working two jobs as a young tennis player while her male counterparts Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith were on full college scholarships, described it as, "One of the most important pieces of legislation in the 20th century."

ESPN marked the anniversary with a series of documentaries, Nine for IX. And Jackie Joyner-Kersee, perhaps the finest all-round female athlete in history, noted, "I understand the women that came before me didn't have the opportunities that I am blessed to have. And it is very important for the generation that follows to really take up learning the history. As we celebrate we also know that there are people lurking or in the background trying to overturn the law or trying to set us back."

Joyner-Kersee's comment is an acknowledgement of the continued begrudgery towards Title IX from the American Right. There are quite a few men out there who bemoan the fact that increased opportunities for female athletes meant fewer opportunities for men. Like the opponents of Affirmative Action, they resent the fact that a historical wrong has been righted and wish we were back in the good old days when women knew their place.

But the genie is not going back in the bottle. And while no one would claim the US has entirely solved the problem of sexism in sport, the fact is that its female sports stars are exceptionally visible by the standards of most other countries. The US women's soccer team is probably the highest profile women's sports team in the world and perhaps the most popular national team in the US.

Title IX was a piece of social engineering which worked spectacularly well. And perhaps if we want to increase opportunities for women in Irish sport we'll need to do something similar. Unlike in the US, college sport doesn't play a central role here in Ireland. But Irish Sports Council funding does and it provides the key to redressing the balance in favour of women. All that's required is political will and a bit of courage and radicalism from those who hold the purse strings.

Because while the Council did institute the praiseworthy Women in Sport funding scheme back in 2005, there is still an enormous difference between men and women in sport. The FAI's core grant last year was €3.1m, its Women in Sport funding was €192,274, the IRFU's core grant was €2.7m, its Women in Sport funding was €141,000. The Irish Ladies Golf Union received €166,930 while the men's equivalent bagged €429,599. The High Performance Carding Scheme saw 28 women receive funding compared to 58 men. The GAA received €2.9m while the camogie and ladies football associations got a total of €774,796.

Now, you can say that these figures are justified on the basis that there are more men playing the sports involved than there are women. But, really, that's just the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, back in 1972 the disparity between the numbers of male and female college athletes was just as striking. A massive funding advantage for men's sports seemed in the US then, as it does in Ireland now, like simple common sense, a reflection of the natural order of things.

So why not aim towards equal funding for men and women from the Sports Council at least? The Women in Sport programme was set up in response to the shocking revelation that less than one in five Irish women were getting the recommended amount of weekly exercise. And a 2008 ESRI report found that by the age of 20 only 36 per cent of women were competing in sport compared to 66 per cent of men. However, it also found that, "As adults women are as likely to take up and drop out of sport at the same rates as men, suggesting that women are as interested as men if given the same opportunities." The problem is that neither the same opportunities, nor the same respect, are there. And one thing which is both a symptom and cause of this is the massive funding disparity.

Two years after Title IX went on the books and one year after she'd defeated Bobby Riggs in the famous Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King set up the Women's Sports Foundation. Today it's a powerful educational and advocacy organisation which, among other things, spearheaded the campaign which prevented the wretched George W Bush dismantling Title IX in 2003.

Its research reveals that, "Schoolgirls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy; more likely to get better grades in schools and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports. Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression. Girls and women who play sports have a more positive self-image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not."

Are we going to deny our daughters these opportunities? It's time to start playing fair.

Basic Corkness is no longer enough

I'm afraid Cork are not going to get away with it anymore.

The wreckage of the 2014 championship season in both hurling and football shows that the belief, held by county board officials and the more optimistic supporters, that the county can win All-Irelands simply on the grounds of its inherent Corkness is a delusion. That old dog is dead. The ship has sailed.

Cork hurling's multitudinous problems had been briefly camouflaged by the senior team's ability to make last year's All-Ireland final and win this year's Munster title.

But the brute fact is that Cork's humiliation by Tipperary means they have gone nine years without an All-Ireland senior title. This is the Rebels' longest fallow spell since the infamous famine which lasted from 1955 to 1965. For a county like Cork this is nothing less than a disaster.

The big problem is that the combination of player numbers, confidence and mystique on which Cork set so much store doesn't compensate for the county's weakness at underage level. Cork have now been without an All-Ireland minor title since a John Gardiner-inspired team defeated Galway in the 2001 final. This 13 years of failure is a record for the county, surpassing the run between 1952 and 1963. That the previous barren period at minor level also coincided with one at senior level is hardly a coincidence.

For good measure, the county's under 21 hurlers haven't won an All-Ireland since 1998, also the county's worst ever run in the competition. The minors haven't even made a Munster final since 2008. Since then Waterford have been in five finals, Clare in three and Tipperary and Limerick in two each.

When the under 21s did make it to the final against Clare this year, they promptly suffered the fourth biggest defeat in final history. Small wonder the seniors also caused statisticians to reach for the record books last Sunday where they discovered that we'd just witnessed Cork's biggest championship defeat by Tipperary since the 1965 Munster final.

Given the size of Cork and its tradition, there are obviously grave structural problems. There is little point criticising Jimmy Barry-Murphy over last Sunday's defeat. Given what he has to work with, he's actually overachieved massively with the current team. Right now you expect Cork underage hurling teams to get beaten by the opposition. And one result of this is that, as the years go by, those counties have less and less fear of the Rebels at senior level. Something is rotten in the heart of Cork hurling.

No such underage problems assail the football team, winners of nine of the last 11 Munster titles to Kerry's one, twice All-Ireland champions and twice narrow runners-up in the final. The county board managed to screw things up for them all the same this year. Instead of appointing John Cleary, the architect of under 21 success in recent years, they plumped for the relatively untried Brian Cuthbert. He delivered the county's worst Munster final defeat by Kerry since 1977. I can't say I was surprised.

I've read that Cuthbert's USP as opposed to Cleary was that he had no objections to the 'dual player' strategy favoured by the board. Well, that was a complete disaster and now Cork find themselves at sea in both football and hurling. It has been a bad, bad year for the county.

And until its officials realise how bad things are, they're just going to get worse. They can start by getting Dónal óg Cusack involved at underage level and giving the senior job to John Cleary. The situation is too desperate for people to be standing on their dignity. It's not important who was right or wrong in the past, the future is what matters now.

Every underdog can have his day

Don't you just love those Americans and their crazy major sports leagues? With just over a month to go in the baseball season, reigning champions Boston Red Sox haven't a hope of even making the play-offs. And neither do their great rivals, the moneybags New York Yankees. Instead they're both having their butts kicked in the American League East by the perennially underachieving Baltimore Orioles.

Unlike the NBA and NFL, MLB doesn't have a salary cap so it should be possible for a franchise to buy its way to success. Except that's not how it usually works. The Yankees had the biggest wage bill 13 seasons in a row and won just one World Series. And this year their $203m tab, and Boston's $162m, haven't been able to get them past the Orioles ($107m).

Baltimore are just one of three table-topping clubs in MLB right now who have been stinking for years. The Orioles lost more games than they won every season from 1998 to 2011. The Kansas City Royals, topping the American League Central at the moment, had just one winning season between 1995 and 2012 and haven't made the play-offs since 1985. And National League Central leaders the Milwaukee Brewers have never won the World Series and made the play-offs just once between 1983 and 2008.

The level of spectator suffering has, in other words, been pretty spectacular. And that's why anyone with a heart will be willing all three to keep ahead in the final month. It's a pity competitions on this side of the pond never seem so gloriously unpredictable.

If we only had old America over here.

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