Ok, so I know I’m rather late to the party on this but I figured that equality is timeless and it would be a pity to resist using this bully pulpit I have access to now as a vehicle to advance my pet topics.
So here goes.
Back in October, Grant Robertson copped a little bit of flak for suggesting that the world champion Black Ferns should be paid more to recognise the fact that women are people too. It set off a chorus of predictable enough responses.
In my favourite sport, [real] football, this is a debate that has been super topical this year and one I have taken a keen interest in – as everyone who loves their sport should.
In February our women’s national team captain, Abby Erceg, announced she was retiring from international football in protest at the way women are treated by our national governing body – New Zealand Football.
Her main concern was that top female athletes were being brought into a simulated professional environment, known as the Football Ferns Development Programme, without being compensated at all outside of periodic national team camps. This was leading to intense financial struggles for players due to the time commitment involved and the difficulty of getting a real job that fitted the schedule.
Unlike most domestic female players, most male players at the highest tier clubs we have in this country are getting paid, despite their amateur status and despite the fact that very few of them are anywhere near international standard given out top male players are either playing in the Australian league or plying their trade professionally overseas.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Football Ferns are ranked in the world’s top 20, while the All Whites are currently ranked outside the top 120. The Ferns are regularly going to World Cups whereas the All Whites haven’t been since 2010, and yet anecdotally the men’s national team budget is many times that of the women’s.
In response, a lot of people took great pains to argue that if women don’t draw enough spectators, attract enough sponsors and most depressingly of all spend enough money over the bar at their local clubs then they don’t deserve the same respect as men. This seems to me a flat out refusal to see the sport as a whole rather than standalone men’s game and women’s games that can and should cross-subsidise each other.
And popularity is a vicious cycle. Women’s football was effectively banned until 1971 and with little done to promote it game since then, inequalities have only been perpetuated.
When you look at a sport like tennis, where the women’s game often attracts higher TV ratings than the men and the major tournaments all offer equal prize money, there is a model that should have been emulated. Like women’s tennis, which has more finesse than the bash smash bash of the men, women’s football is arguably more entertaining to watch than the male equivalent.
Women tend to keep the ball on the deck more and there is no diving and no histrionics when refereeing calls go the wrong way. But unfortunately progress is held back by the men in charge. Men like Sepp Blatter, whose suggestion for improving the marketing of the women’s game was that they should wear tighter shorts.
But then, when all of the above is thrashed out, the goalposts eventually shift again to “LOOK, women are just different – OK? It’s nature!”
At the end of the day, the rebuttals are all just excuses and I suspect the real crux is that people perceive the pie as finite and so any increase in funding for women will take money away from men.
And one of the big obstacles is that in sports like football, decisions are overwhelmingly made by men. I was staggered to attend a meeting I was invited to at New Zealand Football HQ early this year, which was specifically called to discuss the implementation of the aforementioned Football Ferns Development Programme, only to find there was not a single woman in the room.
And I doubt football is the only sport where that would happen.
A lot of male sports administrators are well meaning, great people, who give a lot of their own time to sport for no financial reward and they are more often than not staunch supporters of women in sport in a lot of ways.
But the bottom line is women will never get a fair go in sport until they are meaningfully involved in decisions that affect them.
So I think there is a place for government intervention here.
I am not necessarily suggesting that the Black Ferns should be paid the same as the All Blacks, but in most sports the gap needs to be smaller than it is. Abby Erceg wasn’t asking for equality with the men’s professional game – that’s not possible when for example French club PSG paid an amount equivalent to the GDP of an actual country (Palau) for a player (Neymar) in the last transfer window. The appropriateness of THAT is another issue.
All Abby really wanted was a little bit more support so young Football Ferns wouldn’t run out of petrol on the way to training. For that, she got labelled as greedy and ungrateful. That’s the scale of the problem.
And if the sports’ governing bodies won’t at least try to close the gap a little bit then maybe they shouldn’t get any public funding until they do.
There have been some promising developments since Erceg’s shock retirement. The most exciting of which is the players’ union – the NZ Professional Footballers’ Association – raising an equal rights claim in collective bargaining that is supported by our best male players and will be a world first if implemented.
But in the meantime, thank you Grant Robertson for saying what you said and please keep on it.