Women in Sport: Do we need our own Title IX?

On Boxing Day 1920, some 53,000 spectators poured into Goodison Park in Liverpool to watch a football game. What made this contest special was that the twenty-two players on the pitch were women as the match had pitted Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team against St Helen’s Ladies.

The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team had become famous for playing fixtures across Britain and Ireland, taking to the field on more than sixty occasions in 1921 (including in Belfast in January) as the women’s game began to establish itself.

Alas, the hope of a burgeoning women’s game was cruelly shattered when, in December 1921, the FA banned its members from allowing women to play at their grounds, effectively killing the game. In their statement explaining the decision, the football authorities stated that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” The FA also banned its members from acting as referee or linesmen at women’s football games. The ban would not be lifted  until 1971.

The women’s game has thankfully progressed in the intervening (almost) century, with progress in England being particularly notable in recent years, with regular television coverage in the form of a weekly highlight programme on BBC1 and radio coverage of matches. The recent news that Manchester United will follow many of the other major Premier League clubs in forming a professional women’s team was the latest boost that will help promote the game in England.

Yet it still remains the case that competitive women’s sport is treated poorly in Irish and British society, particularly when compared with how women’s sport is pro-actively encouraged in other societies, particularly the USA.

The gender play gap was the focus of this article by Professor Marie Murphy in November 2017, which noted how the Millennium Cohort Study found stark differences in the percentage of 7-8 year old boys (63%) and girls (38%) in Northern Ireland meeting recommended levels of physical activity, noting how this gap persists through to old age.

If you were in the States during this week, there is a very high possibility that you’d have heard the name Arike Ogunbowale.

She is a college student who happens to play basketball for her university. The level of organised sporting competition at varsity level in the USA is peerless and, quite simply, needs to be experienced to be properly understood. Live women’s basketball games will be broadcast regularly, with star players and coaches becoming household names alongside their male counterparts. Women’s professional basketball and soccer leagues have been well established for many years.

Whilst rugby remains a minority sport in the US, that did not prevent the American women’s team reaching the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup, whilst the US women’s soccer team has won the World Cup three times. The US women also defeated their arch rivals Canada to win this year’s Gold Medal in ice hockey at the Winter Olympics.

The reason for American women’s unparalleled sporting success is rooted in a law which passed through Congress in 1972. The Education Amendments of 1972 included a clause, Title IX, which explicitly forbade discrimination on the basis of sex:

“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.”

This law was translated as meaning that public schools and universities were compelled to offer equal academic and athletic opportunities for men and women.

Its impact has been revolutionary.

The number of girls nationwide playing high school sports jumped from just 300,000 in 1974 to more than 3.1 million in 2012.

Increased participation at high school level led to a massive increase in varsity level sporting competitions, along with a surge in scholarships for female students. All of which ensured that, at both amateur and professional level, American women continued to have an advantage over their international counterparts on the global sporting stage for generations- though, as the advance of the South Korean female golfer illustrates, the rest of the world has been catching up.

In Ireland, Gaelic games have led the way in promoting women in sports through camogie and ladies Gaelic football, which have been well established at club and county level for generations- the famed South Derry club, Slaughtneill, produced back to back All-Ireland camogie champions in 2017 and 2018.

Yet television coverage of women’s sport remains very poor, meaning opportunities to promote and further expand interest, awarenesss and participation in women’s sport amongst the younger population continues to be missed.

Last month, I wrote this piece on Slugger lamenting the fact that the annual St Patrick’s weekend sports schedule did not include coverage of the schoolboy soccer finals alongside the rugby and Gaelic football finals.

Yet why is it that we do not have competitions of equivalent stature for schoolgirl hockey, camogie, soccer and Gaelic football that can similarly receive the live television experience, with all that brings to promoting the sports, engendering pride amongst all in a school community and giving a platform to individual star players?

Currently, the Northern Ireland netball team are competing in the Commonwealth Games. Whilst they received a drubbing in yesterday’s contest with the world number one team, Australia, they have performed extremely well over the past two years to move up the world rankings.

Ireland’s women’s rugby team have had considerable success over the past five years, twice winning the Six Nations. Though their performance at the 2017 World Cup held in Ireland did not live up to expectations, the tournament was very successful in terms of attendance and media coverage, at home and abroad.

Yesterday, the Danske Bank Women’s Premier League was officially launched, with the new season due to start this month. Last summer, Northern Ireland played host to the UEFA Women’s Under 19 Championship, which provided a positive platform from which to promote the game, and it is hoped that similar competitions can be attracted to the north in the coming years.

All of these sports would benefit from greater exposure and a comprehensive strategy to promote participation.

Do we need our own version of a Title IX to decisively address the gender play gap, compelling schools, universities, local and regional government and broadcasters to consciously plan a way ahead that transforms perceptions of the place of women in sport?