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Thursday, 25 October 2012

The FA needs to become more inclusive.

Women's football - is it really a separate sport to the men's game?
I was interested to read in today’s Guardian that the FA has some interesting plans for the development of women’s football.  As someone who has been actively involved in promoting inclusiveness within football, in some respects this is welcome news.

For example, the recognition of the opportunity afforded by the increased profile of women’s football that the Olympic Games provided is positive.  These opportunities need to be seized.  Increased investment and a new commercial strategy are both needed and overdue.  On those scores, the FA is to be commended.

Less positive is the emphasis on the top teams, rather than the grassroots.  Talk of a professional league is good and well, but will in itself do little to facilitate the FA’s stated quest of increasing participation.  The top-down approach is concerning, and begs questions about how the promised additional funding is likely to be spent. 

However, my real concern is that the detail of the proposals merely forms part of a wider plan to “make women’s football England’s second sport”. 

Hmmmm.

Women already participate in England’s most popular sport.  It’s called football.

Making distinctions like these is not only unhelpful, but betrays a concerning attitude on the part of the FA.

Women’s football is seen by the FA as a distinct and separate entity.   That’s not my take on it.  I love the game; I’ve played, coached, managed, refereed and been on the board of a non-league club.  Football is many things: an art, drama, unrehearsed theatre and an essential part of our social and national identity. But when all's said and done it's a game – a game played by men and women, boys and girls, professionals and amateurs, gay and straight people, old and young.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need to make progress in regards female participation, but is essentially creating the status of a sub-sport for games played exclusively by women likely to help? 

If the Sian Massey fiasco demonstrated anything it’s that the best way to challenge sexist prejudice is to make the game as inclusive as possible.  I fail to see how exclusivity and the creation of new “sports” based on the gender of the players is constructive.  If making the distinction between men’s and women’s football is so important to the success and development of the latter, why not extend this logic to other differentials – such as age, sexual orientation or religion?  Why not a drive to make gay football the third biggest sport in England, followed closely behind by Muslim football? 

Making this distinction on the basis of something as insignificant (in respect to the game itself) as gender is plainly mistaken.  If the rules of the “women’s game” were in any way different, as they are for Gaelic football, then I would accept the FA’s argument.   As it is, I accuse the FA of doing the cause of equality and inclusivity a huge disservice.

Of course I recognise there are physiological differences between women and men that inevitably have some effect on the pace and physical nature of the game.  But that does not make women’s football a separate sport, any more than women’s athletics is a distinct sport from the men’s.  It isn’t, even though they compete separately.  Same sport, same rules – and, in many cases, the same clubs.

Perhaps this is where action needs to be taken.  Almost always women’s clubs are “affiliated” to men’s clubs, while remaining separate entities.  If we want to see the emergence of a truly inclusive game, the clubs should take a strong lead and actively incorporate women rather than keep them at arms’ length.

The FA has had a difficult week, with Jason Roberts and Rio Ferdinand openly voicing concerns about its ability to combat racism.  It has talked the talk, but failed to deliver as evidenced by the recent race-related controversies.  Part of the FA’s problem is that it has spoken against the evils of racism, sexism and homophobia without actually doing much to create an environment in which women, LGBT people or those from ethnic minorities feel included – or even welcome.

The FA appears not to see footballers as individual human beings – instead, it sees male footballers and female footballers.  When the FA stop making distinctions on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation we will know that progress is truly being made.

Anyway, I'm going to have to close here.  There's a game of bisexual snooker waiting for me...

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