“If you’re such a fan, name five of their players the year they won the title.”
“You only like them because they’re hot.”
“Explain the offside rule.”
We’ve all been there, as women who enjoy playing or watching sport, and I think that every generation of female sports fan goes through these moments of being tested (often by men) and having, somehow, to prove herself as an authentic fan. She has to provide her credentials. It’s the kind of gate-keeping we see in many fandoms, but it’s not always as overtly gendered as it is in sports.
There are the assumptions, of course, that, if a woman follows sport, she’s doing it because she thinks the men are hot (and sometimes, yes, the men are hot), or that, if a woman plays sports, she must be a lesbian (and sometimes, yes, she is a lesbian). Of course, any assumption that connects a hobby, or a career, to gender or sexuality is inherently stupid and very harmful.
(Incidentally, I have been asked to explain the offside rule. I was in my early twenties, watching an Arsenal game at the pub with some of my medical school classmates, one of whom was from New Zealand. He genuinely didn’t understand it, you see, having been brought up on rugby and cricket.)
Spectating and Cream Cakes
I can barely remember my introduction to sports. I was, in all likelihood, far too enamoured of the cream cakes that I will always associate with Saturdays spent watching Five Nations games with my family. My father, brother and I cheered for Ireland (I understood that much), while my mother cheered for England, and tried to persuade us that we were half-English. It would have taken a great deal more than a chocolate eclair from the Country Kitchen in Bandon to convince me.
My godfather was an avid Arsenal fan and so we are all Arsenal fans, including my aunt who was a season ticket holder for years. I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Emirates on a number of occasions and I’m only sorry that I never got to Highbury for a game. Watching games with my mother was delightful, though she’d often flee the living room in the final minutes when things got that bit too tense.
Is that the key, then? The fact that my whole family, men and women alike, have always enjoyed watching sports. Maybe it is. Growing up, I never thought of football or rugby as being boy’s sports, even though I never had the opportunity to play either until I reached university.
Team sports and hand injuries
Here’s the secret: I am about as naturally competitive as a sloth. I started playing sports in an organised kind of way when I was about ten or eleven. I started with hockey (field hockey, for those of you who are from the other side of the Atlantic) and played throughout secondary school and right through until I was about thirty, when I retired gracelessly, following a hand injury caused by tag rugby (and that’s a story for another day). Incidentally, my shirt number was 8 and I was fond of playing left wing. I was neither the most motivated, nor the most disciplined, but when I played, I played well and I only played for so long because it was fun.
Other sports I dallied with included horse-riding. (I was invariably assigned to the more bollocksy-natured horses. What that says about me, or about them, remains to be seen but I never had any problems with them so there’s that.) I played bowls and was generally the youngest competitor by a good forty years. I spent one season on the Senior First cricket team and enjoyed standing around in the sun. I played football on a casual basis in college and was, unsurprisingly, one of only two women in my year who played.
I didn’t play tag rugby for long, due to the aforementioned hand injury (I tore the radial collateral ligament of my right thumb, for those of you who want to know the gory details). I also managed to break my finger the only time I played broom ball but when the opportunity arises to play against a team of seriously skilled Swedes at Capital One Arena, you have to take it.
Loving hockey even if it doesn’t love us
A year ago, I wrote an article on Russian Machine Never Breaks, which touched on how I got into ice hockey, as well as why it’s so important to me. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m older, or because I happened to have fallen in with a wonderfully diverse and thoughtful group of fans, but I haven’t had any personal issues, being a woman who loves ice hockey. I attended a Capitals-Penguins game and the Penguins fans (all men) behind us apologised profusely for consistently dropping things on us (food, beer and, notably, a mobile phone) and bought us cotton candy, so I can’t even muster up a personal anecdote. I have to say that I’m lucky.
We’ve seen recently that there are limitations on women training to be hockey referees and, of course, the NHL seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the All-Star weekend. On one hand, it was superb to see Kendall Coyne be the first woman to compete but, on the other, seeing Brianna Decker be deprived of appropriate acknowledgement of her success in the Premier Passer challenge, due to contortions by the NHL to prove that her time was slower than the official winner’s time was pretty darn graceless.
Be better, be kinder
It’s changed a lot, since I used to watch Five Nations games with my family thirty years ago. Now, sports fans can live-tweet, live-blog, hashtag, signal boost and call out. If I have a tweet featured on, say, NBC Sports Washington, you can be darn sure that I’m proud of that. My voice, as a fan, is louder than it ever was. These days, fandom is more immediate and more immersive. Everything is magnified; the bad behaviour, as well as the good.
I wrote briefly, last month, about resolutions, and being kind. I’d like that to be the basis of being a woman in sport, and supporting women in sports. There should be no need to provide credentials – it doesn’t matter if one has played this sport, or any sport. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a fan since before you knew any better or if you discovered the sport a month ago. I’m not going to be disingenuous enough to say that every opinion matters because we all know that there are some bad and wrong opinions in sport, especially if they relate to exclusivity or exclusion, but I will say that no voice should be excluded because of gender, sexuality, appearance, religion or race.
I’ll also say this: there’s no place for ascribing morality to one’s choice of team. I am not a better person because I support Arsenal, or the Caps. (I’m often a more stressed person, but that’s between me and my autonomic nervous system.) Conversely, just because someone supports a rival team, it doesn’t mean that they are a bad person.
So, as a woman who loves sport, whose experiences have generally been good, aside from the occasional remark, I’m going to advocate for kindness, for signal-boosting diverse voices and for appreciating the good moments, of victory, yes, and of community.
I hope to expand on this theme, over the coming weeks, and linking to some of the great writers, analysts and photographers I know, who love sports and who make them more accessible to us all.