Irish sportswomen’s ‘Saipan moment’

Will outrage over Ireland’s soccer team change how women’s sport is treated?

As the ins and outs of any major debacle fade from the public mind, some image of it inevitably lingers on. With Saipan, it was the image of Roy Keane’s stinging, “I didn’t rate you as a player” attack on Mick McCarthy. With Michelle de Bruin, it was the whiskey-tainted vials of urine.

This time it will be the tracksuits.

Fourteen members of the Republic of Ireland’s women’s national football team gathered in Liberty Hall last week for a press conference at which they threatened to boycott Monday’s game against Slovakia over “humiliating” and “unsustainable” working conditions.

The list of issues they said they had been trying for over two years to address with the FAI included access to nutritionists, individual strength and conditioning programmes, as well as a request for expenses and a match fee of €300 per player.

When you hear about changing tracksuits in toilets, it's pretty demeaning for anybody, never mind somebody who is giving up so much for their country

Mediation talks that ran until just after 3am on Thursday saw them reach a confidential agreement on key issues. And while there will be more talks in the future, the team will play their next international game.

But the picture that will carry on in the public mind was that painted at the press conference of these elite international athletes – a group with more than 550 caps between them – being forced to change out of their tracksuits in cramped airport toilet cubicles.

Accusations of gender inequality in sport are not unique to soccer or to Ireland – in the US, the women’s national hockey and soccer teams have just reached agreements with their representative bodies over pay and conditions. Nonetheless, last week’s revelations provoked widespread shock among the Irish team’s counterparts in other sports.

"When you hear about changing tracksuits in toilets, it's pretty demeaning for anybody, never mind somebody who is giving up so much for their country," says Tyrone footballer and Women's Gaelic Players Association (WGPA) project co-ordinator, Gemma Begley.

Embarrassed

Ciara Mageean, the Irish 1500m runner who won bronze at the European Championships last year, says she felt "embarrassed" by the revelations. "They were not looking for expensive flights and five-star hotels. They were looking for tracksuits they didn't have to hand back, and wifi."

Former international rugby player turned international referee, Joy Neville, says she was in "actual shock. What they have been going through is was what was happening decades ago to us, except we never had to hand back tracksuits. I think the important message is that they're not doing this for themselves; they're doing it for the future of the sport."

For the players, however, it was never really about the tracksuits, says Karen Duggan, who was recently named FAI senior women's international player of the year.

“For me personally, the most important issues were access to a gym and a nutritional plan. These are things that I know can really help me as a player. We went into it thinking that if there was scope to compensate for loss of earnings that would be really helpful, but in terms of what this is all about, it was always about nutrition, strength and conditioning training and gym memberships.”

International hockey player Shirley McCay, who has been capped 231 times for Ireland, points out that relative to other sports, the FAI is in a strong position to fairly compensate both male and female players.

“Young female footballers need adult female footballers to look up to, and the FAI will lose its female role models if they do not provide them with adequate support.”

It wasn’t just the players’ fellow athletes who were aghast: news of the press conference made nationals and international headlines and trended on social media. But it didn’t take long for observers to point out an undeniable truth – across almost all sports, men’s games are better attended, and therefore better resourced.

Begley counters that “parity of esteem and recognition” is the first step to boosting public support for women’s sports. “That has to come first in order to change the mindset, which then brings along the commercial side, the sponsorship, the attendance and the revenues,” she says.

Uncomfortable conditions

Neville, who was capped for Ireland 70 times before her retirement after the Grand Slam victory in 2013, describes how the experience in rugby bears this out. “Back when I first started, we’d have to all chip in to get hot chicken lunches, and if we were training in Limerick, the Limerick girls would put the Dublin girls up and vice versa. It’s come so far since then,” she says.

Neville was on the squad during an infamous trip to France in 2012, when poor planning meant the team were forced to spend the night before the game in uncomfortable conditions on an overnight train. They went onto lose by a single point.

A letter criticising the IRFU for its "poor logistical planning" and accusing it of not taking the women's game seriously was published in The Irish Times, and the debacle led to major changes in how the squad was treated. "From that moment forward, the IRFU backed the team 100 per cent," says Neville.

A lack of parity between male and female players has also dogged Gaelic games, with conditions for women players varying from county to county. Some have described having to train under just one spotlight

“The major improvements included dedicated coaching staff, extra video analysis, access to nutritionists, physiotherapy, massage, the quality of accommodation and travel. And the outlook on the team because more professional.”

Winning the 2013 Grand Slam “happened from the changes that took place after 2012, and the extra support we got from the IRFU both financially and personally, which allowed us to grow and develop as a squad. Success breed success,” she says.

A lack of parity between male and female players has also dogged Gaelic games, with conditions for women players varying from county to county. Some have described having to train under just one spotlight, or being left to go hungry after training, while their male counterparts enjoyed hot food.

Turning tide

But the tide has turned in recent years, with major sponsors such as Lidl coming on board and helping to promote women’s football, and government grants being made available to intercounty squads.

Begley says the players are already beginning to see the results. “The funding is ring-fenced around player support, injury prevention and performance analysis. Those support structures are so important for amateur players. The WGPA did a survey of women players in 2015 and we found that only 7 per cent got travel expenses, 33 per cent have no access to showers after training.” The same survey found that 80 per cent felt “overwhelmed”.

In hockey, says McCay, male and female players enjoy equal treatment – but since neither squad has a sponsor, that treatment does not extend to financial compensation.

It's about making the invisible visible. Sometimes difficult, painful processes like this need to happen to highlight the inequality

“From January to September alone this year the women’s hockey squad is being asked to take 65 days off work,” which is usually taken as unpaid leave, she says.

“This is pretty much the equivalent of a 25 per cent reduction in wages, plus our levy costs. I think the women’s football team deserve answers and support, but I think they are not alone in terms of the financial sacrifices: in fact there are a lot of female athletes worse off.”

True equality

Sinead Kane, who recently completed seven marathons in seven days despite being legally blind, believes the culture of sport needs to change at a much deeper level if true equality is to be realised.

Kane first came to public attention in 2015, when she successfully challenged the organisers of the Women’s Mini Marathon over their refusal to allow her male guide runner to assist her in the race. “It’s about making the invisible visible. Sometimes difficult, painful processes like this need to happen to highlight the inequality,” she says.

The best way to support women's sport is to actually physically support women's sport – go to an event

“I would say well done to those women for showing personal leadership and challenging the status quo. Sport is still seen as an expression of hyper-masculinity, and that’s something that starts at school level. It’s there in the way sport is marketed and the way it’s viewed in society. That culture needs to change.

“I do think there’s a long way to go yet before everyone is given a fair chance to compete, and people are encouraged to participate regardless of gender or level of ability. I only started running at 30 – what could I have achieved if I had taken it up earlier?”

For that culture to change, those involved believe two things need to happen. Young women need to be encouraged to stay in sport, and the public needs to channel some of the outrage expressed this week into greater support for women’s sport generally.

“We can give out and complain, but if we want to do something about it, we should get out there and start supporting women’s sports. I recently refereed a match in France and was blown away by the support that the international French women’s team received – there were roughly 15,000 in attendance,” says Joy Neville.

Outrage

Elaine Buckley, co-founder of the Fair Game Podcast dedicated to covering the stories behind the headlines in women’s sport, agrees that outrage can only go so far to bring about change.

“The best way to support women’s sport is to actually physically support women’s sport – go to an event. It all comes down to attendance figures for me – support at the frontlines, and those other much-talked about factors of sponsorship and media coverage will follow suit.

“The general public are very forthcoming with their online outrage whenever there’s a rant to be had about inequality for sportswomen. I just wish they’d get offline and hit the sidelines instead.”

Mageean agrees. “You do have to be the change you want to see in the world. I think the soccer women are going to be frontrunners and we’re going to see more of this. But ultimately, the buck stops with us.”

Discussions about inequality are meaningless “if I can’t get my friends and family out to watch a women’s rugby match or a women’s soccer match”, she says.

For Duggan, while the support from the public last week gave the team a much-needed morale boost, the real challenge is how to convert that support into attendance figures.

“If we got one third of the support to our games that we were getting on social media last week, it would be an astronomical improvement in attendance. The flip side of that is that if you start getting the results, you’ll get more people at the games. But to get those results, we do need more investment in the sport.”

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