Una Mullally: Women playing rugby do not deserve to be mauled

Reaction to Women’s Rugby World Cup shows ingrained attitudes yet to be tackled

A ball hadn't been kicked at the Women's Rugby World Cup, hosted by Ireland, before a lad who wanted some attention tried to grab it. Former rugby player David Corkery took to Facebook to air opinions for which nobody had asked: "Maybe I'm just getting old but when I see women partake in any kind of confrontational and aggressive behaviourisms, it just doesn't sit right with me . . . Who knows I might even be converted and start to enjoy the ladies adaptation of the game? But I doubt it!"

I doubt the amazing rugby players from Ireland and who travelled to Ireland will lose any sleep over his moaning, but it is still an opinion with which many women are, sadly, familiar. The attempt to leverage one’s age as protection for sharing such a foolish opinion is also insulting, as if age is permission for ignorance.

It’s tempting to ignore such foolishness, but it also needs to be called out. Corkery’s post was met with derision, yet it is incredibly frustrating that the likes of Corkery should try to gain attention for something that is not about him. Ultimately, his opinion is not actually about rugby, it’s about a peculiar entitlement that women encounter from men all the time: being told what they can and can’t or should and shouldn’t do. Women play rugby. They’re in the middle of a world cup. Yet air time is still given to whether or not the should even be on the pitch.

Fifty years ago, women were essentially banned from running marathons, an activity that was viewed as far beyond their capabilities. How ridiculous does that seem now? Women are curtailed from realising their potential, or just from taking part in things that are normal and accessible to men, all the time.

Google memo

Corkery's comments were the sporting equivalent of the infamous memo written by now ex-Google engineer James Damore – a sentiment that is, deep down, rooted in resentment that women are now more visible in the workplace and on the pitch. When Kathrine Switzer became the first female numbered entry of the Boston marathon in 1967, another runner, Jock Spencer, attempted to rip her bib from her. How fragile must masculinity be that women taking part in anything is viewed as a threat, something to be disparaged, or mused upon as perhaps not ideal? How slow are we progressing that an opinion that women should not take part in something they are already taking part in can be couched as acceptable debate?

A good way to test one’s opinions is to examine one’s reactions to things. Corkery’s reaction to women playing rugby was to express his distaste for it, and to cloak that distaste in the architecture of innocuousness. The first thing Corkery and his ilk should do is interrogate that reaction. Is it rooted in privilege? Why did women’s participation irritate him? Why the desire to take women down?

This topic was debated on Irish radio, as if “should women be allowed play sport” is an actual debate. Irish media is obsessed with contrarianism and loudmouths. It is obsessed even more with the contrarian voices who are generally merely out to seek attention (the gay man opposed to marriage equality, the woman who thinks contemporary feminism is damaging, the “right on” person who wants to police the tone of rights campaigners, the “liberal” guy who thinks there’s a conspiracy of “groupthink” or “consensus”). It’s all so basic. It’s all so intellectually underdeveloped, populated by people who don’t realise that these arguments have been hashed out so many times before, and have the arrogance or just self-propelling cynicism to think that their hot take is unique. We’ve heard it all before. Yet these contrarian voices are being brought to the fore, even when the represent nobody but their own personal grievances.

Emotional impact

I played Gaelic football and basketball during my school years. I can’t imagine the emotional impact of hearing a male sportsman say I could or shouldn’t play. I can’t imagine my father – an athletics and Gaelic football coach – saying those things. Men do not own sport, or the workplace, or boards, or parliaments. Women’s participation takes nothing away from them. Men didn’t quit running marathons when Switzer crossed the line.

In a promotional video for the world cup on RTÉ, the voiceover singled out the obstacles overcome and the sacrifices made for the Irish women rugby players to get to this point. "For every day's leave" was one of the lines. The sacrifices these women have to make, and the obstacles they're up against, are much greater than those faced in the men's game. Nor are these women properly financially rewarded for their troubles. I'm looking forward to the day when I don't have to read about an almost superhuman journey towards the top level by a sportswoman or female athlete. I want to read about well-resourced training environments, proper stadiums, supportive organisations, decent pay, representative media coverage – the kind of things the guys take for granted.

One of the motivators for women’s participation in all arenas is the maxim “If you can see it, you can be it.” Questioning women’s participation in sport is an attempt to preempt, undermine, and halt their participation before they even get there. Don’t tell women they can’t do things. Support them. Sportsmen, with all their advantages, have a duty to support women, to stand up for them, to advocate for them and to champion them. Many do. The occasional sexist might try to spoil the party, but we know who the respected sportspeople are in this situation. They’re on the pitch this month, playing their hearts out.