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Spitting tacks as competitive sport; a Friday night rant

I have to get this out while I am still spitting tacks. In fact, in my mind’s eye I can hear the little ‘plick, plick’ sounds as little upholstery tacks spray my computer screen. What has caused this screen-denting fury? I wish it was climate change or workers’ rights, or some event in the world that would prove I have the soul of an activist. But no. It’s just an opinion piece; a little mind-burp that pushes the kind of buttons that read ‘Take that, feminazis of the PC brigade!’ blah, blah. Usually these things pass me by and I take little notice. Nevertheless, this one got me. A Melbourne columnist has opined that women’s sport is simply inferior to men’s:

Like most sports fans, of both sexes I hasten to add, I prefer to watch the very best in their chosen field and in just about every major sport, the male competitors are vastly superior to the female equivalent. That’s not merely an opinion, it’s an indisputable fact and to say otherwise is to deny human biology.

Women may be smarter and more skilful than men in many areas but when it comes to size, strength and speed, the male of the species has the fairer sex well and truly covered. They can run faster, jump higher, throw further.

So why would I watch the WNBA when I could watch the NBA? Or women’s football instead of the AFL? Why would I or anybody want to watch an inferior product?

See, what riles me is not actually the proposition that women don’t throw a ball or run etc as fast as men. I actually don’t care that biology creates such a division. I can see why women’s sport tends to attract fewer sponsors, less money and less media time. I love it when we do celebrate women’s success in sport, as in our rowers in the olympics, or other athletic sports, or netball, and I want better visibility and financial support for women’s sport, but I can see the pragmatic and hard-nosed side of the argument that says ‘women’s sport often attract less attention and therefore female athletes will be paid less.’ I don’t really get offended by that debate.

One main problem with Rita Panahi’s perspective is that she only judges women’s endeavours in comparison with men’s. Women’s sporting efforts can only have validity if they are equal to, or greater to, men’s. Panahi cites the match up between the Williams sisters and Karsten Braasch in 1998 as a prime example; when in response to a challenge, he beat them both beating Serena 6-1 and Venus 6-2. The fact that the author even chose this story says volumes about the regard in which she holds women’s sporting efforts. No matter who the Williams sisters beat; if they have a vagina, it doesn’t count.

But that’s not really what we do, as sports watchers. I don’t watch Serena smash the ball and think “yeah, but Djokovic would do it harder”. I watch to see what Serena’s opponent does in return. I don’t watch Lisa Carrington power down the course thinking “yeah..but Mahe’s faster, if his guts are right”. I see Lisa in her context, and Serena in hers. It’s the competition in front of us that defines the competitors, not the shadowy ones that aren’t even on the field. This can be a little harder for me with some team sports, but it’s really not hard to watch any good sporting competition in its own context for the joy it affords. Why else do we watch school sport? Paralympics? it’s competition, baby! Many of us have some kind of atavistic, emotional response to a good sporting competition and it doesn’t matter who the hell is playing.

But even Panahi’s testosterone preference is not what annoys the tacks out of me (although it gets pretty close). We can argue about the quality of women’s competition until I run out of tacks. But really, what turns me into a kind of frothy Gatling Gun is what this kind of writing means for our girl children. Why the hell would any girl bother to play competitive sport in any age group with this kind of joyless literal one-upmanship?

I’ll never forget Glenn Osbourne saying on the Code years ago on MTS when talk turned to Netball. “Pfft” He reckoned. “Who cares about netball.” And changing the subject back to the real sport; union or league, I forget which, never mind that many young girls watch shows like that for when their stars appear. I had a young friend who was playing netball at intermediate at that stage. She was watching, and her mother told me the next day that her daughter was so gutted to have her chosen sport thrown away like some used snot-rag. Now I have a daughter of my own, and I have no idea if she’ll be sporty. But if she does travel down that road, she should be encouraged to play, to compete and to love sport, if that’s what lights her fire.

For Panahi to say:

But here’s a shameful confession that will no doubt enrage the sisterhood: I couldn’t care less about women’s sport.

she is not actually engaging in a measured critique of pay packets and media exposure and sexual exploitation that some of the article purports to be (which I don’t object to). She’s really saying ‘Girls, don’t bother.’

And I just hate that. But I’ll leave the last word to another Australian columnist Megan Maurice who refuses to be outraged and just treats Panahi’s words with the flippancy they deserve:

Back at home, the Australian netball selectors defiantly named an entire team of women to represent the Diamonds at August’s Netball World Cup in Sydney. This is despite Panahi’s assertion that women aren’t much good at sport really and no one should bother watching them.

It will be a real blow to the more than 18,000 spectators who have already purchased tickets to the sold out World Cup final when they realise they’ve all come to watch a bunch of women. Let’s hope this move isn’t too costly to the Diamonds.

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

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