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Is 'Anti-Sexism' damaging women's sport?

Al Jazeera's Joanna Tilley questions whether women's sport in the UK is being helped by the politically correct brigade
Last modified: 19 Jul 2013 15:39

Never has women's sport been a more fascinating topic. 

On Thursday, the attempts of the BBC to raise the profile of women's football were met by England's failure to get out of the Euro group stages. The BBC's lacklustre coverage, as my colleague Lee Wellings writes about here, has failed to capture the imagination and promote the sport to those already dubious about women playing football. 

At the Open Championships, there is uproar over a male members only golf club hosting the event, with many choosing to boycott Muirfield, and let’s not forget presenter John Inverdale’s recent comments about Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon.

Covering women’s sport (and women in sport) has become a minefield.

One question sports journalists often ask themselves is ‘Are we doing enough?’

However, recent events make me think it’s time to ask a very different question: ‘Could we be doing too much?’

Inverdale’s comments were undoubtedly inappropriate. On Wimbledon Champ Bartoli he said, "Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little 'You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.'"

His crass words riled more than 700 people enough to complain. Fair enough - would a male tennis player be judged on their looks in this day and age? It would be laughable.

One lady who took offence was Britain's culture secretary Maria Miller.

On Wednesday, she reacted by writing a letter to the BBC Director General Lord Hall to reiterate her need for more positive women’s sport coverage and to clarify in black and white her shock over Inverdale’s words.

It is not the first time Miller has stuck her oar in in regards to women's sport.

The first time was back in September when women’s sport was riding high on the Olympic wave. In another letter to broadcasters she ordered them to stop hiding women’s sport and to capitalise on the public’s appetite for watching female athletes.

It was an understandable move from a woman eager to please a week into her additional role of equalities minister. She was taking the bull by the horns.

But one wonders whether the proverb 'more haste, less speed' should have be heeded here.  

Because anyone with an eye on the BBC will know they HAVE done something about it. Boy have they. 

A public broadcaster could hardly ignore her comments especially after finding themselves in hot water in 2011 for failing to select a single woman for their Sports Personality of the Year award.

The BBC Sport website in particular has gone to huge lengths to cover women's team sport in the UK, especially football. The BBC is/was also showing all games featuring England in the Euros.

They are fighting the women's cause strongly but I can't help think they still haven't got it entirely right.

Because poor content is, time and time again, revealing a lack of sincerity.

Are they focusing on women's sport because of their love and passion for it? I do not believe so. Are they focusing on it because of public demand? Definitely not.

It feels more like they are following protocol because they don't want to get another ticking off from the government. They are sending journalists to write rudimentary stories to fill a quota, journalists whose lack of passion is clear from the words on the screen.

What this has resulted in is the broadcaster ignoring what people want to read to churn out reams of forgettable pieces on women’s sport.

It is important to note I am not talking about tennis and athletics, as these sports have a following in their own right - more women's team sports, which are yet to capture widespread interest.

If you glance at the comments on most of these female football articles they read something like this 'I don't care', ‘Nobody cares’.

This is no exaggeration, just look at the most popular comments on this article:  

Here are two examples. 

"To be frank I tuned in hoping to scratch my football itch and turned off after twenty minutes of poor control, appalling passing, technical ineptitude, poor coaching, shocking shooting, laughable goalkeeping and ludicrous commentators talking about the amazingly high standard on offer."

"The BBC made a huge fuss about actually getting exclusive broadcasting rights for what they saw as a major sporting event. Now we've seen why no-one else wanted it. They will keep trying to force women's football down the throats of fans but the simple fact is that Powell's comments about the women being technically as good as the men is so far off I would suggest a new prescription is needed."

These feelings are disappointing, but not at all rare, and understandable considering the coverage and the way the BBC is forcing women’s sport upon them – they have also done the same with women’s cricket and rugby, neither of which deserve (in viewing terms) the amount of coverage they get.

Miller and other female football fighters (perhaps I was one, until now) have made the media terrified of doing the wrong thing in regards to covering women’s sport.

So terrified, in fact, that they are now just doing the wrong thing in a different way.

Fear - this might be the reason for the turgid TV coverage of the Euros and the lacklustre content on the website.

There's no laughter, no jokes, no colour - for fear of being reprimanded, like Inverdale, for not taking women athletes seriously.

But we must remind ourselves that we are talking about sport. Sport.

With news – people often think they should be interested. With sport, people are interested. We shouldn’t be force feeding the public content. That's not sport!

The sad fact (and it really is sad) is that political correctness might actually be harming women's sport. Nobody knows what to do with it. Nobody knows how to nurture it. The one thing uniting everyone - is a fear of getting on the wrong side of it.

So it is floundering. Instead of the media gently making people more informed about sportswomen and the personalities and characters involved, the heavy handed approach is being used - 'here is women's sport - like it!'. This is an approach that distances the very people open minded enough to give it a go.    

While on first glance Miller’s letter to the BBC seems positive, what if it does more harm than good?

What if it creates more fear at the BBC, more worrying about presenters saying the wrong thing, more need for articles that people don’t want… yet!

What it if makes women's sport even more serious, and in turn, even less fun. 

Maybe what’s best for the BBC and women's sport is for everyone to take a chill pill. Maybe women's sport (tennis and athletics excluded) is not something we should be so actively pushing.

I am a footballer and can see the Olympic affect. Every week more girls turn up to practice and it is only a matter of time before women’s football is so big it can't be ignored. It is this growth that will create more interest from the public. Add to this the fact the FA are increasing spending on the women’s game and with Rio looming on the horizon, the signs are good.

But for now maybe we should let it breathe. Let it grow. Don't try to make it run before it can walk.  

And for goodness sake politicians - be sports - and stick to politics.
 

Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist working with Al Jazeera on the Sport website.

Follow her on Twitter (@joannatilley) or her website, http://mythoughtonsport.blogspot.com

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