Written By: Greg Baum 26/06/15
It would doubtless be news to many that there is a Victorian men’s netball team. One of its members, who I bumped into at a function after a Melbourne Vixens match a few years ago, said this anonymous men’s team would sometimes beat the Vixens in practice matches. He also said some of his teammates could slam dunk a netball. He was not claiming superiority over the women. It was merely part of an informal conversation over a couple of sausage rolls about the state and status of netball.
Men’s netball remains obscure. Late last year, Netball Scoop, a website devoted to all matters netball, reported rapturously on a keenly fought match in Parramatta between — who else? — Australia and New Zealand. “Ultra-competitive … supreme fitness … outstanding athleticism,” enthused Alex O’Connor. But the stadium was near empty. Courtside, O’Connor fell into conversation with a woman who said: “These guys get very little exposure, very little support. It’s a bloody shame.”
This week, the Australian women’s soccer team, the Matildas, made the country sit up and take notice by beating Brazil in the Women’s World Cup in Canada. On Sunday, they play Japan for a semi-final berth. It is improbable that the Matildas would beat the Socceroos in a practice match, but they do play a lively and stylish brand of soccer in their own right. With the spotlight on them, it also became clear that they are semi pros at most, and are paid a fraction of what the men get, and everyone agreed that it was a bloody shame.
Arguably, this is because we are only part way down a historical path. For the longest time, women’s sport didn’t get the same attention as men’s sport, because neither men or women took it as seriously. Not so long ago, and perhaps still, teenage boys compared themselves on sporting prowess while teenage girls compared themselves on boys, a phenomenon counsellors and therapists fought against. Even today, weekend sport is compulsory at most private boys’ schools, but not girls’ schools.
In most women’s sport, the standard is rising at a faster rate than their men’s counterparts. If this is because it is off a lower base, so be it. Cricket and tennis come readily to mind, and now soccer, too. A women’s AFL game earlier this year was well received, and another later in the year will be televised live.
A little more money and exposure means sportswomen can spend more time at practice and play, furthering the rate of improvement. Eventually, exposure, backing and equal favour will come, but not in one leap. Meantime, pioneers and models abound: Lauren Jackson, Sally Pearson, Meg Lanning. Lanning broke new ground at school, playing cricket in and against boys teams, and is now Australian captain. Tennis has squared up prize money, cricket has brought women under the same umbrella as men. Women athletes always were there anyway. Elite netball is now at least semi pro.
Technological advances have enhanced women’s cricket and tennis, for instance, more even than the men’s versions, making them unrecognisable from their former selves. In nearly all women’s sports, rules have been modified (or at least blind eyes turned) to enliven the attraction and add to the thrill. Only notionally is netball still a non-contact sport.
But can sport ever be oblivious to gender the way we aspire to make society blind to colour? That is doubtful and probably undesirable. Sportswomen ask not to be compared with men, which is fair enough, because gender is one difference neither can do a damned thing about. But sport is an aesthetic as well as athletic pursuit, and so comparisons cannot help but hit you in the face. Men and women do the same things differently along the axes of explosive and graceful, and that won’t change any more than Mars and Venus will switch orbits. It is as pointless to protest this as it is to decry biology.
Reflexively, subliminally, there was a comparison in Netball Scoop’s appreciation of men’s netball. A picture and caption celebrated the element of “aerial contest” in the men’s game. “They might have been men, but they were playing incredible netball,” read the report. If said about women playing a traditional men’s game, this would have been considered patronising. This way round, it was simply and happily admiring.
Ultimately, the gender comparison would only be an issue if men and women were competing against one another, which mostly they don’t. But I was witness once to a beautifully comical spectacle, when an elite junior women’s basketball team, seeking extra practice, entered a suburban teenage boys’ competition. The girls were better by far anyway, but the boys were at a loss about how to play the game, even more than they would have been at the school social. Their coach, incidentally, was no help.