Inclusion in netball

Today is Suncorp Super Netball’s first ever Pride Match – played between both Queensland Firebirds and Collingwood Magpies and to celebrate the day, LGBTIQIA+ community member Caitlin Neate investigates inclusivity in netball.

Much discussion has been had since the announcement of the Olympic Games Brisbane 2032 about netball being included as a medal event.

To unpack that, we’re going to have a look at netball’s gender inclusion and what role everyone can play to ensure the sport can make it to the global stage.

Gender inclusion in sport, in general, is becoming more prevalent in the media every day but it is easy to forget that this is not just some talking point or debate exercise. 

Truly embracing gender inclusivity in sport has widespread impacts on not only players individually, but everybody involved in sport from fans to organisers.

According to the 2020 Pride In Sport Index benchmark data, 60 per cent of people believe that a sporting organisation’s history on LGBTQIA+ inclusion will positively influence them to join that sport. 

More than three-quarters of gay and lesbian people in Australia are in the closet while playing youth sport, fearing discrimination from coaches, other players and officials.

LGBT youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide and transgender youth are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide. 

It is not performative, inclusivity really does matter.

🎶 Let’s talk about biological sex and gender baby đźŽ¶

For some context about transgender and gender diversity in sport, trans athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004.

With the news of Laurel Hubbard becoming the first trans athlete set to compete in the Olympics, once again everybody is weighing in on the validity of trans athletes.

We don’t need to rehash this. The science is there and while I am queer, I am not trans, and there are plenty of people much smarter than me (and who are trans or intersex) that have articulated this discussion in great detail, and I urge you to read their words and listen to them.

For your perusal, here is a list of stories about trans and nonbinary athletes: Emma BastableTaylor LingHannah MounceyCaster SemenyaNikki HiltzCece TelferLayshia Clarendon, Robyn Lambird

It is a complicated issue with no easy solution. At the end of the day, there are more than two biological sexes, gender is a social construct and there are far too many cis-gender (people whose gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth) people having a say on this topic with the expectation that their opinions should hold more weight than actual LGBTQIA+ people.

Gender inclusion in sport as a whole though has a long way to go and while netball leads in many women’s domains, it is not free from criticism.

So, what do the Olympics have to do with men and netball?

We see the argument online often that one of the big reasons that netball is not included in the Olympics is because it is only played professionally by women.

Whether this is entirely the reason or not, this type of discourse always leads to a conversation about gender inclusion in netball.

Late last year, Netball Australia announced that they had committed to the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people, partnering with the PrideInSport initiative.

This is a great first step, but what will it actually mean? To achieve equality, actions must be driven by equity and social justice, right now a statement is just a statement. 

Boys 2 Netball men

As we know, netball is traditionally classed as a women’s sport and on top of that, it is dominated by cisgender heterosexual (cishet) women from grassroots to the elite.

Netball is the most successful women’s sport in Australia and has done so much for helping women all across the commonwealth access opportunities, but the discussion of gender inclusivity and equality in netball does not have to come at the expense of women in the sport.

In saying this, of course, women deserve a respected space that is wholly theirs in the sporting world, but we should strive to avoid it coming at the expense of gender diverse players or men and boys for that matter.

Usually, when we see kids pushing to play an opposite gender dominated sport, it is girls wanting to play “typically men’s” sports, but netball has grown in popularity with cisgender boys and men alike and this interest is only growing (It’s estimated 100 thousand men play netball in Australia).

Men’s and mixed netball associations are flourishing and as we saw with the successful inclusion of the New Zealand men’s team in the Cadbury series, netball at the elite level is starting to seriously consider these men as netballers in their own rights. 

Elite netball players and mainstream media have also pointed out that showcasing men’s netball might be the way to reach a broader audience, much to the chagrin of some fans.

There is some support for men’s and mixed netball from the fans but there is also a lot of (who could be argued more traditional) netball fans who are not interested, to say the least.

On top of this, the state of the game review highlighted the need to grow the sport and that increasing men and boys participation is integral to that, though counterintuitive to the “empowering girls and women to shine” vision.

Embracing men and boys in netball doesn’t have to take away from empowering girls, men can and should be all aboard the team girls train, how else do we expect true equality and respect for women if men aren’t fighting on the same team.

I can sympathise with these fans who are less than enthused about the inclusion of men, I understand that it is hard for fans of a sport that has fought so hard to be recognised by mainstream sports fans as legitimate and to be taken seriously.

Netball isn’t taken seriously because of sexism, misogyny, and the patriarchy (it always comes back to patriarchy and capitalism).

In this society, if you can’t sexualise or objectify women, then they don’t make a profit, and then they aren’t “worth the time”.

This narrative affects all women’s sport, not just netball, and also leaves no room for gender non-conforming players.

The misogynistic narrative that surrounds netball does not only impact women.

Cishet men and gay men who play netball are ridiculed by society due to their alignment with femininity (netball) and gender non-conforming players are rejected because of their perceived lack of femininity to offer up for profit.   

As netball fans we KNOW this is sexist rubbish.

We know that netball doesn’t need the stamp of approval from cishet men in society to be considered a real sport.

We know that when people from all walks of life give netball a chance, they like it. We know what netball deserves and as fans we know how much of women’s blood, sweat and tears have gone into getting this sport to where it is today.

So, for a lot of fans who feel like we still don’t have enough for ourselves, I can respect that it feels like opening up the door to men is a step backward or a slap in the face, but it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. 

“Strength, stamina and physique”

Most sporting organisations in Australia have policies that do not allow for boys and girls to play mixed sports together after the age of 12, generally citing “strength, stamina, and physique”.

But what if differences in “strength, stamina, and physique” didn’t impact the gameplay enough for significant advantages and disadvantages?

This is exactly what one study conducted in a Melbourne high school found

Comparing both off-court and on-court fitness, and single-sex and mixed-sex games, the study found that there were no significant biological advantages or disadvantages between the boys and girls.

Where some anthropometric indices were higher for the boys regarding fitness and athletic capability, it was matched by a better on-court performance by the girls.

Athletic ability vs netball IQ, if you will. 

Another interesting finding in the study was that the boys performed better when playing mixed netball than they did playing single-sex games.

Sex and gender are always spoken about in a binary, including our approach to equality and inclusion, but what if the answer was deconstructing the binary altogether and embracing a gender apathetic approach.

Mixed netball is played by hundreds of thousands of people all across the country at grassroots and amateur levels.

We keep thinking about combatting the misogynistic and sexist narrative that netball is a “weak girls” sport and the butt of the joke by trying to broaden the fanbase and attract more mainstream fans but what if a better approach was unpacking the root cause of it, playing mixed netball in schools.

We see these “strength, stamina and physique” differences in the elite netball as it is, we see this discourse all the time online about players’ physical differences, don’t we?

For example, there have been comments about Fever shooter Jhaniele Fowler’s height and the implications that she has a supposedly unfair advantage, this advantage being purely biological and on the other end of the spectrum, there were comments about Collingwood Midcourter Kelsey Browne’s speed and small stature allowing her to attack with/through players bodies without penalty (these are purely examples for context and are no reflection on the specific players, the examples could be any tall strong shooter or any zippy small midcourter).

So, if the science tells us that trans athletes after transitioning have little to no advantages from their sex assigned at birth, cisgender players have little to no advantages or disadvantages playing together, and we know that gender is a social construct.

Where does this leave us?

In my opinion, netball has the capability and potential to be one of the most gender-inclusive sports in the world.

Going even further, if wholly embraced with kids and teenagers able to play mixed netball together, this could have a significant impact on cisnormativity and sexism in schools. 

Netball is in a unique position to be gender inclusive in a way that is active and intentional, rather than just polite tolerance.

*Infographics are from the the 2020 national benchmark on LGBTQ inclusive sport in Australia report by PrideInSport.

As always, we’re here if you need. However, please remember you can call 1800RESPECT or LifeLine on 13 11 14 at any time.

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