Men’s and Mixed Netball

NZ Men’s player Junior Levi weighs in on netball debate

Netball’s approach to inclusion has come under scrutiny as Netball Queensland has come under fire for the inclusion of an all-male team as a part of their annual State Underage Championships.

This has once again kicked off the conversation of men in netball, caused some very traditional views of sex segregation in sport and raised the question of inclusion at what cost?

While currently stunted in Australia due to the pandemic Men’s Netball is gaining massive momentum worldwide and very quickly gaining popularity.

Since the world first Cadbury Series in 2019, where a prime-time televised match between the NZ Men’s and the Silver Ferns took place, we’ve seen the rise of the Men’s game with 2021 featuring England’s first Men’s and Mixed competition and even more recently the completion of the male International tournament featuring teams from all over the African continent.

There is no denying the market for men in the sport is growing rapidly so it’s no surprise there is a need for competition and spaces for men to be able to compete and play the sport they so love.

But how do we approach the respectful inclusion of men in netball? A space unlike any in the world completely dominated by women?

Netball Queensland explored this by allowing the Queensland Suns’ Under 17 team (all male) to compete in the annual Nissan State Titles featuring girls’ teams of Under 16 and Under 18 age divisions.

The Suns’ team dominated the round-robin undefeated and won the final by a convincing margin.

This was met with outrage from fans and parents who attended the competition as it was reported that players were subject to abuse from spectators throughout the last couple of days of the competition.

There were reports of clear abusive comments during the grand final game made directly to the Suns’ team and management.

Those present were clearly very vocal about their dissatisfaction with the success of an all-boys team at the state championship and this abuse also followed online where the further critique of Netball Queensland and all those involved ensued.

Netball Queensland CEO Catherine Clark recently commented and said ‘this year, in an effort to showcase the talent in both female and male pathways we offered the Queensland Suns men’s team the opportunity to play in the Nissan State Titles having welcomed the Suns in an invitational capacity in 2020’.

“Just as we have seen in New Zealand with the Cadbury Series, where the Silver Ferns play against the New Zealand Men’s Netball team, we are hopeful this will be the catalyst for a stand-alone men’s competition in 2022 and inspires more boys to get involved in netball,” she continued.

The need to showcase talent in both male and female pathways has to be approached with criticality, there is a nuance that has to be considered as well as the clear obvious point of difference between that of the sexes and netballing journeys these players are on.

It is clear that in a race to be inclusive, Netball Queensland and the Queensland Suns have missed the typical exercise of risk management and impact forecasting while making the decision to include the Suns in this year’s competition.

Firstly, there needed to be consideration of the current level at hand.

The age bracket of players between 15-19 years leans itself dramatically towards the physical advantage and – at this underage level – this competition is about the development of skills and fundamentals setting up players for success should they decide to take the sport further in their lives.

In some ways, the teams are at varying standards as Queensland Suns run a state program.

The comparison stated between this situation and the Cadbury series while it could be said that this could be an inspiration, a direct comparison or duplication would not work at this underage level.

The Cadbury series featured the best team in the world the Silver Ferns, a team full of elite athletes, versus new Zealand’s best men.

At this level, the gender disparity is very thin due to skill level and the environment these female players are subject to that their male counterparts are not.

There is also the consideration of the primary consumer of netball at this underage level that has to be considered, underage netball isn’t always self-funded – it is almost completely parent/caregiver funded.

While there is no excuse for the behaviour and abuse reported, some assumingly from parents, it is not left wondering as to the motivation behind this.

For some of the far regional teams, travelling to these events can cost hundreds of dollars and thousands of kilometres travelled for their daughter to play the best of the best in their state.

These are some of the nuances that have to be considered before such decisions about inclusion are made.

The hope is that this doesn’t stifle inclusion in netball.

The Queensland Suns’ work tirelessly to provide ample opportunity to boys and men to play netball and given the complications of the pandemic they have provided opportunities such as the State of Origin Netball Series and the Born to Shine Netball series which has seen great success.

While there is more work to go there is a consideration that has to be taken also to ensure that opportunities that are afforded for boys and men aren’t at the expense of existing pathways for athletes who want to qualify for their own state teams.

Netball is such a singular sport in the world where the status quo unlike other popular sports is with women, so in this endeavour, inclusion has to be approached with more than just a want to be “included”.

The difficulty of creating space is ensuring the correct infrastructure exists to support inclusion.

The intention is to be commended but the impact it has is the reality and that is what is left to be dealt with.

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