25 Sep 2020

Mistreatment of female athletes a wider societal problem - Bidwell

7:01 pm on 25 September 2020

Hardly a week goes by without an allegation of female athletes being mistreated by their governing body.

Gemma McCaw of the Black Sticks in a huddle during the FIH Pro League of Hockey.

The New Zealand women's hockey team. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

If it's not gymnastics, it's hockey or canoeing. Our Football Ferns aren't on strike this year, but it's not so long since mass retirements were all the rage.

The disparity in pay between the Black Caps and White Ferns cricketers remains an issue, never mind the pittance that female provincial players get.

We're all pretty quick to put the boot into New Zealand Rugby and the way they run their cutter, but they look positively progressive compared to some of these other outfits.

Worst of all about these ongoing episodes is that no-one seems to learn anything from them or do anything about them.

Most of us have heard of High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) but what do they actually do? I've no idea. I see they've commissioned an independent report into the rancid culture at Canoe Racing New Zealand, but are then under no obligation to act on any of the report's recommendations.

Sport New Zealand and the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Committee - do you have any idea what either of them do? I don't.

Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to include protecting female athletes from predatory coaches and officials or curtail the bullying and fat-shaming that seem to be a staple of sport nowadays.

I've said before, on RNZ's excellent Extra Time podcast, that some in sports administration are simply dim. They're not prone to a great deal of external scrutiny, nor checks and balances from within, and simply make a lot of lazy bone-headed decisions.

It's not that they're cruel or malevolent and eager to make the life of female athletes a misery, more that they just don't think.

Relationships between teammates are not uncommon among female sports teams. In fact, increasingly, you will even have married couples playing in the same team.

But it's a double-edged sword.

On one side, you feel as if that's an example of how far we've come as a country. It wasn't so long ago that we didn't have same-sex marriage in this country, let alone much tolerance for same-sex relationships in general.

On the other, though, the default setting for many of these teams is to have a white heterosexual male as coach. Someone who, as we've seen at different times, doesn't have a particularly detailed understanding of the dynamics within female sports teams nor the tools to manage them.

The fact that HPSNZ needs to be conducting inquiries into how we treat women shows just how far we still have to go as a nation.

It's heartening to know there are female journalists exposing this mistreatment, because that isn't easy. Colleagues and readers can be cruel and it only takes a couple of stories to generate talk of man-haters and broken records.

But we have to start somewhere and, if the national bodies themselves can't protect their athletes then - for the time being at least - it's going to take the work of some fine and brave sports writers.

Provided they make enough noise for long enough, then someone will hopefully listen.

White Ferns team huddle.

The White Ferns cricket team. Photo: Photosport

For the time being, though, these stories just make you sad. On a human level, when you hear the stories - anonymously told or otherwise - of what some athletes have been through and how much that's hurt them, it's hard not be to be affected.

Parents, too, put their trust in coaches and administrators to care for the children, so to learn you've actually put your child in harm's way must be harrowing.

But there's also the sadness that comes from believing we're a long way from resolving these issues.

People often tell me I'm a pessimist or a cynic. I prefer sceptic and, rightly or wrongly, I don't have a lot of faith in sports administrators.

So, in the short-term, I don't think a lot's going to come from these stories. Partly because I don't believe the appetite for change is that strong among administrators and partly because - as evidenced by HPSNZ's look at canoeing - there's no obligation to act.

And when the big overarching outfit isn't bothered, then why should individual sports be?

More than that, though, we have a societal issue here. One that's hard to fathom and not quick to remedy.

We seem to think we can treat women as second-class. Worse, we seem to think we're entitled to treat them badly and that they have no right to complain.

Until we can address that, then these are just the start of the stories about the mistreatment of female athletes.

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