Jill Scott’s I’m A Celebrity win doesn’t equate to equality in sport
It should have been a matter of semantic inevitability, the Lioness emerging triumphant from the jungle.
The fact the jungle in question is actually an Outback messes with the already dubious analogy, but the crowning of the former England player Jill Scott on I’m A Celebrity… this week, just as Germany were staging a fightback against Spain in the World Cup, should have felt like the closing of a circle.
The very recognition of Scott, or any female footballer for that matter, as a celebrity is a sea change in itself.
Without leaving our sofas, we were able to fill our eyeballs with the celebration of female and male sports stars in two very different ways, on two major TV channels. Gender equality in sport? Completed it, mate.
Except, of course, we are sporting light years away from gender parity. I would go so far as to suggest the very progress we have made in this journey, is part of what is holding us back.
The greater platform given to a very few female sports stars seems to delude us into thinking we’re close enough, and that close enough is good enough. It’s not.
While Scott will rightly be offered many more hard-earned endorsements and a fatter pay cheque for the foreseeable future at least, the colleagues she has left behind in the Women’s Super League are still reported to be earning an average of £30,000 a year.
To put that into context, the average annual WSL wage is still half the amount the average Premier League player earns in a week.
And yet, relatively speaking, football is well-paid for aspiring female athletes. Good luck to those in more obscure physical endeavours which do not command column inches or radio headlines.
None of this information is anything new, which is why other people’s surprise at the realities of women’s sport never fails to surprise me.
I had cause to think about it during a morning I spent last week with the new women’s motocross world champion, Nancy van de Ven.
Asked about inequalities in her sport, she said: ‘If the male world champion won two million euros, I won a tenth of that.’
A gasp around the room. Nancy paused for a second, recalculated what one tenth would be, and realised how far off she still was.
‘No sorry’, she said, ‘not one tenth, one hundredth. I earned one hundred times less than my male equivalent.’
I nodded sagely. The room of employees from the motorbike industry was in shock. It’s a shock that increasingly angers me.
Why do we expect things to be so much better than they are? Because athletes look happy on Instagram and they are featured in the odd magazine photoshoot?
We have to remain aware of the situation. Van de Ven has had to battle through the same injuries, broken bones and disappointment as her male counterparts, and yet also works a side hustle to earn a living that enables her to compete.
This disappoints but it shouldn’t surprise.
Before you ask why you should care about a woman you have possibly never heard of, in a sport you may have barely a passing awareness of, earning sums that mean nothing to your struggle in this cost-of-living crisis, the answer is simple. It’s about equality, opportunity and the kind of girls we are bringing through the world.
For more girls to be playing sport, learning to be comfortable with their bodies and sharpening the competitive edge they need to survive in what is still a world of male boardrooms and patriarchal dominance, we need to give them something to aspire to.
The little boys bruising their backsides right now practising their Richarlison bicycle kicks, are not dreaming of playing five-a-side football with the boys from accounts every Saturday morning.
That is where they’re more likely to end up, but they are lifelong fans and consumers of the sport because of the dream they have literally bought into from a young age.
In this never-ending battle towards equality, I am an optimistic pragmatist.
I don’t look at the men’s World Cup and think the women should be enjoying the same tomorrow, or even in five, 10 years’ time, but the danger is in thinking the hard work has been done.
The risk is we look at the phenomenal success of the Euros during the summer as evidence of some form of equality. We can’t simply rest easy until the next major women’s tournament, safe in our regular male sports bubble with the knowledge somewhere, somehow, progress is being made.
Before you even think of regurgitating the guff about market forces dictating levels of investment, please remember those forces have been shaped by the historic repression of women’s sport, with investment and broadcast decisions still largely being made by men.
While I will cheer Jill Scott’s jungle crowning as loudly as the next reality television addict, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking a tiny platform for a few has changed the reality of the many.
You can choose not to care whether women’s sport, or a women’s world, can ever be equal to men. But next time you hear of the discrepancy, just don’t be shocked.
Engage in the battle to give our girls more opportunities going forward, or recognise complacency and ignorance are part of the problem. It’s up to you to choose which side you wish to be on.
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