Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain disorder likely caused by repeated head injuries. It was first described as dementia pugilistica and punch drunk syndrome almost 100 years ago. CTE continues to be a serious risk associated with high impact sports, such as boxing, American football and rugby.
This growing awareness is accelerated by the many lawsuits against organising bodies in relation to brain trauma. Former professional and amateur players in sports such as American football, Australian rules football and rugby say their governing bodies failed to prevent harm during their playing careers.
These are not only issues for elite players. Studies into the brains of former players have found CTE in those who only played as amateurs. CTE has also been found in the brains of players under the age of 30 and even those as young as 17.
Given this context, our recent paper written with Jack Hardwicke, a senior lecturer in the sociology of sport at Nottingham Trent University, has questioned whether it is right for children to participate in sports that intentionally feature impact, particularly involving the head. We argue that allowing under-18s to take part in high impact sports should be viewed as a form of child abuse – we use the term “child brain abuse” – and that these impact sports should be legally prohibited.
We are not calling for adult versions of impact sports to be banned and our argument does not apply to sports or activities where brain trauma might occur by accident. But in sports where impact is a structured part of the game, like boxing – or sports that create rapid brain movements, as in rugby tackling – collisions are not accidents, they are an inherent part of the sport.
The risk of CTE is far higher in sports such as American football and rugby. The odds of developing degenerative brain diseases are increased in former players of impact sports than are found in sports without deliberate impacts or the general population.
There are no health benefits of tackling – and there are no health benefits of being struck in the head. The health benefits of impact rugby or boxing are instead gained from the body’s overall movement.
Tag rugby tends to be faster moving than the sport’s full contact version so is better for improving cardiovascular health. Research has shown that incidents of contact during children’s rugby are the cause of cause of 87% of known injuries. Tackling, in particular, is responsible for 52% of all injuries – with concussion being the most common injury type. Tagging, rather than tackling, saves children’s brains from harm.
Inability to consent
Our research shows that impact sports should be treated equally with other prohibited activities for children, such as smoking. Children are unable to make informed decisions about the long-term risks of these activities. Parental provision for these activities is also socially stigmatised or criminalised.
Our research draws on a number of legal positions that support our argument that neither children nor parents on their behalf can consent to sports that require brain trauma as a necessary component of the sport.
For example, Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which 195 countries are signatories, covers protection from violence, abuse and neglect. It states that:
Governments must do all they can to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and bad treatment by their parents or anyone else who looks after them.
Some commentators have agreed that while high-impact sports are dangerous, using the term child abuse is a step too far.
However, the NSPCC, the UK’s leading children’s charity, say that physical neglect is a form of abuse that occurs if a child is not kept safe. Allowing children to participate in impact sports while being aware of the harm they can cause is, our research shows, a failure keep children safe.
England goalkeeper Mary Earps was named player of the match in England’s victory over Nigeria in the Fifa Women’s World Cup. She has played a key role in England’s recent successes, not just at the World Cup but in previous tournaments. Her performances have made her a hero to her fans.
But Earps’ fans are unable to emulate her by wearing a replica of her goalkeeper shirt: it is not being put up for sale by team kit manufacturer Nike. Earps has said that her goalkeeping shirt not being available to buy is “hurtful”, and a petition by fans calling for the shirt to be produced has reached over 35,000 signatures.
We are currently researching the availability of kits for women’s football fans, together with colleague Jess Richards. The merchandise and clothing available to female fans and male fans of women’s teams is often limited, undesirable or just not available.
Or women may feel obliged to buy a shirt that doesn’t fit them if women’s cuts (shirts made to fit the shape of a female torso) of men’s team shirts are unavailable.
Here, we’ve looked at the kits women can buy on the official online stores for six teams to explore some of these issues.
World Cup clothing
The official online store for England football kits currently highlights the women’s home kit on their home page. Fans can buy a men’s cut – a shirt fitted to the shape of a male torso – of the Lionesses’ shirt, including personalised versions with player names on.
But female fans have fewer items available specifically for them in the store. There are no women’s fit versions of the men’s national team jersey.
The same is true for France – men can buy a men’s fit of the women’s team kit, but there is no women’s fit of the men’s team jersey currently available.
In their official online shop the Republic of Ireland offer women the women’s national team jersey in two different fits. They do also have the women’s national team goalkeeper kit for sale. However, the men’s team shirts are available in both long and short sleeved versions, but the women’s team shirts only come with short sleeves.
The online store for Canada Soccer also features the women’s kit prominently, but the high-end “authentic jersey” is only available for the men’s team, and only in men’s sizes. A women’s fit of the men’s jersey is not available at all.
US soccer fans hoping to emulate women’s team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher are currently only able to buy outfield shirts with her name on it on the official kit website. The only goalkeeper jersey on offer is for the men’s national team and it is only available in a men’s fit. The store has many more items for men than for women, even for products replicating the women’s national team kit.
In 2020 in Australia the away version of the Matildas’ kit, produced by Nike, was not initially available in a women’s cut. Football Australia now has equal availability in terms of the replica jerseys and there are more items for women than for men. But the replica shirts that are currently available for the men’s team are only offered in men’s sizes.
Subtle differences in how women’s sport is treated, such as those we have found here, show that women are still disadvantaged. It is important that fans continue to push for equal opportunities on and off the pitch.
Rugby has a higher rate of injury than most other sports frequently played in schools in the UK. It is a collision sport where players purposefully tackle each other, which can result in serious injury, such as to the head and neck.
The risks of injury, and particularly brain injuries, from playing rugby are now widely recognised. And yet it remains a compulsory sport in many schools.
Tackle rugby should not be compulsory in any school, for any age of children. Where rugby is compulsory, it should be non-contact.
What’s more, schools should provide children and their parents with information on the dangers involved with playing sports like rugby at school.
Research with 825 teenage school rugby players over one season found that more than one in three of the children suffered an injury from playing full-contact rugby. Almost half of these injuries were serious enough that the child could not return to play rugby for 28 or more days.
These injury concerns are also recognised by teachers. Our research has found that 67% of teachers in charge of school PE believe rugby union is the sport that puts children at the greatest risk of harm.
Despite the high risks involved with playing rugby, our research also shows that it is one of the most common sports in schools. We surveyed 288 state-funded secondary schools in England and found that rugby union was played in 81% of these schools. It is more common for boys to play rugby, but over half of the schools offered rugby for girls.
What is more worrying is that rugby is compulsory in the majority of the secondary schools we surveyed. Where schools offered rugby for boys, in 91% of cases it was compulsory. And 54% of schools that taught rugby to girls made it compulsory.
The risks of playing
In elite sport, understanding of the risks of playing rugby is growing. Concussion is the most common injury suffered by elite-level rugby players according to the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the governing body of rugby in England. Professional rugby union players are more likely than not to have suffered a concussion after playing just 25 matches.
But research has found that lowering the tackle height might not reduce the number of concussions suffered by players.
Repetitive head impacts, such as those that happen in rugby, can also cause neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and dementia.
Nearly 200 former players are suing the governing bodies of rugby. These players are suffering from neurological impairments and claim that World Rugby, the RFU and the Welsh Rugby Union did not protect players enough from permanent injuries.
Current England player Courtney Lawes has recently said that he would have reservations about his children playing professional rugby, because the financial benefits are not worth the injuries that come from playing the sport.
The risks remain at amateur levels. Amateur rugby players are also taking legal action against the same governing bodies who, they say, did not protect them from brain injuries during their playing careers.
Rugby, particularly at school level, does not need to include tackling. Safer versions of the sport, such as tag rugby, already exist.
Rugby can be played without tackling and still provide a wide range of physical and mental health benefits that help children stay physically active and maintain psychological wellbeing. School rugby must change to keep children safe.
This article is part of the Insights Uncharted Brain series.
Jill* looked drained as we sat down to speak about her late husband. It had been a long day. It was February 2020, and we had been conducting interviews at the Concussion Legacy Foundation family huddle.
Despite being tired, Jill, 47, was keen to be interviewed. She wanted to share what she had gone through and hoped her story might help others. We sat down in a quiet corner of the foyer of the Rosen Centre hotel in Orlando, Florida, and I listened to her speak for over 90 minutes.
You can listen to more articles from The Conversation, narrated by Noa, here.
She told me all about her husband, Michael, a larger-than-life character who was the “life and soul of the party”. She spoke about how he had played many sports and had experienced multiple diagnosed concussions playing American Football and lacrosse – but this never dimmed his enthusiasm for sports.
Jill described how his behaviour gradually changed. How he forgot simple tasks. How he became aggressive. How his behaviour had become so erratic, she didn’t feel they were welcome at social events anymore. She said:
You’re just watching somebody you love disappear before your eyes and it’s hell.
Then one day she was on the phone to her husband while he was at work and the call went quiet. Jill rushed to his office, only to find that he had taken his own life.
Jill was one of the 23 interviews we conducted with family members over the three days our research team spent at the Concussion Legacy Foundation event. Our conversations provided an insight into what it was like living with a former athlete with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s that has been caused by repetitive head impacts in contexts like sport and the military.
This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.
The people we spoke to had been through so much. The confusion, hurt and despair of seeing the mind of someone they love gradually deteriorate seemed overwhelming. But we also saw some positive signs, such as how they wanted to share their stories to help others, and how there appeared to be a shared determination to change things for the better and to make sport safer so other families wouldn’t have to go through what they’d experienced.
Head injuries in sport
Chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing has been known about for around 100 years. In 1928, Harrison Martland first described chronic traumatic encephalopathy in retired boxers. It was first referred to as “punch-drunk syndrome” or “dementia pugilistica” and sometimes develops in boxers as a result of long-term sub-clinical concussions (not detectable by the usual clinical tests).
In 2002, neuropathologist Bennet Omalu examined the brain of Mike Webster, a former National Football League (NFL) player who died from a heart attack after his physical and mental health had rapidly deteriorated. Subsequently, former NFL players sued the league, claiming that they had received head trauma or injuries during their football careers, which caused them long-term neurological problems.
The VA-BU-CLF UNITE Brain Bank at Boston University is the largest tissue repository in the world focused on traumatic brain injury (TBI). In a 2017 study into the first 202 donated brains, high rates of CTE were found, with 177 diagnosed with CTE, including 110 of 111 from the NFL players (99%). The brain bank now has over 1,000 brains from donors as young as 14 who have been exposed to brain traumas, primarily from playing sport. Studying these brains is crucial, not only for preventing, diagnosing and treating CTE, but also understanding the long-term consequences of concussion and traumatic brain injury.
Subsequent research from Boston University’s CTE Center in 2019 found that every year of playing full tackle American football increases the risk of developing CTE by 30%. So for every 2.6 years of playing, the risk of developing CTE doubles.
But the problem is not isolated to American sports. Compared with most other sports, rugby union has a relatively high injury rate, including at school level in the UK where it is often a compulsory sport. In addition, it has been reported that there is about one brain injury per match in international rugby.
Demise of England’s ‘lions’
In football, concussion often results from accidental head impacts (like head-to-head collisions or collisions with the goalposts). But a growing number of studies have shown that detrimental sub-concussive impacts (a bump, blow or jolt to the head that does not cause symptoms) may result from repeatedly heading the ball. And there have been an increasing number of high-profile examples in recent years who have been raising awareness of this issue.
In late 2020, three incidents shifted attitudes on the dangers of football. First, Norbert “Nobby” Stiles, a member of England’s 1966 Fifa World Cup winning team, died. Stiles had been diagnosed with dementia and the cause of this disease was linked to repeated heading of the ball in his career.
Then, it was announced that Sir Bobby Charlton, another World Cup winning hero, had also been diagnosed with dementia. He was the second member of his family to suffer with this disease as his brother, Jack (who played in the same winning team) had died earlier in the year after his own battle with dementia.
Bobby Charlton was thus the fifth of the 11 starting players in the 1966 final to have been diagnosed with neurological diseases. Media reports have linked all of these cases to the repeated heading of footballs during their playing careers.
But the first case that drew attention to the link between football and traumatic brain injury was that of Jeff Astle. Following his death in 2002, the coroner’s verdict at the inquest into his death at the age of 59 recorded a verdict of “death by industrial disease”, linked to heading heavy, often rain-sodden, leather footballs. Astle’s health had deteriorated – he had struggled with an eating disorder and was unable to recognise his children.
Astle’s daughter, Dawn, has become a leading figure in the campaign to protect footballers. She presented evidence to the 2020 DCMS committee on concussion and brain injury in sport. Her submission to the committee included the following comment:
My dad choked to death in front of me, my mum and my sisters. Please think about that for one minute. He choked to death because his brain had been destroyed. Destroyed because he was a footballer. I don’t want any other family to go through what my family went through, and continue to go through every day. Please don’t let my dad’s death and all the other footballers deaths be in vain. My dad was my hero and my best friend. His death will haunt me forever.
Families speak out
In February 2020, our team of five researchers were invited by Chris Nowinski, the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, to Orlando. The CLF is an international non-profit organisation that aims to support athletes affected by head injury, and to assist patients and families by providing personalised help to those struggling with the outcomes of brain injury.
Our interviews were conducted at their “family huddle”, which was a support event for family members to allow them to share stories and connect with others who have had similar experiences.
We were given the opportunity to talk to family members, and build trust and rapport. This gave us a greater insight and understanding of their world. We conducted interviews with the partners, parents, siblings and the children of the deceased athletes.
Our research, published in The Qualitative Report, was presented as an ethnodrama (playscript) to best allow the stories of the family members to be heard. This also showed the distinct temporal phases that these family members went through, and by sharing these stories we hope this raises awareness of the powerful emotions they have experienced.
Many of the people we spoke to said the initial stage, when they started to see changes in the behaviour of their loved one, created very strong emotions because they couldn’t understand why this was happening. They had seen someone they loved decline in front of their eyes. Alice, 68, reflected on seeing this change in her husband: “He went from functioning perfectly, to struggling to remember or do anything he was so used to doing.”
People went on to recall specific instances when this behavioural decline became noticeable. For example, David told us this about his brother: “Once when he went to the airport to pick up my aunt. He proceeded to drive her around, and she finally said, ‘Where are we going?’” He replied that he didn’t know.
There was evidence of a mounting feeling of hopelessness that declines in neurological functioning were causing. Another striking, distressing example was this story Sophie told about her husband:
One weekend, I had 12 big black trash bags to go out to the garbage. And I told him when I got up and went to work on Monday morning, I said, ‘those are going out to the trash tomorrow’. I came home after work and he had unpacked every trash bag … I just sat there and cried … I’d worked a 12-hour day. I said, ‘why did you unpack all that trash?’ and he couldn’t tell me why. He just didn’t know.
Others reinforced other emotions at seeing this happening to their loved one. Emily explained how she felt: “I do think at the start you are in this sense of disbelief because the person you love is doing these things that are out of character.” And Evelyn reflected on the sadness of seeing such changes:
I was shocked, but also felt like the world had been turned upside down. We were so happy. I remember just sobbing.
Researchers have previously highlighted the emotional consequences that family members experience when they witness the decline of their loved one. For example, one 2019 study involving interviews with 20 wives of either current or retired professional American football players, revealed their serious concerns about the cognitive, emotional and behavioural decline of these players. Some wives identified behavioural changes that included rage, reduced positive social interactions and various erratic behaviour, like starting risky business ventures.
As we also found, deterioration in cognitive functioning meant that those affected by traumatic brain injury were no longer able to carry out simple household tasks and often struggled with language problems.
Anger, guilt and fear
Another study, which examined families who have experienced a severe traumatic brain injury outside of sport highlighted the difficulties caused by the uncertainty of the situation – both in terms of the progression of the illness and how to support and deal with the cognitive, physical and behavioural changes exhibited after the injury.
All of this presents huge challenges to families. Negotiating appropriate treatment is hard and the emotional and physical exhaustion of dealing with these difficulties just keeps mounting up for the people involved.
Our participants explained the toll it took on them as they saw first-hand the severe changes in behaviour as their loved one experienced further decline. For example, Katherine said she felt drained and responsible. “It’s hard because you don’t know what’s happening,” she said. “So you just blame yourself and think you are the reason. And that’s not good for your own wellbeing.”
Helen spoke about her intense feelings as her partner drank as a response to his condition:
I was so angry at him for making the same choices over and over with drinking though. Like, “you’ve drank so much that you fell down the stairs in front of me at home, are you kidding me?” And it hurt, you know, and left a lot on my plate, so I was really, really, angry. And that didn’t help things.
Changes in behaviour created further problems for family members, such as how their loved one was perceived in social situations. Elizabeth described one specific incident at a party:
We went to a catered event, and he would take the top of the [burger] bun off, take the meat out to eat, put the bun back, and then go to the next one. And someone caught him and was like, “what is he doing?” Of course, we never got invited back to any of those people’s homes. No one wanted to have anything to do with him because they couldn’t understand him.
Laura also spoke about the implications of a lack of understanding of this condition, highlighting how others would misinterpret her husband’s actions. This led to feelings of sadness as they became socially isolated from their friends. She said: “When we went to events, a lot of people thought he was an alcoholic, because he could have one cocktail and then he’d fall. They had no idea that the falling had nothing to do with that one drink that he had. And it became very sad because people didn’t want to have us around.”
Our participants also spoke of the burden as a result of effectively becoming their partner’s primary caregiver. Sophie spoke about the struggles she faced with supporting her husband with daily tasks. “I couldn’t physically handle him,” she said. “At that point he was unstable. He would shuffle, and fall, and he couldn’t get in and out of the shower. He was also incontinent, and I couldn’t handle him by myself. I felt so weak.”
Evelyn also spoke of these experiences, highlighting that the physical size of her partner caused significant strain. “The sheer problem with these guys was their physical size. As the disease progressed, he fell probably 10-15 times a day, and we’d have to figure out how to get him up. I was both physically and mentally exhausted,” Evelyn said.
Meanwhile, others spoke of the physical fear of danger they felt. Like Emily who told us:
I did become scared of him. I hate to say that, but I did. He made me sign some papers and I had no idea what they were. He was just escalating and escalating, and he was standing over me and I just knew if I didn’t sign that paper, I was in physical danger. Which was an awful thought to have about your own husband that you love.
Our interviews gave family members the chance to reflect on their time living with and caring for their loved one, and also, how they might approach the situation differently. Helen told us she wished she had taken more time for herself, and advised anybody going through a similar situation to “get into therapy, to help you process everything and to let you have an outlet”.
Katherine agreed, saying: “You’ve got to try and take some time for yourself. I remember I took a trip with a girlfriend once and I was scared to death the whole time I was gone, but I went, and we had a wonderful time, and I’m so glad I did it. You know, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in your life for yourself, for your own good. Try to keep yourself healthy, eat healthily, work out. Keep yourself well because there really was nothing, I could do for him except be present. I couldn’t make him well.”
Other family members reflected on the dangers of certain sports. For example, Alice highlighted how her awareness had increased, giving her the knowledge and understanding to allow her to come to terms with her husband’s situation. She realised there were “significant pathologies” that he had no control over that affected his decision-making.
His brain was still functioning, and he was still able to make decisions, just the wrong parts of the brain were directing his decisions. That totally makes sense now, so that’s been a huge relief, that he wasn’t just an asshole in his own right, he really just couldn’t control it.
While our data contained accounts full of sadness, participants also reflected on different ways they were moving forwards in a positive way after experiencing the death of a loved one. Laura detailed the benefits of attending the huddle and being with people who had been through similar struggles: “Everyone here is in the same boat. It may not have looked exactly the same for us, but we don’t have to explain for once. And just the support I’ve got from the people here has been great.”
Others talked about how the support helped the grieving process and inspired them to get involved and help other families. For example, Evelyn spoke of the need to make changes at a junior sport level: “I’m just so concerned this horrible disease is hitting younger and younger people, yet no one knows about it … giving people the information to be able to make the correct decision is super important.”
The final word goes to Elizabeth, who had become involved in the support work of the CLF, and spoke of her new found purpose to help others. She said it helped make her loss “bearable” because “millions” might benefit and “hopefully not have to experience the kind of tragedy that affected our family”.
I feel like part of the reason this happened is for me to be part of raising more awareness and be a part of this movement towards new culture change. I can help families navigate … the difficult waters of dealing with this. And so, I feel like it speaks to sort of a calling … I have in life or part of my purpose.
What is clear to us after concluding this research project is that greater recognition of the challenges faced by both those living with diseases of the brain, such as CTE, and their carers is needed.
We heard about the devastating losses and tragedies. But we were also privileged to highlight more positive stories that showed how people were able to move forwards and help others to create a constructive change in sport so others won’t have to suffer.
It also illustrates how neurodegenerative disease resulting from head trauma as a consequence of impact sports has far reaching effects – not only the athletes, but also those around them. This represents a growing public health concern and societal problem.
It shows that greater recognition of the challenges faced by both those living with diseases of the brain, such as CTE, and their carers, is needed.
We hope their stories will stimulate discussion and be used to support people who might be going through similar experiences. Our findings might be used to help practitioners, sporting governing bodies and charities such as the CLF, to understand more fully these negative emotional responses and, in turn, consider strategies that might be developed to support people. In turn, these organisations must also act to address the causes of head injuries to make sports safer.
All names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved.
But it would be almost 100 years before similar numbers of spectators were seen again at women’s sports matches, and in 2022 crowds are now breaking world records. In March, for example, 91,553 people watched Barcelona play Real Madrid in the UEFA Women’s Champions League – the highest attended women’s football match of all time.
The reason why it took so long to get here is that after the first world war progress for women slowed, and even went backwards. By 1921 there were 150 women’s football teams, often playing to large crowds. But on December 5 1921, the English Football Association’s consultative committee effectively banned women’s football citing a threat to women’s health as medical experts claimed football could damage women’s ability to have children. This decision had worldwide implications and was typical of attitudes towards women’s sport for many decades.
Women’s professional sport is now seeing dramatic changes. England will host the 2022 Women’s Euros later this year, and tickets for the final sold out in less than an hour. There is clear demand from fans and not just for women’s football, but other professional women’s sports.
In 2021, 267,000 people attended the women’s matches in English cricket’s new domestic competition, The Hundred, making it the best attended women’s cricket event ever. A year before, another cricketing record was set with 86,174 spectators at the Women’s T20 World Cup final between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Record crowds for professional women’s matches have also been seen recently in rugby union.
In a sign that the times really may be changing, the current minister for sport, Nigel Huddleston, and the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced that they are minded to add the (FIFA) Women’s World Cup and the Women’s Euros (UEFA European Women’s Football Championship) to the list of protected sports events. Set out in the 1990s, these are the “crown jewels” of English sport, deemed to be of national importance when it comes to television coverage. The list has not included any women’s events until now, and the proposed change is crucial to keep women’s sport visible for as large an audience as possible.
Football has also seen considerable growth in participation. In 2020, 3.4 million women and girls played football in England and the world governing body FIFA aims to have 60 million playing by 2026.
The wider picture is perhaps less rosy. There are 516,600 more inactive women than men in England. Girls are less active than boys, even though their activity levels increased comparatively during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, this pandemic-related increase also points to positive changes. During the lockdowns, there was a shift away from traditional team sports to fitness classes and walking, which have traditionally appealed more to women and girls. In a similar way Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, which was relaunched in January 2020, aimed to break conventional ideas that physical activity and sport are unsuitable for women. Sport England’s evaluation states that 2.8 million women were more active due to the overall campaign.
With traditional masculine ideals slowly being replaced across society, these changes can also be seen in sport. Sport is also becoming more inclusive for minorities.
And, as happened around 100 years ago, women’s rights and equality in society and workplaces are improving. The #MeToo movement has brought sexual harassment to the forefront of public awareness and is gradually shifting workplace culture.
However, this is not time for complacency. The pandemic has affected women more than men and in different ways, slowing progress. Greater domestic responsibilities impacted on women’s free time more than men, reducing time for physical activity. Similarly, funding cuts in sport may threaten the gains that have been made in women’s sport. And many males continue to hold unfounded, stereotypical views such as women in sport being more emotional than men.
Recently, my colleagues and I mapped out five actions needed to make sure that recent gains for women’s sport are not lost, see below. With changes in society, widespread support for gender equality, and the current popularity of women’s sport, now is the time to act on these changes to ensure that it is not another 100 years before we see the recent attendance records broken. Gender equality is a societal goal and it should be in sport too.
The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) recently awarded full-time professional contracts to 12 women players. However, the value of the contracts has not been revealed and the 12 contracts are not enough to make up a full rugby union team, let alone a squad.
These contracts are still unusual and top sportswomen continue to face more funding issues than men at the same level. Contracts offered to top women athletes are often short term, covering the weeks of a sporting competition, or part-time, and, until recently, lacking maternity leave. Women’s teams frequently face poor pitches, lower wages/prize money, and inferior conditions compared to men.
Sport has been (and largely still is) governed by male, hypermasculine former athletes. One theory argues that these managers of sport make decisions that benefit themselves and (white, heterosexual, middle/upper-class) males. As a result, women’s sport has, at many times, been misunderstood and treated poorly.
History of discrimination
Women’s sport is getting more backing, but this comes against a long history of discrimination. Last year’s Women’s FA Cup Final took place 100 years after the Football Association banned women’s football in Football League grounds. This ban fed into historic hostility towards women playing sport.
That has not gone away completely. The International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) stoked controversy with its views shortly after women’s boxing was accepted as an Olympic sport. AIBA suggested that women boxers should wear skirts when they competed to help them stand out from the men’s competitions.
While 22-year-old Ema Klinec from Slovenia, the current World Champion, is one to watch for the women’s ski jumping at the Winter Olympics this year, women were excluded from this sport for years. As recently as 2008, the International Olympic Committee cited the “technical merit” of women’s ski jumping as justification for its exclusion. Another reason was also the misguided belief by the governing body that ski jumping would damage women’s reproductive health. Following international pressure and unsuccessful court cases, it was finally accepted in 2011 and appeared for the first time at Sochi 2014.
This type of view has heavily influenced the way women’s sport is treated and its funding and resourcing.
Just over 50 years ago, Billie Jean King and eight other professional tennis players launched their own tennis tour to ensure that they were paid and treated on a par with men’s tennis players. Yet it was not until 2006 that the last Grand Slam tennis tournament, Wimbledon, agreed to pay equal prize money to men and women. The men’s World Number 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic argued in 2016 that men should earn more than women players.
Even when women’s teams have successes, they are frequently paid significantly less than men. The US Women’s national soccer team filed a wage discrimination act (and later a gender discrimination lawsuit) against the governing body of their sport. Despite winning World Cups and generating more income than the men’s team, they were paid a quarter of what the men’s team earned prior to their legal action.
There are signs that change is coming. The Welsh national football association has recently pledged to introduce equal pay for its men’s and women’s teams by 2026. They have joined a growing number of national associations to have equal pay agreements for their men’s and women’s teams.
In cricket, The Hundred was the first professional tournament that put women’s and men’s teams on an equal footing, with women’s matches played on the same grounds as the men’s. Attendances for the women’s matches was higher than for previous tournaments.
Increased attendance show that when women’s sport is marketed suitably, spectators see greater value in it and are more likely to attend.
At the Winter Olympics, the inclusion of sports such as mixed team ski jumping and women’s monobob mean that there are not only more events for women but also greater opportunities for sponsorship. At the 2020 Tokyo Games, sponsorship of women athletes grew. Sponsors increasingly see value in backing women athletes.
The FA and Professional Footballers’ Association have finally agreed to include maternity and long-term sickness cover in the contract of women footballers. At the same time, the Women’s World Cup and European Championship are likely to be recognised as
two of the protected sports events made available to free-to-air broadcasters.
Progress has been made in women’s sport but until the attitudes of those running sport change, top sportswomen will continue to face more obstacles than men.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic is out of the Australian Open after the country’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, cancelled his visa “on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”. This follows an earlier quashing of the original decision by Border Force officials to cancel the Serbian player’s visa when he arrived in Australia because he didn’t have a COVID vaccination. Djokovic’s lawyers headed to court to seek an injunction against his deportation, which has now been dismissed.
Djokovic was seeking a tenth title at the event, as well as the world record for men’s Grand Slam wins. At the age of 34, it this makes it harder for him to now be able to fulfil his potential on the court before he retires.
At a time when multiple countries have been introducing restrictions on unvaccinated people, it raises questions about whether other sports stars will run into similar issues. We asked sports management expert Keith Parry about what the visa struggle might mean for sports stars and teams around the world.
Will Djokovic’s visa saga have implications for other sports in Australia?
Yes it will. Now they’ve set the precedent, I think we could see other players fall foul of this system when entering Australia. Clearly the federal government do not want unvaccinated players coming into Australia so it will deter some (unless they agree to isolate for two weeks).
Are significant numbers of sports stars unvaccinated?
In the US the public know if players are unvaccinated because of regulations there. For example the National Basketball Association has released a list of unvaccinated players. There’s no requirement to name players in the UK, but there’s been coverage about Premier League footballers not being vaccinated.
What are other teams likely to do to avoid trouble?
Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp has said that he won’t sign an unvaccinated player. So there’s an implication for players’ livelihoods. Players who are unvaccinated may have limited choice not just in terms of where they can go and travel, but also in terms of the clubs that are prepared to sign them. So we’re entering unprecedented territory now. Other managers may follow Klopp’s lead.
Some managers will see the Djokovic decision as further evidence of the challenge that unvaccinated players pose to clubs. Another challenge for sport managers may be sponsors and partners, who may exert influence on athletes or teams if they have strong views on vaccinations. We see many sponsors end relationships with teams or players if they feel it is bad for their image.
Teams and organisations will also now think carefully about where they play or host matches. Teams will pay even closer attention to the regulations in countries and ensure that they have sufficient time to meet the requirements for isolation or bubbles. Countries that have stricter rules may look less appealing in the future.
Will sports stars worry about their statements on vaccines making a difference to them playing?
Players are very affluent. They’re young and feel indestructible. But they may think twice now about what they say on social media about vaccines. It will be interesting to see how athletes who refuse to be vaccinated are viewed. Will it tarnish Djokovic’s image or, as is often the case, will he be forgiven and the episode written out of his story?
Which countries with upcoming tournaments could be an issue in future?
In Europe, Italy and Germany have vaccine mandates and so tournaments there, or European club competition matches in these countries, may present challenges. France just relaxed its travel rules but unvaccinated players are still required to isolate for ten days. This may be an issue for the Six Nations rugby tournament this spring.
Different state rules around the US may be a challenge for athletes. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, for instance, cannot play in New York because of its regulations, but he can play in the team’s away matches in most other states.
Is this a sign that sports stars can’t always get around the rules?
In the past, organisations like international football association FIFA and the International Olympic Committee have operated outside of borders and outside of the rules. Often no one holds them accountable. Clearly these celebrities do expect to have preferential treatment. So this visa wrangle may be a bit of a shock.
Ordinary people have to go through immigration, fill in forms ourselves and follow the rules. But when you’re idolised by millions around the world, it’s very difficult to think that the rules apply to you. Sports heroes have crossed over into the realm of celebrity but there’s a need for athletes to uphold society’s values.