Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The problem isn’t lingerie football

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My initial reaction to lingerie football was to follow along with the hue and cry about sexism and objectification. But then I watched footage of the game and read some more about it and I realised that the issue is more nuanced that the critics will have you believe.

There are some elements in the genesis of the sport that make me uncomfortable, but after looking at all the arguments, I’ve come down on the side of the league. Particularly when it’s so similar to the sport I play: roller derby. Both involve women in small outfits smashing each other for fun (for the record, I’m not in any way involved in the league).

The league – it’s now called Legends Football League because the women don’t play in lingerie – launched in Australia on Saturday night in 2009. It started as a perve fest and, yes, many men will watch it because they want to see butts and boobies.

Does this matter if the players love the game? Or is the view of non-players more important? If it started as a grassroots sport, and some teams decided they were sick of struggling and so they’d play in little uniforms in order to get sponsorship and other opportunities, could we blame them for that?

Many of the women who play LFL have represented state and country in other sports, yet say that this is the first time someone else has picked up the tab for participation. You can read what Elise, Stephanie Lethborg and Tammie West, Tiafi Thurston and Tahina Booth (scroll down) have to say about the sport they play.

The league’s critics dismiss everything the players say, which is really shitty. It takes arrogance to tell someone they shouldn’t play a sport they love because non-players don’t like the uniform or the way it’s promoted. The attitude seems to be that if you’re pretty you can’t possibly be smart enough to know what you’re talking about.

But what really irks me is that many of the arguments are illogical, or they’re about shaming the players. You can read some of them here, here and here. In that last link, the journo complains that the LFL coverage will be at the expense of other women’s sports, yet of his last 20 articles, only four are about female athletes.

Collective Shout has a petition asking Channel 7 not broadcast the LFL. The petition is based on arguments I’ve refuted below, so until someone can come up with a good reason to object to the League, they won’t be getting my support.


“Men make sexist comments about the players”

You’re right, some of the male spectators say disgusting things about the players. But if we stopped women doing things because some men are sleazy, then we’ll have to stop women having jobs, catching public transport, going to the pub, walking down the street, being online and doing all the other things we do in our lives.

When spectators are jerkheads at men’s sporting events, they are ejected and even banned. Yet when they are jerkheads at women’s sporting events, we’re going to tell women they can’t play? That’s ridiculous. If the organisers allow bad behaviour, then they need to sort that shit out – just like soccer and rugby league have done. I can’t think of any other sport in which we want to punish the players for the bad behaviour of some of the crowd.


“The uniforms are too sexy – and there’s accidental nudity”

If you genuinely have a problem with the uniforms, then demand different uniforms. But I suspect there’s an underlying moral judgement going on here, about the kind of women who would want to play a sport with these uniforms. That’s why the critics are arguing against the entire sport, rather than arguing for extra fabric. That the players are criticised for looking glamorous is a giveaway.

Most roller derby uniforms are a singlet and hotpants (called multi-snatch, by the way). Some of my teammates wear fishnets under their hotpants. The uniforms are tight so they don’t get in the way, they allow us to move, and yes, a lot of people find them sexy. So what? A lot of people find AFL uniforms sexy. It’s just clothing and I will always argue against being a jerk about clothing.

Apparently players must agree to “accidental nudity”. So, how do you disagree to accidental nudity? It’s a stupid clause in a contact because it doesn’t make sense. Although it reveals a lot about the motives of the people behind the LFL. Anyone who has watched male teams playing any kind of football would have seen some accidental bottoms, does this mean male sport is inherently sexist and should be banned?


“Female athletes should be recognised for their abilities, not their bodies”

It’s strange that the people using this argument can’t see that they are doing the thing they’re complaining about: focussing on the players’ bodies, and not their athletic abilities. The Australian Women Sport & Recreation Association said “AWRA firmly believes in every person’s right to self expression and creativity, but also believes that women’s sport and female athletes deserve to be recognised for their ability on the field. While it is clear that we have a long way to go, smarter athletes such as US Open winner Sam Stosur offer an intelligent alternative to the Lingerie League”.

Smarter. Intelligent.

There’s that moral judgement again. It’s a sport, not mathletics.


“It’s unsafe”

Then make it safer. It’s not rocket surgery.

The players wear helmets, shoulder pads, knee pads, elbow pads, mouth guards, and gloves. It’s more safety gear than you see in the two major contact sports in Australia: rugby league and rugby union.

There is always an element of risk with contact sport and the players are fine with that. But here’s the thing about contact sport, and I didn’t know this until I started playing one: it’s really good fun.

Curiously, the Collective Shout petition complains that the LFL involves women “getting sweaty and physical with each other”. I’m not sure how they think you can play a contact sport without “getting sweaty and physical with each other”. That’s the point, whether you’re talking about LNF, roller derby, rugby league, or rugby union.


“It objectifies women”

The advertising most definitely does, focussing on the players being hot, dirty, and tough. It falls short of the Australian Sports Commission’s position on sexploitation Loads of sports advertising falls short. Tennis, rugby league, swimming, cricket, roller derby – all of the images used in the advertising have been photoshopped to make the players look tougher, dirtier, hotter. At least the LFL advertising makes the players look athletic – not like this W-League poster.

But on the field, the situation changes. In Night Games, Anna Krien quotes Dr Margaret Lindley on whether or not male AFL players are objectified by their female fans:

A moving object that is powerful, that is surging, and that moreover is moving not for the sake of the observers – none of those players are moving for our sake, for our pleasure, they are doing something for their own, their team’s purposes. (pg. 199)

The players are not there to prance around for the titillation of the crowd. Regardless of your opinion of their uniforms, they are playing a sport.


“Women shouldn’t have to strip off to get media coverage and sponsorship money”

You’re right, they shouldn’t. For decades this has been the only way for women’s sport to get attention, and it’s so shitty. This isn’t the fault of the players – the blame lies squarely on the lack of interest by sponsors, the media, and to a lesser extent (because they don’t know about it), the public. However, I simply can’t argue against something that gives women the opportunity to finally get paid for playing sport, even if it means wearing little outfits. It doesn’t make it right. But it’s very unfair to tell the players that they have to wait until we’ve sorted everything else out before they can get paid.

Several of the players (in those links above) have said that even though they’ve represented Australia in other sports, this is the first time they haven’t had to pay for their own uniforms, flights and accommodation. That must feel pretty fucking sweet. Our national netball team have jobs because they’re not paid enough to be full-time athletes. The Opals only got a full-time coach this year. If the top players in the Southern Stars save for a few years, they might be able to scrape together a house deposit. Get shitty about that instead.


“The women aren’t built like female rugby players”

That’s because they’re playing gridiron, not rugby. Male gridiron players aren’t built like male rugby players, either. Funny that, being a different sport.

Take a look at any high-level sporting team and you’ll see that most players have the same body shape.

“It’s not accredited by the Australian Sports Commission so it’s not a real sport”

To be accredited by the Australian Sports Commission, you need to fulfil 16 criteria and you need three years of financial statements. So it’ll be three years before the LFL can be accredited.

The first Australian roller derby teams formed in 2007, and the sport was accredited by the ASC in 2011. I dare you to argue that anyone involved in derby before 2011 shouldn’t have been playing.

Even if you don’t like what they’re wearing, even if you’re still calling it lingerie football, when you watch them play you can’t deny that they are real athletes playing a real game. So it comes down to priggishness about the uniforms. How many extra centimetres of fabric would it take to make it a real sport? Two? Ten? It’s important to be clear about the exact amount of material that will change everything.


“It should be netball on television, not LFL”

When you use this argument you’re agreeing with the networks that there’s only room for one female sport on television. Let’s argue for more women’s sport on television, not which single sport it’s going to be. Let’s argue for coverage of netball, basketball, ice hockey, cricket, rugby union, roller derby and yes, LFL.

Businesses don’t give women’s sport the kind of money they give men’s sport, the networks rarely broadcast it, and sports journos rarely cover it. In The Sun Herald on December 8th, there were 31 articles and columns in the sports section, and only two were about women’s sport. In The Daily Telegraph on December 9th, of the 39 articles and columns in the sports section, only three were about women’s sport – and all were just a paragraph or two.

Sports like AFL and cricket have built huge fan bases through decades of support by journalists and the networks. Soccer is now enjoying close to the same level of success in Australia. But when it comes to women’s sport, those same journalists are nowhere to be seen. Flip through the TV channels on a weekend and you’ll see game after game after game of men’s sport and nothing from women.

The problem isn’t LFL, the problem is that women’s sport is ignored by the media. And if you think that forcing a single television channel not to broadcast LFL is going to make them broadcast other women’s sports instead, then frankly, you’re an idiot.

Kim Powell

Kim Powell is a recovering journalist who thought doing a doctorate would be a piece of cake.

Follow her on twitter @newswithnipples