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ColumnistsHelen Harris‘Football is hardly a sophisticated sport. Players don’t even need opposable thumbs’

‘Football is hardly a sophisticated sport. Players don’t even need opposable thumbs’


By Helen Harris

7 January 2010

I am not interested in sport, or so I thought, and with good reason.  I never read the sports pages of the newspapers. The first note of the Match of the Day theme tune is my signal for an early night, and if conversation turns (by some extraordinary lack of vigilance on my part) to football or cricket, I tend to yawn and drift off. However, through much soul-searching and some strenuous thinking, I have discovered that this does not actually mean that I am not interested in sport.

For one thing, I like taking part in sport-type activities: I like a walk and that’s a sport of sorts; I will allow myself to be beaten at badminton from time to time; and I regularly toil up and down the swimming pool until I get cramp in the bit of my brain that copes with boredom.

There are also sports that I enjoy watching on television.  Like most women-who-don’t-like-sport, I enjoy Wimbledon and the Olympics, as well as athletics and gymnastics.  My highlight, as far as athletics goes, is the pole vault which is just unlikely enough to be delightful (whereas triple jump is just silly), as well as having that lovely moment when the vaulter wobbles at the top the pole and there is no telling if they will collapse or ping over the bar.  Men’s swimming holds an obvious attraction for most female viewers while tennis has the benefit of being personal and dramatic.  Cricket can be an acceptable soundtrack to a sunny day and skiing, of course, has cowbells.

I do, however, have a problem with football.  It’s not a sophisticated game, is it?  As sports go, it is only just out of the trees.  Footballers don’t even need opposable thumbs, as long as they can persuade someone to tie their laces.  At least tennis players and cricketers have adopted the use of tools to propel the ball up the court/field.  And, while I have heard the rumours that football is both tactical and clever (I even know why there is a magazine called FourFourTwo) I am not convinced.

My real objection though is to domestic football on television, and there are two main reasons for this.  First, bad associations: football on TV whisks me straight back to wet Sunday afternoons with Dougie Donnelly on Sportscene and nothing to look forward to but Glen Michael’s Cavalcade (a middle-aged man and a talking lamp called Paladin; he made the Krankies look like The Wire)  then bath-time, a boiled egg and early to bed. Second, domestic football is muddy and we have plenty of mud at home.

The international scene, at least sometimes, offers sunny skies and interesting scenery.  For the same reason, I would much rather watch Neighbours than Eastenders: family breakdown and relationship strife, like football, are more palatable with blue sky above.

Live football, on the other hand, domestic or not, can be fun.  I have been to matches (Premier League in the Midlands mostly, plus Jamaica v Croatia at the 1998 World Cup) and enjoyed the experience even if I  missed supposedly some bits of action, like goals, because a passing hawk, pigeon or mosquito (in December!) caught my eye.

So, here I am a woman who takes part in sport-ish activities, is happy to watch some sports on TV and even enjoys live football (if the mud quotient is low) but I still file the newspaper sports section in the recycling bin and would rather wax my legs than listen to Gary Lineker wax lyrical about Man Utd v Liverpool.

What I would do is tune in again to a Radio Four Profile on Fabio Capello; broadcast on Saturday 2nd January, the programme focussed on Capello as a person, his interests in art and olive oil, and how his personality affects his relationships with his players. I was engrossed, for all 14 minutes, but the Profile strand is not about sport and so, I have worked out, I am interested in sport, just not as it appears in the sports media.

The thing is that the sports media are still so male, produced largely by men, for men, about men.  Women’s sports are largely ignored by both television and the press despite the conspicuous success of England women’s football and cricket teams.  The only newspaper where I have seen even-handed coverage of men’s and women’s teams is the children’s paper First News, which could be, in all seriousness, the greatest journalistic triumph of Piers Morgan’s career. I have two girls and my eldest, nine this month, relishes Friday mornings, when First News hits the door mat, with its blend of simple, factual news, quirky animal features, Tom Daley, Becky Adlington, women’s Ashes et al.

Meanwhile, female sports writers are in a small minority and mostly don’t progress beyond correspondents’ roles, usually writing about lower profile sports, like sailing or equestrianism.  Where is the female James Lawton, a thunderous authority in bold type, or Jim White, witty and wise about this or that disgrace / triumph?  As for a female sports editor on a national paper, don’t bother looking.

Sport on TV is similarly dominated by men and if our three most prominent (female) sports presenters – Hazel Irvine, Claire Balding and Sue Barker – are always professional and informed, then I don’t think I have seen one of them offer a viewpoint that could set them apart from the men around them.  While I have heard male tennis commentators noting the loveliness of a female player’s face, I can’t imagine Sue Barker telling us how fetching Roger is in his latest monogrammed cardie.

To look at our newspapers and television, you’d think women had nothing to do with sport; imagine if newspaper business pages were written entirely by female journalists and only covered businesses run by women, or if arts programming only featured films, books and music created by women.  That would be crazy wouldn’t it?

According to a 2008 survey carried out by Sport England, 260,000 women and 1.1 million girls play football in England and, according to the Premier League’s 2003-04 National Fan Survey, 15 per cent of match-going supporters are women.  If several million people regularly watch football, then that’s 15 per cent of several million that the media are not talking to.  Maybe the newspapers don’t want these readers.

So, as long as the sports media remains a man’s world, ignoring women’s sport or at best treating it as a novelty, then I’m not going to take much interest in their games either.  When women’s football is on two TV channels every night of the week from August to May and female writers are being funny or furious on the back page of every newspaper then I might stop yawning and join in the conversation.


  • Brian Sears:

    A most enjoyable and unusual piece of writing. I would express many similar sentiments but write them from the perspective of a Football League supporter “having a go” at the blanket coverage the national press gives to the Premier League. Looking forward to Helen H’s next contribution to this splendid website…and perhaps footnotes from her daughter.

  • jroberts:

    Such a refreshing article. I look forward to more. Excellent, Helen.

    John Roberts

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