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Defining Inclusive – The Quandary of Girls v Boys

  • Friday, September 24 2021 @ 12:07 am ACST
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A furore has broken out in Queensland with the state U18 Netball Championships won by an all-boys team in an otherwise girl’s competition. There are rabid arguments flying through media, families and the sport itself and at the same time raising questions about the fairness of such competitions.

For the record, the Queensland Suns U17 Boys team won the final against the Bond University Bull Sharks 46-12. These boys went through the entire competition undefeated, and winning all matches by an average of 30 points. They were far superior on the scoreboard, raising the ire of parents, spectators and in turn media (social and otherwise).

For the record, it must be said that the boys have done absolutely nothing wrong. Their team was entered into the championships by express permission of the state netball governing body, Netball QLD. The argument cannot be directed at those who played, but instead at the decision makers who allowed this.

Before exploring some of those issues, I need to clarify a stance. It relates to Australian Rules football and involves my girl’s school team. I have coached girls in mixed teams at school level since 2001 when Pamela was the dominant ruck that day, winning almost every hit-out. From 20 years ago, I saw first hand that girl’s certainly can compete in mixed games.

When North Melbourne AFLW player, Elisha King, qualified for my school team as a Year 4 student, she was the catalyst for building my first all-girls team in 2008. They played against other girl’s teams and were one of the dominant school teams as long as Elisha played. I have since coached girls’ teams to Peninsula titles, North Queensland titles and even to a top four finish at the state championships. I do understand the talent flowing through the ranks of girls’ teams. I was lucky enough to then co-coach a girls’ team to an AFL Cairns premiership in 2018.

I would never argue that girls cannot cut it at any level. In fact, in such a short space of time we have seen the women’s game at all levels accelerate through improving standards both on and off field from the national level to grass roots.

However, the netball argument never doubts talent – male or female. In fact, it draws from the argument that elite female talent can still find it tough to fairly compete against elite male talent. It isn’t an acknowledgement of talent being questioned. It is the fairness of female versus male and in what context.

Returning to my local footy, and I can draw on an example from two weeks ago. In our local district Gala Day in southern Cairns where girls and boys from local primary schools play in a range of mixed teams, my school had an all-girls team playing “AFL” as it is locally referred to. In a wonderful sign of the times and development, my girls won three matches to finish second overall on the day. Not a big deal in its own right, but what makes that impressive is that two of the teams they defeated were all boys and the other was mixed. It proved that girl’s can, in certain situations, stand up and excel, even be victorious, against like-aged boys. But this wasn’t a case of best girls v best boys in the district. It was a strong girls’ team who had been drilled for this all year up against boys who simply came together on the day. The winning team on the day was an all-boys team who were too good – physically and in terms of talent on the day. Nevertheless, there is still some evidence here of how much closer girls are getting to boys in Australian Rules at this age, in this district and on this occasion. However, this isn’t a fair representation of where girl’s and women’s footy sits on a wider scale – especially when compared to boys’ and men’s footy.

It is just, for me, a good story and one of hope and excitement looking forward.

However, the netball situation is vastly different, and is predicated on the “unfairness” of a boys’ youth team being physically stronger, faster and jumping higher than the girls, making the state championship less of an opportunity for inclusiveness and more one of unfair advantage. At least, that is how the argument is being portrayed through the media. Icons and commentators of the NRL in Cameron Smith, Mark Geyer and Andrew Voss have already voiced their views on the unfairness of the competition on SEN radio, with Voss labelling it as “a farce”. Smith said that the physical mis-match was “just a disadvantage to the girls.”

In the wake of the contentious netball result, many are aiming their criticism at Netball QLD’s decision to simply add the boys to the playing roster in the name of “inclusivity” rather that a rational look at any advantages or disadvantages that may be involved. Some are saying that inclusivity is wonderful for netball, but should be fostering separate male and female competition. Others still hold to the idea that even in these ages groups it isn’t about winning but participating. Hard to sell that to a team of girls at a state championship level who have trained to win only to find a greater hurdle to jump than they’d have perhaps planned for.

It is an argument that will rage for some time. For what it is worth, my footy girls benefitted greatly two weeks ago to grow as players and have the women’s game grow in relevance. However, had my girls’ team been pitted against one of the powerful boys’ teams at the regional championships earlier this year it may well have been a different and less positive outcome.

It is hoped that positives come from this. Until the dust settles, people will see unfairness, gender inequality, political correctness and other negatives. However, at the other end of this tunnel might just be a clearer was of opening up greater sporting opportunities for male and female competitors across an even wider array of sports – but with some sensible modifications in place that allow equity in opportunity and development for all parties.

Ticking the boxes of inclusivity isn’t enough. There has to be clearly delineated pathways for opportunity, success and equity to be hand in hand in all sports, not just in language.

I am watching with interest, however, as I devise ways to have my girls’ teams take on more and more boys and continue to narrow any further gender gaps that may exist.

For me, my teams, Netball QLD and all sports, that’s an exciting path to be travelling.