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MacKenna On Monday: We Must Accept Harsh Realities To Reach True Equality

It was on Thursday when the Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports journalist Grant Wahl took to Twitter. And, in a mere moment, he unwittingly acted as a salesperson for the event he has been busy covering.

“One reason why I wish Women’s World Cup was in July, not June: Argentina could have sent more media to cover their heroic women’s performance last night instead of yet another hapless performance by the Argentine men’s team in the Copa America last night.”

He was right about one thing. Their men’s team were hapless but the accuracy ended there.

Had he been in Belo Horizonte to view their 1-1 draw with Paraguay rather than in France, he’d have seen that dreams and reality have very different meanings. For instance, with the usual hordes of passionate Argentinians hanging about outside the Mineirao, the bars nearby turned outdoor televisions to that women’s game in the hope of attracting business.

They actually failed to attract so much as one glance. Meanwhile inside in the media area, speaking to their press pack, they said if they weren’t at the Copa America they’d be at home, not at that World Cup.

MacKenna On Monday

That may not seem fair, but there’s no point in lying to run from what’s unfair.

Their countrywomen may have provided a nice story, but that doesn’t mean a nation cares.

You can drag a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

When engaging in false advertising, the truth will always emerge and do more long-term damage than any initial good. And still, this attitude has become the theme around the women’s showpiece. In fact, as Wahl was pushing his narrative, the AFP news agency were busy pushing a similar lie. In an article picked up by media the planet over, they wrote about how the Brazil female side had become the national focus and were alone in doing their nation proud.

“Tuesday against Venezuela in the Copa America in the Brazilian town of Salvador, TV viewers were enthralled by the women’s 1-0 win against Italy,” it read.

They then quoted one random person who suggested they’d been converted, before taking a PR line from the state broadcaster Globo. “The affection, respect and admiration of the fans for the women’s team is growing with every competition.”

It was fitting as so much is reduced to public relations.

Overall, the standards of some sides at the World Cup have improved. Also, the greater media coverage is more than welcome in a chicken-and-egg scenario where some will say women’s sport cannot grow without such coverage it doesn’t yet warrant. So absolutely, let’s give it a chance. But if we are to appreciate it, let’s appreciate it for what it is.

MacKenna On Monday

Across the early stages of this World Cup, we’ve seen so many comments about how if Lionel Messi had done that, then we’d all be talking about it, how if Cristiano Ronaldo had scored that, then we’d all be bowing to him, how if Gianluigi Buffon had made that save we’d all be praising him.

Insecurity is understandable but not helpful. Instead what Emma Byrne wrote gave a more accurate picture of quality, as she said the goal-size should be reduced amidst a flurry of errors. That’s not to take away from a sport that can do without the painful comparisons and should be viewed at its own level and enjoyed at its own level, instead of being soaked in hyperbole. Therefore the greatest compliment that can be given is to stay away from fiction. Over and over that’s not happening though.

Saying what’s perceived to be right is covering over the cracks of not caring.

Sometimes it’s best to start by making ripples, rather than have people wondering about the waves.

* * *

Whisper it.

In an area where there are louder and louder calls for equality and fairness, more and more we are straying further and further away from it.

Take Ada Hegerberg as a brutal example of the massive double standards. The first ever women’s Ballon d’Or winner isn’t at the World Cup with Norway as we’re fed a line that she wants better treatment for her gender. That’s all well and good, but sources spoken to me have actually said she wants better treatment and more promotion for her and her alone. Many teammates know as much, grumbling in private.

MacKenna On Monday

Such truth would be reported in the men’s game, but here it’s all a matter of holding hands and dancing in the flower garden in a circle singing out about political correctness. That’s neither equality and it’s certainly not fair. No lessons have been learned though.

Back in 2016, on the CBS show ’60 Minutes’, they ran a feature about what they said was the maltreatment of the United States female soccer team. Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Morgan Brian and Christen Press solemnly talked about a case they were taking against their governing body in relation to unequal pay versus their male counterparts and they went so far as to suggest they should get more as “we win, we’re successful, we should get what we deserve”.

“This is about gender discrimination,” continued Press, “and I don’t think that positive change occurs in the world unless it has to”.

It all sounded good and proper and was added to by a statistic that said the biggest ever US TV audience for a soccer game had tuned into the women’s 2015 crowning glory. But comparing US men’s and women’s friendlies before their last respective World Cups, 70 per cent more tuned in to the men; comparing send-off games, that number was 87 per cent greater for the men; in group games at those two tournaments, 212 per cent more watched the men. Even when you include that record 25 million who turned on the 2015 final, the US men outdrew the US women by 74 percent as an average across all World Cup games.

MacKenna On Monday

On top of that, while broadcaster Fox brought in $17 million in ad revenue from women’s games in 2015, ESPN brought in $529 million from that last men’s tournament they qualified for in 2014. That’s all this really comes down to yet in the global capital of capitalism, earning your worth is seemingly discrimination in the eyes of some. Sexism sadly exists in many forms, but paying people above market value based solely on their gender is sexism at its most obvious and worst.

In Ireland, we’ve made that same mistake, feeding off such fat rather than off protein.

In April of 2017, with our own women’s team threatening to go on strike and looking for better treatment, their grievances made major headlines. Most attention-grabbing was that they’d to change tracksuits in a toilet cubicle and, while terrible, what was ignored was that it was a stand-alone and not a regular occurrence. Reporting went on in a similar fashion. For shame.

MacKenna On Monday

We heard the complaints about payment but not that this area was already being dealt with. We heard about the lack of Wifi in a hotel but ignored was that it was also a one-off in a UEFA-recommended lodging in Malaga and that the women when at home stayed at the Castleknock Hotel exactly as the men did. Ignored was the €300,000 spent in 2016 on the women’s team and €360,000 in 2017 that made them the second-best funded FAI international side. Ignored was the fact that with the two best-looked-after women’s teams in the country considered to be the cricket and rugby sides, neither so much as received match fees.

That’s not to say that all was well, but all certainly wasn’t bad.

Crying foul in this arena is in vogue though and it has seen us traipse ever further down this disappointing and regressive path.

Remember the efforts of our women’s hockey team just last year in reaching a marvellous World Cup final against many odds? Remember the misinformation that the team had to pay their own way to the tournament? What you won’t remember is that their union had actually been given €900,000 that year via the taxpayer, with €625,000 of that for high-performance alone. Still, Minister for Sport Shane Ross was more than happy to piggy-back on populism as he announced extra sporting investment, in particular for hockey, with no actual planning around it.

MacKenna On Monday

In essence, we all felt good without knowing anything about what was making us feel good.

What’s happening here though is all of this attention being a mask for our guilt for our lack of real attention. The weekend after that women’s soccer team strike threat and all the headlines it made, a World Cup qualifier for this on-going tournament in Tallaght drew a mere 1,037. They weren’t alone in gaining glances, only not around their games and their craft. When the Women’s Rugby World Cup arrived to these shores, it was touted as a breakthrough before, and a great success after. Yet the opening game involving the hosts was actually part of a double-header in a field out the back of UCD rather than getting enough interest to be brought to the big time in Lansdowne Road.

Perhaps nothing shows it up better than Katie Taylor, an idea this column has pushed before about lip service. Her in-ring achievements have regularly been treated on a performance par with her male counterparts when that’s frankly outrageous. If the zenith of her career was an Olympic gold in 2012, then remember that not all metals and medals weigh the same.

MacKenna On Monday

She may have been the hero returning from London but to merely be in the men’s tournament was as much of an accomplishment. And by 2014 as a glimpse into the female side of the sweet science, at that year’s World Championships she needed just two victories to get to the semi-finals and onto the podium, the first against an opponent who entered a gym for the very first time at 30 and was only allowed compete when the age limit was raised above 34.

Of course, this will lead to calls of sexism by those who are actually engaging in it. And none of this is to take away from Taylor and what she’s done. It’s not to take away from any women in sport who are starting way behind and told to catch up when going far slower.

Instead, it is to be honest and truthful. And that’s the very first step to true equality within sport.

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About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.