Opinion Article - Steven Curr President QLD Suns Men's & Mixed Netball
Analysis on the recent controversy and the underpinning complexities of men's inclusion in netball.
Over the last few years gender has increasingly become an important topic, attracting significant media attention resulting in storms of varied public opinion. Whether relating to gender identity, gender inequality, gender inclusion, gender roles, gender quotas and specifically gender in sport, this matter unequivocally invokes passionate discourse.
Now more than ever before community attitudes towards gender and inclusion are at the forefront of conversations - not only in sport, but employment, politics, entertainment and social landscapes. Plates are shifting, norms are changing and this is impacting on some, leaving them feeling disenfranchised and even disadvantaged.
The inclusion of the Queensland Suns 17 & Under team was always going to hit a nerve competing at the 2021 Nissan State Titles in Brisbane late last month.
What I didn’t anticipate was the national awakening or the international news stirred by our team playing, creating a much-needed conversation our netball community has to have.
I have taken my time to form my response, to absorb and examine the multitude of opinions raised from within the competition and from the national public gallery.
It’s important to look at this from all viewpoints and spend some time in other's shoes. I wanted to identify, acknowledge and understand the spectrum of perspectives, which are ongoing, and has shown me that everyone, irrespective of their view, is coming from a good place. Everyone has a personal stake in netball protecting the game that they revere.
At first glance it would be easy to simplify the issue. For some, looking from the outside in, the simple and familiar narrative can be easily applied to frame this as a battle of the genders - male vs female. However, this view is shallow and fails to give netball, its players, volunteers and supporters the respect it deserves. Our community is diverse, sophisticated and capable of understanding the complexities of the issue.
Should the boys be competing for the title?
What disadvantage did the girls experience?
Should the boys withdraw from finals or from the competition entirely?
What are netball’s expectations of a boys’ team?
Are the boys accepted and are they held to the same cultural and behaviour expectations?
Is this a question of fairness, a state team participating in regional competition?
Did the boy's inclusion impede the state selection process?
If there are not enough boys to make their own divisions, should they be excluded?
What value does our community place on inclusion and behavior?
How do you apply competing priorities and establish a common ground?
Do any of these competing issues supersede another?
It’s daunting enough to sit back and begin to formulate any kind of response solely based on my own experiences and ideas, let alone those of all stakeholders. Players, coaching staff, administrators and spectators are driven by their purpose, their agenda, each forming a crucial element which contributes to the overall success of the sport.
It is understandable that coaches and players felt aggrieved to miss out on an opportunity to play in finals or be placed higher in the final State Title rankings. These teams have trained for months leading up to the event and players were eager to make the most of their opportunities to impress state selectors, their coaches and families with the hope of becoming State Champions.
It’s also not lost on me how demoralising it would have been to lose to the boys by significant margins in front of large crowds. These issues are valid and genuine. They cannot be dismissed nor can the impact be underestimated. Winning a State Title holds a special place in any athlete list of achievements.
Over the past week I have been asked many times, “Why did you think it was a good idea to let the boys play?”. Therefore I want to outline our circumstances and rationale and the multiple reasons that led to making this decision.
The one established annual tournament the Queensland Suns have the opportunity to not only play, but represent their state in, is the Australian Men’s and Mixed Netball Championships.
In 2019 hosts Melbourne welcomed around 5000 spectators across the week-long tournament, and scored 190,000 live streaming views over the last four days. The impact of Covid-19 regrettably led to the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 events, which were to be hosted in Adelaide.
When our 17 & Under boys team received the news that they could take to the courts at the Nissan State Titles for a second year, they were nothing short of elated. In my view, at that time, this was not an opportunity to let pass by. The prospect of game time and participating in a tournament alongside Queensland’s best netball players instilled a sense of recognition and confidence. With players notably experiencing lockdown fatigue, this invitation was a welcome and much-needed morale booster.
The multi-faceted impacts of the pandemic have left teams across all codes with shared symptoms in ways that have never existed before. Much like the girls, these boys committed to months of training, affording themselves the best chance to represent Queensland at the Australian Championships and hoping for a nod from selectors to make the 17 & Under Australian squad. With the only pathway shut down for two years, the State Titles gave the boys direction and that what they had been working for was not in vain.
Men’s netball in Queensland is undeniably growing. Despite this, the majority don’t start playing within our program until their mid-20s. We simply don't have any grassroots programs in place to assist driving participation numbers. Most of the established associations don’t offer opportunities for boys after the age of 12. The Queensland Suns program starts at the 17 & Under age group. Until this gap is addressed, we alone cannot generate participation for this age group to create pathways for a boy’s regional competition, let alone State Titles.
Currently all boys and mens’ netball programs are self-funded. This impacts the participation pool to those who are willing enough to pay for the privilege, leaving some of those interested to potentially walk away. The established netball associations, Australian Football League, basketball clubs and cricket associations all offer various subsidies, at all levels for all of their participants.
The State Titles brought our netballers together on the same courts, to play the same game, by the same set of rules. And play they did, testing their skills against the best in the state. However, an all-boys team competing (for the same title, for the first time), alongside Queensland’s regional representative girls teams, ignited a controversy that was always expected to emerge at some stage. But I never anticipated what was to transpire.
Let me state during the tournament concerns were raised from the regions consisting of, but not limited to, the boys’ eligibility to play in the finals scheduled on day two of the three-day event.
It became apparent that what was disclosed as genuine concern communicated via appropriate channels quickly escalated to several spectators openly expressing their opinions directly to Suns staff, the players and the collective audience. The boys just wanted to play and were not responsible for making decisions about the nature of their participation, nor the event or eligibility rules.
As tensions increased, player welfare became the number one priority. After discussions with the boys individually and as a group, it was clear they still wanted to play despite the hostilities. I’m incredibly proud of the resolve and maturity in circumstances that were not of their own making. The group united further and understood their part in the men’s netball story. I'm not sure at that age that I would have had the capability to behave in such a dignified way. The same goes for the girls that participated in the event, particularly Bond University Bull Sharks, who demonstrated dignity in what was a very uncomfortable situation.
Once the boys confirmed that they wished to continue, our attention shifted to managing the openly hostile behavior. No matter how justified, there is no place in sport for this type of behavior. That is the one thing we can all surely agree on.
Boys playing netball has always been controversial. The continual criticism has required us to continually justify our inclusion. For those involved in the sport for many years this type of experience is not unfamiliar and is equally matched by the stigma attached to playing the game. This stigma is perpetuated from the assumption that because it's a sport attributed to females, those who play it must be soft or weak.
Whilst attitudes have evolved, and this type of sentiment continues to shrink, it still lingers in parts of the community. This was evident recently when a local media outlet approached me for comment on the participation of the Queensland Suns in the recent ‘Born to Shine’ series. One question was, “Will the boys be wearing skirts?”. This was delivered sarcastically, but it shows these attitudes still exist.
The State Titles were a jarring reminder of what it can be like for boys to play netball and reinforced the requirement for change. This is a line in the sand moment. We can no longer accept behavior that seeks our exclusion and I’m no longer going to apologise for wanting to participate. We can no longer walk away when confronted with this type of behavior, no matter how united and justified the collective feel.
I want to be clear here. There is a distinction between the historic aggressions and those experienced over the last few weeks. That which was directed at the boys at the State Titles was a genuine reflection of the participants and spectators disappointment and frustration at the boys eligibility to play finals and win the title. Whilst these feelings emanate from a different place, it generates the same atmosphere and sends the same message - ‘You're not welcome here because of who you are’.
Shortly after the grand final, the controversy went viral and entered the public domain for comment. Major national television networks, newspapers and social commentators lined up for comment. Internationally, articles were published in the U.K., Ireland, Jamaica and South Africa. Never before had men's netball been given a bigger spotlight.
Followers on the Suns’ social platforms grew by some 40%, with the website crashing due to the amount of traffic. Amongst the commentary, a common thread appeared that narrowed the scope of the issue to create a ‘for or against’ or ‘male vs female’ narrative.
A by-product of this commentary resulted in numerous threatening messages and emails directly being sent to Queensland Suns, our 17 & Under coach Tamara Holcroft and to myself. Unfortunately, this was not unexpected.
As a sport that has desperately sought greater exposure for decades, we must understand that when it comes, this is part of the admission price. Without a doubt the messages of support from near and far outweighed the vitriol and it's clear there is overwhelming support for men's inclusion in netball, but how we go about it is critical.
History reminds us that any group denied opportunities or faced with exclusion are least empowered to bring about the changes they seek. It's been necessary for these groups to agitate for inclusion and recognition and use controversy as a tool to create greater awareness. Without controversy progress would stall.
Apart from netball, men have not faced the same limitations or barriers as women, so I can image there will be a lot of people reading this article rolling their eyes whilst I complain about men being excluded. I can't blame them, nor do I take it personally.
In an opinion piece, “What comes after momentum?” in June, I stated that, “I understand that I’m a male agitating for inclusion of men in the only sport that has given females a platform to be celebrated as athletes.”
Netball for females, particularly at community level, has always been more than just sport. It has been a safe place cultivated by women that has created opportunities and a platform often denied to them in other arenas. Therefore, the inclusion of men in netball has a unique set of complexities not mirrored in other sports that have sought gender inclusion.
There is a genuine belief that this inclusion may result in women again taking the back seat. Therefore I understand the hesitation from the netball community when asked to embrace men's netball.
It wasn't our intention, but I admit the controversy from the State Titles would be seen as way of justifying these concerns. Whilst there is enough room in netball for everyone, the greater inclusion of males cannot be at the expense of females. For netball to thrive it relies on both parties to be successful, otherwise the sport may never reach its potential and hinder its viability to be included in the Olympics.
The challenge for the sports’ leaders is to rise above the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric and be willing to have the right conversation. A conversation that is shaped around the underpinning issues and focuses on solutions that benefit all participants of the game, regardless of gender.