Watching virtual sport – better than the real thing?

Watching Virtual Sports

Emily Ryall

The existence of sport, for most, goes unquestioned. For many sports aficionados’ it is sport that regulates the calendar and marks the passing of one season to the next. Yet, this way of conceiving the world and our lives came to an abrupt halt in Spring 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, some sports tried to fill the gaps in the schedules, and appease the desire of their fans, by bringing in virtual forms of their sport. There are several examples of this, from Formula 1 which pitted F1 drivers against what might be called ‘gamers’ in simulated races, to the virtual Grand National, to the Skoda and Zwift cycling races, to elite tennis players playing tennis simulation games against each other. All of these examples are slightly different in their relationship to sport and the reasons for their introduction. The Grand National involved no players at all, just an AI generated race, the tennis example required none of the skills required to hit a tennis ball in real life, but the cycling and F1 events were more representative of the skills required for the real thing – cyclists wired up their bikes to the internet to take account of actual pedal power, whilst the F1 drivers sat in replica cars which required the same motor control as the real thing (albeit without the g-forces). So, whilst the experiences for the players and athletes may be very different, the question is what about the experience of the spectator? What do we, as spectators, want sport to look or be like? Does reality matter or is appearance of reality sufficient? And can virtual sports replicate the experience of ideal sport for spectators as well, or even better, than the real thing?

In order to consider these questions, a broader question about the ideal of sport needs to be answered. What does the ideal form sport look like? One way of answering this question is consider the features that are necessary for good sport: excellence of skill, novelty, genius, drama, anticipation of success of outcome. Equally, we might want to consider features that are antithetical to good sport: poor skill, mundanity, cheating, death and injury, lack of attainment.

Let’s take the aesthetic element first. One of the features of beautiful sport is graceful and smooth action. We enjoy the rhythm and flow; the ability to move the body successfully from one position to another. Think about the symmetry of a rowing eight moving their oars through the water in perfect sync, a skateboarder’s smooth transition from rail to rail across a three foot gap whilst the board turns and spins under the skateboarder’s feet in mid-air, or a footballer’s deft turn and sprint to navigate the ball past a defender. Now think about the common glitches in poor virtual simulations: the blocky and blurred graphics, the staccato movements of virtual players that defy the laws of physics as they overlap and appear through inanimate objects or other players, and the repetitive actions that are unable to replicate the originality of individual form and gait. As Roberts (1975, p95) notes, pleasure is gained from watching sport when our ideals match the reality: “the pleasure aroused will be proportionate to the degree in which the particular impression embodies the form of the evoked apperceived ideal and is thereby an exemplar of its class.” Our experience of watching past incarnations of virtual sport bear little resemblance to our ideals and illustrates why watching the ‘real thing’ is more attractive.

Yet it seems as if these limitations are being overcome. Consider, for example, game-play footage from the latest Madden game; a simulation of NFL football. The original official trailer interspersed real-life NFL footage from the virtual game footage and the differences between them can at times be hard to identify[1]. The movement of the simulated players replicates that of real players; it appears natural and represents a relationship between player intentionality and the laws of physics, such as when a player uses all their bodily effort to ensure both feet stay within the on field boundary when catching a ball; or when a player deftly ducks under a lunging tackler’s arm, or makes a hard cut in their running direction to avoid an oncoming defender (Figure 1)[2]. Similarly, when watching footage of real-life Formula 1 action and that which is virtually simulated, it is equally difficult to tell the difference (Figure 2). The camera angles are the same, the cars are as realistic in appearance, the movement and the physics replicates that of reality. The only significant identifying differences are with the quality of the virtual crowd which all seem to be the same human avatar with limited features and movement actions. On this basis then, the aesthetic differences in the realistic quality of movement and appearance of features and objects in simulated versions of real sports have diminished to such an extent that it is increasingly difficult for the human eye to tell the difference between them. Virtual sport is starting to match our apperceived ideal. Moreover, the latest releases of these virtual sports more accurately replicate the unique movements, gait and characteristics of real players. Such is the relationship between games franchises, sports governing bodies, and professional clubs, that players’ faces and bodies are 3-dimensionally mapped so that they are easily identifiable in the game itself. Fans are able to watch their real-life heroes perform on the virtual stage, and this enables salacious competitive match-ups and combinations. For instance, teams can consist of heroes from different decades, so Pele can play alongside Messi with Lev Yashin in goal.


Figure 1. Screenshot from Madden21 ( and from NFL game (File Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI:


Figure 2. Screenshot from F1 virtual Grand Prix ( and British Grand Prix 2020 (×534.jpg)

Let us move then to the related issue of demonstration of excellence of skill in sport. This is arguably one of the main reasons why elite sports are more attractive than amateur sport and why broadcasters will pay millions to show the English football premiership, the Olympic Games, and the Super Bowl. Audiences want to see the most skilful athletes perform at the highest level. And unless they have a personal or familial connection, they are not interested in watching a village team turn out to play on a Sunday afternoon. As noted above, past simulations of sports have tended to be based on limited actions of player or avatar and have been based on incomplete or inaccurate physical laws. In early manifestations of soccer games, balls could be kicked from player to player with little finesse: players who seemed to be a distance away from a landing ball would suddenly find it appear at their feet, whilst a ball that appeared to have been shot over the crossbar would end up in the back of the net. Not only was the quality of the graphics poor but the movement and skill of the players was limited in scope. There was little similarity between a real footballer controlling the ball and that of his graphic counterpart. Yet in the game FIFA20, there were 73 unique footballing skill moves able to be performed by players and ability level is based on their skill level as a real human athlete (so former FIFA world player of the year, Christiano Ronaldo is able to be far more skilful than second league, Grimsby midfielder, Brandon McPherson)[3]. The possibility of utilising and demonstrating such a range of skill within the game itself illustrates how the realism gap has reduced. As noted by Robin Bairner on

“There are as many as 21 dribbling tricks unique to 5-star skillers in FIFA 20, including the sombrero flick, the triple elastic, the advanced rainbow and the tornado spin left and right. These are the most spectacular dribbling moves in the game and are capable of bamboozling any opponent, so are worthwhile honing if you favour a side that has a high technical level. Meanwhile, there are also 11 5-star juggling tricks, including the in air elastic, flick up for volley and the drag back sombrero – a new trick added to the game.”[4]

What a player cannot do however is create their own tricks and this is arguably a key feature of ideal sport: the moments of genius whereby athletes enable a paradigm shift in how the sport is played (Lacerda and Mumford, 2010), e.g. Cruft turn, Fosbury flop, Mullen kick-flip, Schuschunova straddle to front support. Games players are only able to complete pre-programmed actions and whilst there may be scope for originality in game-playing through identifying programming glitches (Hemmingson, 2020), this does not allow the in-game character themselves to create new, sports specific bodily-realistic movements. Nevertheless, there is still potential for creativity and originality in the way in which the game is played. For example, the winner of the 2020 Madden championship, (aptly named) Joke, produced a controversial but highly original strategy for winning by putting a punter at quarterback, thus leveraging more player points for dominating the defence and run options[5]. He won the championship without making a single pass. Although this strategy was highly unusual and has not (so far) been attempted in the ‘real life’ version of the game, Joke was praised by EA Sports:

“For years Joke has been an innovator in Madden’s competitive formats, constantly pushing for every advantage. There is a reason he has been a constant presence in Madden’s majors. Other players in the event tried forms of that strategy and couldn’t pull it off.”[6]

However, the comprehensiveness of sports simulations, along with advances in artificial intelligences could spark originality and genius in the games themselves. In game characters could be enabled to develop original movements within the confines of physical laws. Artificial intelligence is able to produce original artworks, poetry, music, and dance choreography so it does not seem unreasonable to suggest it could create novel sporting movements.[7] After all, the rules of sport provide the boundaries but not necessarily the means. If the ‘rule’ is to navigate the ball with control past the body of an opposing player without using the arms, then there are undoubtedly methods of doing this that have so far been ignored or considered beyond the boundaries of human capability. But as shown by the fact that every year new and previously considered impossible sporting skills, are successfully completed, originality and creativity in sport continues. In a virtual world where no-one gets injured or is plagued by self-doubt or fear, the possibilities for original sporting skills and manoeuvres may be all the more likely.

This last point relates to a further concept of ideal sport in the reduction of risk and harm to those participating. Brain injury caused through sport is an increasing and high level concern, particularly in contact sports such as boxing, rugby, American football, and association football. In virtual sport, whilst injuries may be simulated for in-game characters, no actual harm comes to the real human players outside them. Consider for example, the virtual simulations of cycling or motor racing. Spectacular crashes may occur in virtual races but the cyclist pedalling on her static bike or sitting within the cockpit of the simulated car will not bear a scratch. In this then, we may wish to argue that the simulated versions are morally better since they reduce the risk of harm to those that participate in them.[8] For the sporting spectator however, we can have our cake and eat it. We can witness and revel in dramatic crashes, one punch knock-outs or brutal tackles safe in the knowledge that no-one has really been hurt in the process.

Ultimately then, the gap between real harm and virtual harm may also extend to the harm produced through unsporting conduct or cheating. Since the virtual game characters (and the background programme itself) are devoid of feeling emotion, they do not try to intimidate or challenge the referees or officials into changing their decisions. Similarly, they do not try to deceive officials into the fact they have been tackled illegally in the penalty area or in using prohibited equipment. That is of course, not to say that human players of these virtual sports do not cheat, since there have been high profile examples of cheating, such as Cameron Jeffers who was fined and banned by British Cycling from competition after using illegal equipment in a Zwift esport cycle race[9] and Daniel Apt who used an imposter to drive for him in a virtual F1 race[10], however, the in-game characters themselves have no motivation to cheat since they are not subject to the same human fallibilities and motivations. Equally, whilst game programming can be hacked, in the most part, the programme limits the type of rule breaking that can occur and limits the likelihood of players deceiving in game officials into making the wrong call. For the purist sports fan then, this lack of cheating and motivation to cheat may make the experience of watching virtual sports better since it will focus on the demonstration of excellent sporting skills rather than be spoiled by the negative aspects of human character.

Finally, let’s consider the future of the spectating experience for the sports fan. Purists and partisans alike may argue that the richest experience takes place by being in the sports ground itself; by feeling the mass of bodies drawing breath and exhaling together, cheering and jeering at scores and misses, the ground beneath your feet juddering as the benches you are sitting on shakes with anticipation of the starting whistle. Watching a replication of the sporting environment on screen is anaemic as a result. Yet the development of virtual reality suggests this may be able to replicate the experience of being live at a sports event, including experiences that you could only get if you were exclusively rich or were part of the team itself. Virtual reality for the sporting spectator could mean a seat on the front row, or the team’s bench, or even as an official or player themselves. The sporting spectator could watch the game through the eyes of someone else with a particular vantage point: sports could be watched from any perspective imaginable.

The possibilities of virtual sport becoming a viable substitute for the real thing may not therefore be as far fetched as one may initially suppose. When we ask ourselves, what do we want as spectators of sport, we come back to those sporting ideals which include beauty, excellence, originality, drama and a richness of experience, all of which may be replicated (if not now, but soon) in virtual mediums.






Cardy, S. (2020) Madden Championship Won Without Playing a Quarterback or Throwing a Pass. IGN. 26 May 2020. Available at: [Accessed August 2020]

Gumbrecht, H. U. (2006). In praise of athletic beauty. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hemmingsen, M. (2020). Code is law: subversion and collective knowledge in the ethos of video game speedrunning. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 1-26, 1–26.

Kreft, L. (2012). Sport as a drama. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 39(2), 219–234.

Lacerda, T., & Mumford, S. (2010). The genius in art and in sport: a contribution to the investigation of aesthetics of sport. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 37(2), 182–193.

Mumford, S. (2012). Watching sport: aesthetics, ethics and emotion. London: Routledge.

Roberts, T. (1975) Sport and the sense of beauty. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. 2(1): 91-101. DOI: 10.1080/00948705.1975.10654101


[2] However, there are some very good analyses of in-game player movement that suggest that the realistic appearances are superficial, see RyanMoody21’s ‘Madden21 gameplay – this looks awful’:



[5] As in the NFL and other franchise sports, there is the equivalent of a ‘salary cap’ which means teams have to be strategic about where they use their strengths. Most teams will go for a highly rated quarterback but this limits the amount left to use on other players: by omitting a quarterback this left Joke the room to enhance the rest of this team.

[6] Cardy, S. (2020) Madden Championship Won Without Playing a Quarterback or Throwing a Pass. IGN. 26 May 2020. Available at: [Accessed August 2020]


[8] A counter-argument may be that playing virtual sports for long periods of time stores up the potential for chronic health conditions, since there is little physical activity taking place and even less time spent outside in the fresh air and with nature.



Comment to World Rugby Trans Athlete Panel

World rugby recently conducted an expert panel into the participation of trans athletes – particularly male to female athletes – in rugby. This comprised of medical, legal and ethical expert opinion on the topic as well as contributions by those affected, notably players and others involved in rugby. I was disappointed not to have been asked to provide the expert philosophical opinion as I felt that I was able to offer a unique perspective in understanding the game as a player and coach as well as having a day job of philosopher of sport. But I think the omission was one ignorance rather than deliberate slight. Nevertheless, the convenor, Ross Tucker, asked if I would provide a written contribution which I give below:

Dear Ross,

Thanks for asking me to email your thoughts to pass on to the World Rugby consultation. Just to give you a little background on myself. I am currently a Reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and have a background in both philosophy and sport. I played rugby for over 15 years at various levels including national representation, and was part of national league and cup winning teams in both the 15s and 7s form of the game. Similarly I have coached women, again at various levels in both the 15s and 7s form for over 20 years. Overall, I have been involved in women’s rugby since 1995 and would consider I have very good knowledge and understanding of the game as both as a player and as a coach, but also from the perspective of an academic specialising in the philosophy and ethics of sport. I have published several books and many peer-reviewed articles in the philosophy of sport, am a former Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association and am currently Associate Editor for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.

On the issue of trans athletes in rugby, I have the following comments to make. First, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is vital to recognise that any policy decisions affects the lives of real individuals, and with both populations (trans individuals and women) suffering from endemic societal discrimination, any policy recommendations need to be sensitive to this. My second comment is related to the concept of sex. I’m not convinced by the argument that sex is non biological but nevertheless the notions of biologically male and biologically female presuppose that there is a definitive and categorical means for determining this. However, as sports authorities have discovered over the years, sexual anatomy, chromosomal makeup, genetic markers and testosterone, etc. may not perfectly align for 100% of the population. And using proxies such as testosterone again presupposes that a) this is a reasonable substitute for sex, and b) it is a determinant of fair competition.

In relation to the specifics of rugby, it is worth bearing in mind the history and development of the women’s game. Women’s rugby was always marginalised and often (unreasonably) viewed as the epitome of the sport for ‘butch lesbians’. For a woman, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s (and perhaps even today) to play rugby was to attract a fair degree of scorn and ridicule. Fortunately this is now changing. Nevertheless, rugby was a ‘safe’ environment for many women who didn’t always feel welcome in other sports or in other aspects of society. In particular, it allowed large, strong and powerful women to succeed at sport due to the attributes it tested. This is really important to remember if there is any suggestion that size and body mass is a relevant factor to determine physically safe sport for women. On a personal level, I have played with and against many women who have been much taller than me (I am 5’4”) and larger than me (in my playing days I was about 10.5 stone) and with a very ‘masculine’ appearance. But that was accepted because women’s rugby has always been a sport that is inclusive and accepting of all women’s bodies – again, due to the fact that it was a marginalised sport that many men believed was not appropriate for women to play. Facing someone who was significantly larger in stature and size is an accepted risk of rugby, and primarily requires good coaching techniques to ensure players can manage contact effectively. Any proposal to limit the size of players would radically alter the game at all levels and for all sexes. (And although there does seem to be a more recent deviation to a norm with male players since professionalisation, one only has to remember the difference in size and stature between players such as Jonah Lomu and Rory Underwood at the 1995 men’s World Cup to illustrate the acceptance of size difference in rugby.)

As such, it is important to be sensitive to the history of women’s rugby and not to produce policy that may vilify the very players that rugby has always attracted and accepted. Whilst male to female trans athletes may have a significant advantage in both physique and physiology it is not likely to be outside the total range of all women players. I would encourage World Rugby to commission some research that considered the upper quartile of women players in terms of physique over the last 30 years (though unfortunately I doubt this data would be available) and then compare this to male to female trans players. My intuition (from experience) is that male to female trans athletes would not be outside these limits even though they may be at the top of these limits. As such, an argument based on excluding trans athletes on grounds of size and player safety seems wholly unreasonable and unsupported by evidence, other than anecdote. Players are injured by other players for a variety of reasons: poor tackling technique, poor body management, poor officiating, poor luck and illegal aggressive behaviour (I have a list of personal injuries from all of these). Considering the prejudice that trans athletes face in their wider lives, to give the impression that they are some kind of ‘monster’ who is likely to leave a pitch full of broken players behind them, just plays into the prejudice they already face.

Any policy change needs to consider the effect that it would have on current and future female-born players and current and future male-born players who have transitioned to female. From my perspective, the primary factors needed to be considered are the history of women’s rugby, its inclusivity and the type of players that it has always attracted, and to ensure that World Rugby does not seek to maintain or promote the narrative around trans-athletes being abhorrent and unwelcome in sport. Whilst the safety of players should be a key consideration, and rugby is a fairly high risk sport due to its contact element, it is far better to ensure that there is appropriate medical support (something that many clubs still do not have) and to ensure that all players receive quality coaching. My view is that this is where there needs to be significant investment in the women’s game. Not to vilify trans athletes who are likely to have suffered significant prejudice in their wider lives.

I realise that emotions run high in this area, primarily because women’s sport has always faced a tough struggle to be accepted and funded. I recognise the fears that some women have who may feel threatened at what they see as the prospect of ‘cheating men entering and ruining our sport’. And I do share concerns about the numbers of children and young adults who show signs of body dysmorphia and who wish to change sex as a result. Not withstanding this, I think that a much more pragmatic and sensitive approach can be taken in respect to rugby. Policy should ensure that individuals cannot ‘game the system’ in being able to identify as one sex on one day and another sex on another day. As such, it seems reasonable to specify a period of time that an individual must have lived their life as their non birth-assigned sex before they are allowed to participate in rugby. However, any policy that seeks to use testosterone or body mass or any other sex marker to prevent individuals participating in rugby is not reasonable and justified. Rugby should remain as inclusive as possible at the same time as it accepts and mitigates the risk as a contact sport.

I hope you are able to present this to the panel. As I said, I would have like to have been able to participate in person but recognise that other appointments and invitations have been made. Please do contact me if you have any questions or require more detail.



Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!


Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions

I’m just in the process of going through the proofs of my new book which should be out in the next few months. Each chapter is based on a question in the philosophy of sport and contains sub-questions and independent study questions, plus there are chapters of questions addressed to some key figures in the area. So lots of questions… and a few answers! The book is published by Bloomsbury and should be out in late Spring.

Here’s the chapter list:


  1. What is the philosophy of sport?

Interview with Warren Fraleigh

Defining sport

  1. What is sport?
  2. Can cheaters ever win?

Interview with Jim Parry

Sport, knowledge and truth

  1. Are there different types of sporting knowledge?
  2. How can philosophy underpin research in sport?
  3. Is the referee always right?
  4. How much is too much technology in sport?

Interview with R. Scott Kretchmar

Interview with Mike McNamee

Sport, body and mind

  1. Is the body just another sporting tool?
  2. Is sporting success ‘mind over matter’?
  3. Is it right to separate sport according to sex?
  4. Does sport discriminate against transsexual and transgender athletes?
  5. Is elite disability sport an oxymoron?

Interview with Pam Sailors

Interview with Takayuki Hata

Sport and the good life

  1. What is the value of sport?
  2. Is utopia a world full of games?
  3. What is the value of dangerous sport?
  4. Are Olympic values worth aspiring to?

Interview with Randolf Feezell

Interview with Heather Reid

Sport, art and aesthetics

  1. Is sport art?
  2. Does beauty matter in sport?
  3. Is it better to be a purist or partisan when watching sport?

Interview with Stephen Mumford

Interview with Graham McFee

Ethical questions in sport

  1. What is fair play in sport?
  2. Is sport a moral educator?
  3. Is competition morally acceptable?
  4. Is gamesmanship just another skill in sport?
  5. What is wrong with doping in sport?
  6. Do elite athletes deserve hero status?
  7. Is it wrong to be patriotic in sport?
  8. Can you respect someone you’re trying to beat?
  9. Can violent sports be ethical?
  10. Should sport be used as a political tool?
  11. Does commercialism ruin sport?

Interview with Sigmund Loland

Interview with Angela Schneider


Open Letter to Tracey Couch on GB Football Team for Rio 2016

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, in order to highlight how important it was to ensure a GB women’s football team was sent to the Rio Olympics:

Dear Ms Crouch MP,

On the back of the tremendous performances by the England women’s football team in the World Cup, could I urge you as Secretary for State for Sport, to lobby the Home Nations football governing bodies to work together to enter a GB team for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics is unsurpassed in the way that it promotes women’s sport on the same level as men’s and therefore effort needs to be made to ensure that women have the opportunity to play on this stage. Both England women and men have qualified for the rugby 7s but have agreements in place with other Home nation governing bodies to send a GB team to represent the country in Rio. Everything should be done to ensure this is the same for football. I cannot understand what reasons could possibly take priority over the opportunity for a women’s football team to play in the largest global sporting event.

Please could you let me know what you are currently doing, or plan to do, in order to make this opportunity a reality.

Yours sincerely,

Emily Ryall

I’ve just received a written response back and it’s very sad and disappointing. Effectively it looks like it’s not going to happen:

“The home nations are rightly proud of their history and the independent statuses they enjoy in world football, and there remains genuine concern that FIFA could see the coming together of a unified British team in this instance as a reason for them to question the validity of having separate national teams in future world competitions.”

Ultimately the blame is placed on FIFA for not providing sufficient assurance that the integrity of the home nations team will remain if they come together to form a GB team for Rio.

The sad consequence is that the best women footballers in GB will not be able to represent their country at the biggest global sport event for women. These are not the highly paid men that care little about putting on a national shirt, these are women that have fought (and continue to fight) to be respected as athletes and are denied the opportunity to showcase their achievements at the highest level.

I will continue to push Tracey Crouch to advocate for a GB women’s football team and encourage you to do the same.

Empowerment and Naked Sports Calendars

Naked sports calendars have been around for a while now but I still shift uncomfortably when I see yet another female sports team publishing one. Am I just a prude or do I have good reason for my discomfort?*

Part of it is to do with the fact that feminists fight so hard for women to be seen in a way other than a sexualised object; showing the non-sexualised (strong, graceful, powerful, beautiful) body through sport is one of the ways of challenging this view of women. Sport demonstrates what the body can achieve, not what it looks like.

Producing a naked sports calendar may seem like innocent fun, and there are those that argue that the women photographed in them are strong, confident and assertive, especially if they are already established and elite athletes. There are others who argue that it is no different to the naked calendars of male sports teams. It is a complex issue to unpick but as Charlene Weaver argues well in her article on this subject, the empowerment that women might feel being part of these calendars is based upon smoke and mirrors. Ultimately it “centres on viewers turning strong athletic women into sexual objects” and undermines efforts to recognise the female body as something more than this.

That is why it was so good to see the pictures (though not a calendar) produced by Emory University’s women’s rugby team. This to me was a breath of much needed fresh air. It is a brilliant campaign that focuses upon how (in this case) rugby makes women feel about themselves. Not what they look like to others.



Weaver, C. (2012) Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of Women Olympians’ Nude Reflections. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy. 6: 232-250.

* I will admit that I reluctantly took part myself in a naked calendar several years ago. I expressed reservations about it but for a myriad of complex reasons eventually agreed to be photographed. Hypocritcal? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my mind on whether it is a good thing or not.

What Do We Have To Do To Get Women’s Sport Right?

When I first went to primary school (back in the early 80s) the playground was segregated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections that were divided by a low brick wall. Whilst most of the girls were content with chatting and making daisy chains, I was desperate to play football with the boys who were on the other side of that wall. Probably spurred on by my mum, I went to see the headmistress to ask if I could play football with the boys. As a result I was given special dispensation and was allowed on both sides of the playground. I don’t remember how this made me feel at the time – I think I just felt special that I could go with either the boys or the girls, but the question is why the school thought it was appropriate to segregate the playground in the first place. When we moved house a couple of years later and I went to a different primary school, again I had to get special agreement to play football with the boys in the after-school club rather than go to the girls netball practice.

As a child, you don’t understand the politics and theory that influences these decisions – you just want to follow your interests and friends. I was lucky enough to have a mother that was vocal and believed in equality of the sexes (she actually got the sack from her first job for complaining that she wasn’t getting paid as much as a male colleague doing exactly the same work) and this gave me the confidence to think that there was no reason why I should be playing football or joining the Scouts (we lost the battle on the Scout front as they wouldn’t let me join). I was one of the lucky ones that managed to succeed in sport and I am still happy and confident to play with men in whatever sport I can. I accept my physical limitations and whilst I might get frustrated I’m not stronger or faster than I am, I don’t put them down to being a ‘girl’. I know that I’m not going to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint but neither are 99.99% of men either.

As the excellent report by the House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport committee has identified, there are no easy answers to getting more women and girls involved in sport. There are many complex and inter-locking reasons for the differences between men’s and women’s sport and their participation rates, ranging from cultural history and stereotypes, the way that girls and boys are brought up with different expectations, the fact that those that tend to teach girls PE are the few women that have succeeded in the system (and therefore are happy to continue it), the fact that power in politics, media and business has traditionally been in the hands of men… the list of reasons goes on and on.

As such, there are never going to be quick fix solutions and we shouldn’t imagine that one solution will fit everyone. There is a suggestion that PE in schools should be sex segregated but that will not be conducive to all girls; those that have excellent physical literacy are developed further by, and embrace, competing with boys. Equally, offering more ‘feminine’ sports may simply perpetuate the traditional sex stereotypes. The root of the problem is much deeper and will take time to address.

Yet, there are some really good suggestions in the report, most notably, ensuring that there is more communication and co-operation between various Governmental departments, and more recording of data on the way that money is spent on facilities and clubs and the affect that has on participation rates. There also needs to be much more time provided on ensuring physical literacy at the pre-school and infant stage of education – and this also requires training primary school teachers to address many of their traditional stereotypes about boys and girls.

I hope that if we get parents, teachers and the media to buy in to the fact that skill and literacy in sport is primarily dependent on practice and not sex chromosomes then things will get better for women in sport at the grass-roots level and at the elite. Australia, Canada and the US have all developed cultures whereby it is ‘cool’ for girls to be playing sport, and there’s no reason why we can’t too. But it has to mean we must do what we can to start to address the problem at all levels.

‘It’s just not cricket’ – Oh, yes it is!

Yesterday England lost the one-day series to Sri Lanka. England however, felt a degree of aggrievement after a controversial dismissal during the deciding game where batsman Jos Butler was run out at the non-striking end after he backed too far up the wicket. For those of you who don’t know too much about cricket, when the ball is in play (and this includes the bowler’s run up) the batsmen must stay within the crease otherwise they risk being stumped out. This goes for the non-striking batsman as well as the one the bowler is bowling to. However, in order to maximize chances of a quick single run, the non-striking batsman will often start to walk up the wicket to reduce the distance he has got to go to the other end. Yet, if this batsman stray beyond his crease the bowler is perfectly at liberty to knock the bails off the stumps and declare him out. And this is what happened yesterday.

England may well declare that it is not in the spirit of the game for the bowler to stop short of bowling and knock the bails off at his end, but arguably the Sri Lankan bowler, Sachitra Senanayake, was perfectly right to do so. It is within the rules of the game and the rule is there to prevent the non-striking bowler practically being at the other end of the wicket before the ball has even left the bowler’s hand. The rule is there to essentially keep the batsmen honest. And the fact that Jos Butler had been made aware that he was straying too far outside of his crease at least twice during the match shows that Sri Lanka were abiding by the spirit of the game. It is Jos Butler’s fault for not taking heed of these friendly warnings.

England are wrong to complain that Sri Lanka were not playing by the spirit of the game and it smacks of hypocrisy and sour grapes. Arguably, it was Jos Butler that was guilty of bending the spirit of the game, not the Sri Lankans.

Jos Butler Run Out

#BeAGameChanger – Pushing women’s sport forward

Last night I attended an event organised and hosted by the Women’s Sport Trust. In the room were an invited audience of 350 women and men who have an interest in women’s sport, encompassing figures such as broadcaster Clare Balding, coach Judy Murray (who both made incredibly impassioned off-the-cuff speeches) as well a wealth of Olympic and Paralympic medallists and international and ex-international athletes. This was in addition to business leaders and journalists – all who want to raise the profile of women in sport (you might justly ask why I was there!).

The evening was positive and inspirational and centred around a Q & A session with four current England captains (Katy Mclean – rugby, Steph Houghton – football, Charlotte Edwards – cricket, Pamela Cookey – netball) led by broadcaster Alice Arnold and followed by comments by a range of other leading figures. And looking at the buzz it created, it met its goal easily – with the #BeAGameChanger hashtag trending on Twitter.

Things aren’t great for women in sport from the school playing field upwards but they are better than they were even five years ago and what the Women’s Sport Trust showed was that there is a continuing impetus for change. They are doing exactly the right thing in trying to get the all important business leaders and journalists on board. When women’s sport is regularly covered and reported in the media and money is invested by the corporate world, society will be affected and culture will change. Young girls will no longer feel it is socially unacceptable to kick a ball around with their friends in the park or relish the thought of competing for victory. It is this culture that really needs to change and that will only happen if the wider media start reporting women’s sport as being as normal as men’s sport. There is a long, long way to go on this but the wheels do seem to be gradually moving.

There does seem to be a new feminist movement at the moment, whether from women in science and technology, women in philosophy, women in politics or women in sport. But equally and sadly there does seem to also be a reaction to this empowerment as can be seen in the worrying popularity of the misogynistic online PUA (pick-up artist) doctrine which has been linked to the recent shooting in California by Elliot Rodger, and the horrific abuse and trolling women have received on social media. Yet perhaps the fact that these voices are being increasingly marginalised indicates that culture is continuing to change; that wider society does (reluctantly in some cases) realise it needs to do more to provide opportunities for women to develop and showcase their talents. Events such as the one organised last night are signs that many see the status quo as not good enough and are willing to do their bit to keep pushing forward.

On a personal note, I have always been reluctant to get actively involved in women’s issues because I have been reluctant to define myself as a woman. I have always wanted to be defined by what I do and as such I sometime bury my head in the sand about the barriers women face. Last night reinforced to me however, that until the day where women are on a par with men at all levels of society I have a duty to do what I can to push women and girls forward and influence others to give them opportunities to be the best they can in every sphere of life. So all credit to the Women’s Sport Trust for organising #BeAGameChanger and even more credit to them for getting a sceptic like me to leave with my head buzzing with ideas and a renewed passion in my heart.

If you want to find out more about what you can do to help the Women’s Sport Trust then go here:

Two Cycling Films Added to the Sports Film List

I’ve just updated the philosophical sports film list that I’ve compiled to include the recently released The Armstrong Lie and the forthcoming Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist. The former I’ve seen, the latter I haven’t.

The Armstrong Lie is a slightly disjointed film that jumps back and forth between Armstrong’s hey-day, his complete fall from grace and his early attempts to regain control over his destroyed reputation. The disjointed nature can be explained by the fact that the director (Alex Gibney) set out to make one film – about Lance’s comeback from cancer in 2009 – and ended up recording Lance’s downfall. Unfortunately, though it provides some interesting insights and interviews with some of Lance’s (former) friends and colleagues, its lack of coherence detracts from what is a fascinating story.

…and the most interesting philosophical question – that the film doesn’t address – is who actually won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005?

The list of philosophical films can be found here: Sports films relating to philosophical issues