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.

Why Helen Grant’s MP comments were misjudged

Sport minister, Helen Grant MP, has just given an interview to The Telegraph newspaper stating that women should be given more opportunities to participate in feminine sports, such as cheerleading. The article goes on to quote that it enables “those participating [to] look absolutely radiant and very feminine”. And the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation have released a statement agreeing with her.

The problem is however, that it perpetuates gender stereotypes that suggest female = feminine and male = masculine. And it is these stereotypes that have held women in sport back for so long and led to years of people (mainly men) suggesting that sport is bad for women. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of weeks that we saw comments made by Russia’s ski jumping coach, Alexander Arefyev, who said that women should not be participating in ski-jump because “Women have another purpose – to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”

So however well intentioned Ms Grant’s comments were – and I do not disagree with the fact that everyone (male and female) should have an opportunity to participate in a range of sports and exercise activities – unfortunately they were completely misguided. The headlines that have been drawn focus upon the notion that women and girls should (as a moral imperative) be emphasising their femininity through participation in particular ‘feminine’ sports.

What we really need to be doing (and this has been a focus in Parliament recently) is trying to dispel the gender stereotypes that begin at birth and are enforced throughout childhood. We need to stop ourselves saying to girls in particular ‘that’s not for girls’ or ‘that’s not very ladylike’ in the way that we expect them to behave where we have no issue with ‘boys being boys’ and playing roughly or getting muddy. This is what will help to change attitudes for girls participating in sport and exercise, so that when they get to secondary school they don’t feel that sports which leave them hot and sweaty aren’t for them.

Yes there should be a range of activities for both girls and boys that enable them to enjoy physical activity, but focusing upon ‘femininity’ just seeks to preserve the same old stereotypes.

How Nelson Mandela Used Sporting Patriotism for Good

In Tännsjö and Tamburrini’s excellent edited collection, ‘Values in Sport’, Paul Gomberg and Nick Dixon debate whether patriotism in sport is a good thing. Whilst Dixon argues that a ‘moderate patriotism’ can be morally defended, Gomberg presents a vehement argument against it. For Gomberg, patriotism is morally equivalent to jingoism and any patriotic attitude can be used for nationalistic purposes: “..moderate patriotism, even as cultivated in sports, gives way in these situations to the most barbaric, fascist attacks on others, all in the service of the capitalist ruling groups who initiate this process.” (p98)

However, when Nelson Mandela chose to wear a Springbok shirt at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 he showed how patriotism can be a force for peace rather than war. Mandela wanted South Africa to be for all South Africans, and in a climate of uncertainty where many white South Africans were fearful of the future and retribution for the past, this simple patriotic gesture helped allay fears and heal rifts.

Mandela and Pienaar 1995 RWC

Mandela showed how patriotic identity in sport can be morally acceptable. And Gomberg is wrong in his argument that “being moderately patriotic is like being a little bit pregnant” (p87) – this analogy is just incorrect. Being patriotic is not the same as being jingoistic, rather it is about holding and forming an identity. Mandela wore the Springbok shirt not to show a hatred of other nations but rather to show that there is a common humanity between us all and he could identify as much with the white South African Francois Pienaar as he could with those that had been oppressed by racism in all corners of the globe.


Dixon, N. (2000) ‘A Justification of Moderate Patriotism in Sport’

Gomberg, P. (2000) ‘Patriotism in Sport and War’

Both in:

Tännsjöm T. and Tamburrini, C. (2000) Values in Sport. London: Routledge.

Why it is wrong to stop benefits for the under 25s

I understand the rhetoric of the Conservative party. They want people to go out and work, pay taxes and be decent citizens of the United Kingdom. And George Osborne says there will always be a safety net to prevent those unlucky or unfortunate enough falling through the cracks. But apparently this doesn’t apply to anyone under 25. Why? I’m presuming because anyone under the age of 25 shouldn’t be unfortunate enough to need benefits. Or perhaps it’s because the under 25s are an easy group to target. They vote in far fewer numbers than other age groups, they hold far less power and influence, and others are far less likely to protest in their support. If you’re under 25 the Conservatives expect you to be either working or in education. And if you’re not, then you are left to your own devices. But you won’t get any help from the State. This seems unreasonably callous for an age group that are often struggling to find their way in life.

My experience of claiming benefits was as follows. I had just graduated from University and was trying to find a job. I probably could have returned home to live with my parents but I thought that it would be far easier to find a job in the affluent city of Norwich than my impoverished rural home in Cornwall. The benefits provided a short term safety net for me for four months until I got a temping job at Norwich Union. That the was the one and only time I claimed housing benefit and I really needed it then. Admittedly I was lucky enough to have parents that would be willing to put me up for a bit but not everyone is this fortunate. What of the 21 year old who has been in full time education his whole life but who is unable to find work as soon as he graduates? If he doesn’t have a family that will support him, and won’t get any help from the State, that education may come to nothing if he ends up homeless and on the familiar downward spiral that it often becomes.

Sometimes I find myself warming to the Conservative party. Sometimes, I feel that they have left the callous days of New Right Thatcherism behind them. And then they come up with a heartless policy like this and any thoughts I might have of voting for them evaporates. It is an easy target but that doesn’t make it a good one.

Technology and the future divide between the haves and the have nots

I’ve written a few times now about The Singularity and technological advancement and have just found this great TED talk that continues some of these ideas. In it, economist Andrew McAfee speculates about a likely near future and what it means for society. He gives some compelling data regarding the recent life-courses of those who have a good education, and are in professional, creative type jobs, and those that have had minimal schooling and have been limited to unskilled or semi-skilled manual jobs. Life has been good to the former whilst the latter have been marginalised and alienated as they have increasingly found themselves being long-term, out of work. Interestingly, an article on the BBC website only today reports an argument being made to the heads at the G8 summit, that more investment should be given to schools and universities in order to continue a prosperous economy. That education is the means to freedom and a better life is generally uncontested. But when this is considered in the light of McAfee’s predictions on a future high-tech society, it is clear that we should be taking this seriously in order to give everyone a chance of the good life that most of you reading this will already have.

How should I vote on the AV referendum?

Proponents on each side of the AV debate have amped up their rhetoric over the past week and it’s difficult to know what to believe. As someone who has swayed between the positions of ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘why bother voting at all?’ I’ve been trying to work out what I should do that is consistent with my core beliefs and values. So here’s my take:

My initial thoughts were to reject AV since one of the highlights of our elections is the quick counting and declaration of seats. Sad and pathetic, I realise, but I love the election night fever whereby I am desperately trying to stay awake at 4am to see what the next seat is to declare, and what colour it’s going to be.

However, my mum told me this wasn’t a good enough reason to vote ‘no’ so I had to think a bit harder. But as I’ve been trying to work out the merits of each case, what has really made my mind up is the disingenuous campaigning by the ‘no’ side.

For instance, the one thing that has really wound me up is the phrase used by the ‘no’ campaign that states ‘Under AV the winner wouldn’t win’, or the picture they are using which shows 100m runners and an arrow pointing to the last finisher:

This is a bad argument since they are already using the term ‘winner’ to denote the first finisher. Under a different system, the criteria for deciding the winner would be different and so the winner would still win but just not in the way that the current criteria dictates. Let’s change the analogy to the 4x100m relay. One team manages to get round the track the quickest but they dropped the baton at the first changeover. Just because they managed to finish first doesn’t mean that they won because the rules state that the baton must be transferred within a specified area and carried over the finish line with the competitor. The criteria for deciding the winner is different to just ‘being first over the line’ and this is the same with the AV system. The criteria for deciding the winner under AV is that a candidate must achieve 50% of the vote according to specified means (transferring of second and third votes (or more) if necessary) so under AV the winner does still, unsurprisingly, win.

It is this type of disingenious campaigning that has actually swayed me into action for voting yes to AV.

The other rhetorical ploy that is used is the incorrect labelling of our current system as ‘first past the post’ – the analogy of a race doesn’t work (in fact it is a better description of AV than our current system). We would be better off imagining it as a ‘highest score wins’ competition such as snooker, badminton or decathlon. Let’s say that you have a constituency of 30,000 people. The person who receives the most votes out of that 30,000 wins (whether they get 80% or 30% is irrelevant as long as they get more than any other candidate), just as the player who takes the most frames, sets or points wins. So let’s stop calling our current system ‘first past the post’.

AV is far from perfect (as Nick Clegg is frequently cited in saying from his ‘pathetic compromise’ comment) but it’s a start to a better form of democracy whereby the representatives of a country are more representative of the desires of their electorate.

As an aside, I’m not completely in favour of democracy – I prefer Plato’s philosopher kings idea (well, I would, wouldn’t I?!) – since the majority don’t always make sensible or reasoned choices, but since the possibility of us changing to a benevolent dictatorship is not presented as an option in this referendum, I am going to go with a ‘yes’ in favour of changing our system.

My thoughts on the proposed student fees…

This blog post originated from a Twitter conversation that I had with a colleague @oddhack following my tweet “After consideration, I am starting to come around to the proposed increase in student fees. *she says bracing herself for some flak*”

I suppose there are three different questions that need to be considered:

  1. Is there any way that HE could be funded without students having to pay fees?
  2. Should HE be funded without student fees?
  3. If fees are the only option then what is the fairest way of paying for this?

I don’t know the answer to question 1. There obviously is a finite pot of money so should it be spend on defence or health or other forms of education (i.e. pre-school, primary school – which the coalition is arguing for). Saying that, I’m sure that millions is spent on things I wouldn’t agree with such as men’s World Cup football bids.

The more important question then is question 2. This is much more complex. People that haven’t gone to University argue that they shouldn’t have to fund those who do but this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. I think the real problem is that those making the decision to increase fees had the advantage of free University (my PhD supervisor said that he had enough money from his student grant to go travelling every summer during his degree!). For a coalition who’s mantra is ‘fairness’ this seems the opposite. I wonder how much it would actually cost to implement the old grant system with numbers rising to 40+% of the population. The question is whether the good resulting from making HE free is worth the investment (and the sacrifice of other things). The criticism I suppose is that it is intellectual elitism as those who have the intellectual skills/abilities/motivation will be given an additional push to help them secure a better job whereas those who do not have the skills/ability/motivation will be left at a disadvantage. Ought we to fund vocational training in the same way? I think one of the main problems at the moment is that the Government (and wider society) isn’t clear as to what Universities are – they are not supposed to be vocational training centres (which I fear they are turning into – many of my students seems surprised that they are expected to both read and think!) and their value can’t be measured in purely economic returns.

Which brings us to 3. I think the mistake that the coalition has made here is in the language they have chosen to use. Why didn’t they just call it a graduate tax as that is essentially what it is. Saying that they are increasing fees has misled so many students into thinking that they still have to find the money up front which just isn’t true. If they had just said that all new graduates would be paying 2% of their income once they were earning £21,000 in order to fund other students, then I expect the reaction wouldn’t have been so fierce. I’m also not convinced of the argument that it will put off students going to University once they realise that they don’t have to pay anything up front. This was the fear of raising fees to £3000 and it hasn’t had any effect whatsoever. It might actually mean more older people coming to University because if you’re already 55 or 60 then you might think it is an opportunity for a free degree as there’s little chance you’ll be earning over the threshold once you complete. It might also have the same effect on part time students who will get the same opportunities as full time students which they haven’t had previously.

These questions then really come down to how much should we (both from a collective and individual point of view) value higher (and I also think further and vocational) education? Do we say as a society that we value it so much that we will give everyone the opportunity to participate in it free at the point of need? Or do we say that if individuals value it then they ought to pay for it (by being provided with a loan or greater tax burden)? I would argue the former, simply because it gives the signal that society values well educated and trained individuals. And if David Cameron really wants to measure well-being then being appreciated for what you can offer is a great part of this.