Beth Mead of England celebrates a goal, June 24, 2022 in Leeds. Picture credit: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

In praise of women’s football

Don’t let the FA score an own goal by letting transwomen into women’s sports

Artillery Row

After delays inflicted by the pandemic, the long-anticipated UEFA Women’s Euros kicks off on Wednesday 6 July, 2022.

This is a sport I have come to love watching. I have little choice really; my daughter has been playing grassroots football since the age of eight and for the last four years I have driven her far and wide in all weathers to watch her play with her friends. I have loved watching those girls grow in confidence and I was secretly delighted that she was bored by her third attempt at a dance class.

Female footballers have everything I want my daughter to aspire to: strength, tenacity and sisterhood, without a sparkly unicorn outfit or oversexualized dance routine in sight. 

If you haven’t watched the game, you really should. Unlike men’s football, the women provide a performance that is purely about the love of the sport. There are way fewer theatrics and far less egotism.

Support for women’s and girls’ football remains fragile

Among sports, football now has the highest rates of participation for women and girls in England, and given that one million girls lose interest in sport in their teenage years it’s more important than ever to foster this interest. As an antidote to the simplistic assumption that every generation is more “progressive” and “inclusive” than the previous one, let’s not forget that after the First World War women’s football attracted crowds of tens of thousands, before female teams were banned by the FA from club grounds in 1921. The ban remained in place for fifty years. 101 years later, football’s governing bodies are once again failing to effectively defend the women’s game. 

Increased visibility and support for women’s and girls’ football remains fragile. Recent reports suggest that FIFA were planning to wholeheartedly introduce men and boys who identify as women into the women’s game. Given this came at the same time as FINA announced their policy to exclude men from elite women’s swimming events, FIFA have agreed to review their planned policy. 

The FA’s current policy allows boys who identify as girls to play in the game up to the age of 16, and for 16+ the decision is made on a case by case basis. So, as it stands FIFA and the FA falsely advertise an exclusive game to women and girls when what they really offer, through their own policies, is a mixed sex sport.

The FA are advised by the transgender lobby group Gendered Intelligence (GI) on their trans inclusive policies. It would be great if GI fought for an open category for transgender players, alongside allowing female players to have a sport of their own — but their lobbying suggests otherwise. 

GI advocate for the substitution of gender identity for sex in all levels of policy and law. They not only lobby for the removal of single sex exceptions in the Equality Act 2010, which allow sporting bodies to retain women’s sports as female only, but they got a special mention in the MP Miriam Cates’s speech to parliament this week as a provider who advocates that children should learn “A woman is a woman — even if she enjoys getting blow jobs”. 

…the only fair option is female only

Gendered Intelligence does not appear to have any scientific credentials which would make them experts to advise on sporting inclusion and fairness. Amongst their team they have a wealth of people with counselling and psychotherapy qualifications, but I couldn’t find anyone who would be qualified to advise on women’s sports. Who knows, maybe Sabah (he/they) who is “passionate about … making friends with cats”, or Robin (they/he) who is interested in “interpersonal magic”, have hidden talents on the importance of getting girls into football? 

Independent researcher Cathy Devine is an expert I would urge the FA to lean on. She has written about the participation gap between the sexes in football and what happens if the gender identity rather than the biological sex of participants is introduced. 

But it’s not just about the science. Retaining girls’ interest, especially at grassroots levels, is hugely important. On entering a sport that is still very male dominated the only fair option is female only. 

As Cathy explained:

Given football is a sex-affected sport, girls will certainly need to be offered single-sex opportunities from the beginning of puberty … even primary-aged girls will need to be given opportunities to develop their skills in single-sex settings for sociocultural reasons. Girls don’t grow up playing football in the way many boys do and for this reason many will not feel comfortable playing with boys … allowing male children who identify as girls to play in girls teams is likely to further demotivate girls who are already at significant risk of dropping out of sport as they enter puberty.

FA Chief Executive Mark Bullingham has insinuated that policies on trans inclusion may differ between elite and grassroots games. But this is already affecting grassroots players. A women’s league was targeted and shut down this month, precisely because it wanted to remain female only. To suggest that amateur female players are deserving of different rights to their elite counterparts is not only legally dubious but unethical. 

Ria Chapman, a PE teacher, explained to me:

Some of my most formative experiences were when I played football … when you’ve worked hard all season winning a local trophy feels just as important as the FA cup. If a male is on the other team or takes your place, it’s grossly unethical. We have the laws of football and a player who everyone knows shouldn’t be on the pitch goes against one of the most fundamental things sports is about — fairness.

Other women I spoke to wished to remain anonymous for fear of the backlash they will receive if they speak openly. One coach told me: 

I always face difficult decisions when telling players they haven’t been picked for a match day. I know that if a trans player was to enter the side, who had physical attributes beyond those any of our players could attain, I would find that hard to manage. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I actively encourage everyone to take part in football. But where there are physical advantages that put women at a huge disadvantage — some women and girls will walk away from football because they feel unable to compete with that unfair advantage.

A player explained:

I wouldn’t be able to match a transwoman physically, it would hugely affect my confidence, performance, and enjoyment within the game — and for me they all interconnect. If I had to compete for my position against someone who was always going to be fitter, stronger, faster, bigger than me, no matter how hard I trained, then I’d probably look for more recreational opportunities instead of aspiring to play competitively.

Let’s hope when the Lionesses finally bring football home this summer the male-dominated governing bodies celebrate by protecting the female sport at all levels.  

If they don’t, we all know that many women and girls will eventually drop the ball and vote with their feet. 

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