Match report for Ahead of the Game: Sport, Storytelling and Symbolism

Freelance sports journalist and host of Kick Like a Girl on RRR  Kate O’Halloran recently joined us at Ahead of the Game: Sports, Storytelling and Symbolism event, part of our Broadly Speaking series. Huddle around as Kate shares the event’s conversation highlights in her match report.

On Tuesday 13 July 2021, the Wheeler Centre hosted Ahead of the Game: Sport, Storytelling and Symbolism as part of the Broadly Speaking series. Bringing together prominent Australian women in sport and storytelling, including Angela Pippos, Rana Hussain, Joanna Lester and Courtney Hagen, the panel’s conversation traversed a range of critical topics.

Whose stories are we hearing and whose remain untold? 

Who holds the mic and who is kept on the sidelines? 

What would it mean to approach sporting stories through a truly intersectional and inclusive feminist lens? 

Fittingly, the conversation started with a moment of historic symbolism: Ngarigo woman Ash Barty’s recent triumph at Wimbledon, echoing the feats of her idol, and Wiradjuri woman, Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1971 and 1980. For Courtney Hagen, a Butchulla and Gubbi Gubbi woman, the significance of Barty’s win could not be understated:

Courtney Hagen

‘Ash’s heritage has been sort of hidden, or people have shied away from shouting to the rooftops that she’s a Ngarigo woman. Seeing how much that’s been celebrated now after that win, we’ve come a really long way seeing that black excellence and black joy.’

'...we’ve come a really long way seeing that black excellence and black joy.'

Courtney Hagen

Rana Hussain was also taken by what it meant for a sporting hero like Barty to unite the nation:

‘We talk about sport being the national language, and what is our language saying when it’s an Aboriginal woman and Dylan Alcott, an all abilities tennis player, who are our heroes at the moment? I can’t help but feel like that’s progress.

We talk about sport being the national language, and what is our language saying when it’s an Aboriginal woman and Dylan Alcott, an all abilities tennis player, who are our heroes at the moment? I can’t help but feel like that’s progress.’

Rana Hussain

In keeping with the theme of progress, Hussain, who was recently hired as Cricket Australia’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager, also spoke about the positive gains being made with regard to intersectionality in sport: 

‘Where I get hope from is that people are more open and have an appetite for the straight up equality conversation. That’s why I’m hired in places… because people have acknowledged this is something that we need to work on.’

Joanna Lester, who recently won the Walkley Foundation June Andrews Women’s Leadership in Media Award for her documentary Power Meri (Powerful Women), agreed, adding that storytelling was a critical means of ‘bringing people into the [equality, diversity and inclusion] conversation who wouldn’t otherwise think they’d be interested.’

Joanna Lester

Sports media still lacking in diversity

Conversation soon turned to mainstream sports media’s continued lack of representation of people from diverse backgrounds, not just women. ‘Look at the demographics of a major sporting competition in this country and look at the demographics of 90% of the media people who are covering it,’ said Lester. ‘They’re not the same’. 

All panellists agreed that the growing and independent women in sport movement  evident on social media in particular  had gone some way towards bridging the gap with The Outer Sanctum and Siren Sport singled out favourably. Hagen, who was the inaugural participant in Siren’s Emerging Sportswriter Program, said she had been ‘welcomed with open arms’ by the movement.

‘What’s really exciting is I feel very relaxed to just bring my whole self… and that’s reflective of the environment that the women before me have really fought for, as well as non-binary and trans people in this space.’ 

What’s really exciting is I feel very relaxed to just bring my whole self… and that’s reflective of the environment that the women before me have really fought for, as well as non-binary and trans people in this space.’

Courtney Hagen

Nonetheless, Hagen said representation was still lacking. ‘I look to find someone I can relate to and there’s [still] a very small amount of women of colour.’ Picking up on Hagen’s comments, Hussain challenged those who are working in sports media to ‘look around and ask who is missing’. ‘If [other] people are getting there first, they’re getting there first,’ said Hussain. But the point is that you turn around then and say, “OK who else can I bring along?”’. 

Rana Hussain

To some of the loudest clapping of the night, Hussain also challenged media and sporting organisations to be upfront about who they serve. ‘If we don’t mean all women then let’s be specific about who we’re talking about. If our programs and initiatives are for white women… then are we comfortable to say that?’

Familiar areas for improvement identified

The panel also took time to reflect on some ongoing issues for gender equity in sport, including the impact of Covid-19 on investment and resourcing, coaching pathways, and backlash. Hussain contended that the pandemic had shown that progress for gender equity in sport can be stunted ‘very quickly’ with women in sport bearing the brunt of cost-cutting. Pippos pointed out that the AFLW could be heading into season six with 14 teams and not a single woman as senior coach. And finally, when asked what needed to change, Hagen argued it was the ‘whole mindset of sport … [the idea] that women’s sport isn’t a stepping stone to working in male sport… but also changing that mindset of, “the best coach is a male coach”. And that’s something I think players also need to start adjusting to.’

An alternative future for sports media

Ending the night on a positive note, the panel were asked about their ‘dream’ storytelling projects. Pippos volunteered hers first: dinner with Megan Rapinoe at the upcoming Australian and New Zealand FIFA Women’s World Cup. 

Hagen, a self-professed ‘basketball nut’, said she would like to interview WNBA players on how they’ve approached the Black Lives Matter movement, including advocates such as Maya Moore and Sue Bird (ironically Rapinoe’s partner).

Lester spoke of her excitement about what the 2032 Brisbane Paralympic and Olympic Games could mean for women in the Pacific, as well as Australia.  

And finally, Hussain wanted to see more features on Muslim women in sport, from hijab-wearing skateboarders and snowboarders to Ebru Köksal, the first and only woman to become General Secretary of the Turkish Football Federation.

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