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“If you can see it, you can be it”

The summer of 2021 has been a fantastic one for this phrase within sport, and while I used to think it was a glib convenience, I’ve come to realise how true it is.

Women’s Cricket

I was first aware of the phrase in the context of The Hundred, which for all it’s myriad faults and issues, has given a further platform for female sport to be shown live on free-to-air television in the UK.

The matches themselves didn’t need the boost, as watching women playing cricket is every bit as enthralling as watching men doing so, but it has been hard to build an audience, to get the bums on seats of families and children that will ensure it can grow in terms of both participation and spectatorship.

The Hundred brought women’s cricket to the small screen on a regular basis, and has been capitalised on with a perhaps-even-more thrilling series between England and New Zealand, broadcast on BBC2. There are families in the ground, there are young girls watching with mums, with dads, with siblings. That is great to see, and hopefully those girls – having seen it will grow up to be the England players of the future.

It matters, free-to-air cricket. When only satellite TV shows sports, they are easy to look past and to ignore – I can speak pretty well here as a cricket fan in a football world – but when they are live on terrestrial TV, it serves almost to authenticate them. People must still flick channels up and down, and when they happen upon the cricket, they do stop and watch for a while – I know, because I get told so at work most days after matches are shown.

Alice Capsey, not necessarily showing her support for a former Surrey alumnus, but rather some peanuts.

It is helped that the product being shown is of such good quality, and while England and New Zealand’s womens’ sides are undoubtedly that, the women’s side of the 100 was exciting too, thrilling in parts, and allowed some new stars to shine; 16 year old Alice Capsey was one stand-out, Issy Wong another. Young players, in amongst the full sides, showing absolutely what they can do – and with some stunning success. That’s got to be inspiring, and not just to young girls. After decades of girls trying to be Viv Richards or Glenn McGrath, let’s have boys who want to be Alice Capsey or (please, lads, if you’re out there) Sarah Taylor.

Wrestling

This has been an odd one for me as I’ve never really paid much attention to wrestling in the past – I’m not even sure I knew there was women doing it.

My view there was perhaps flavoured by the turn of the century Divas era; the likes of Trish Stratus and Stacy Keibler – I can’t pretend to be an expert here, but even if their wrestling was good, the fact they were put into Lingerie Matches and Gravy Bowl Matches (yes, exactly what they sound like) demonstrates what the sport felt about women at that time.

Something, for some reason, flicked something in me over the summer. It started when I saw a promoted news story about Alexa Bliss calling out a poster on Twitter who had tried to body-shame her.

A powerful response, I’m sure you’ll agree (not my screenshot).

I wasn’t familiar with Alexa before this point, but was suitably impressed with her response here and it lit a fire in me to get to know a little bit more of her story.

What I found, in various interviews, podcasts and news stories was a thoroughly engaging athlete, who had experienced some terrible things, yet had come back strong, positive and determined – and her wrestling career has been a huge success.

This isn’t all. I don’t need to, I’m sure, get into the argument about whether wrestling is real or not – nobody here is silly enough for that – but even in the time I’ve been following Alexa, it is apparent how damned popular she is with younger fans of wrestling, with female fans, and how Alexa Bliss, with her current sidekick Lilly, might not strike the right chord with 40 year old men *waves* but sure do with 8 year old girls. If there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the world isn’t just made for me, but everyone.

Alexa and Lilly. Two heroes of my 2021 that I didn’t predict.

There is a commercial element to Lilly (a doll who travels everywhere with Alexa, even into the ring), but while it might have been an empowering riposte of a Tweet that started me down this path, Alexa’s feed is more usually packed with girls delighted with their new doll; that recognition from your idol must be giddying.

One of the first podcasts I heard Alexa on was her own (frankly too short-lived) Uncool show, an interview with Nikki Cross. At the time of recording, I think the two were performing together as a tag team, but they are now split. However, Nikki, now going as Nikki A.S.H (more of which later), was just as fun, and had a story of different hardships and difficulty to get to the big time. It was impossible not to start wishing the two all the success in the world.

Nikki came into wrestling as Nikki Cross, but has since changed her character into Nikki A(lmost) a S(uper) H(ero), with relentless positivity and self-belief despite the fact she is often hugely outmatched in terms of size and power by her opponents – indeed recently, in her tag team with Rhea Ripley (a quite fabulous dark/light combo, which makes for nice comedy segments) was picked up by her own partner and used as a weapon.

I know that she isn’t the flavour of the month with everyone, but I find it impossible to think that a small, fiery, determined and positive woman, achieving success, even after occasional knocks, isn’t providing a fine rôle model, again, for any girls watching. I have plans to buy one of her t-shirts with butterflies on when they’re released.

Nikki ASH with Rhea Ripley

In other words, what I had thought was just an excuse to get athletic women into not much clothing and grapple one another (and I’d be lying if I said the commentary didn’t sometimes err that way, which is disappointing) is actually a regular demonstration of high-level stagecraft, the wrestlers themselves are fantastic; both athletically (some of the moves I’ve seen, even in a month or so, are mind-blowing) and outside the ring. More power to Alexa and Nikki; may belts come their way.

Women and Football

As a sports fan, who also happens to be a human being, it has always felt peculiar to me that women have been so under-represented around the game.

Women and women’s football is definitely on an upturn, and If you can see it, you can be it may well have its roots here. It only takes a glance at the crowd of a women’s football match to see the make-up is very different to a lot of men’s games; certainly there are more girls there, watching their heroes, and often it appears to be a lot more family friendly. Some of the things I’ve heard from men’s football crowds would definitely require an adults only rating.

Things are changing in the stands, then, but they’re also changing out of them.

Happily, we’re beginning to see more female presenters, pundits, commentators (hear rather than see, I guess) and reporters. Names that have worked their way into the collective consciousness like Michelle Owen and Jacqui Oatley are being joined by new names, coming both from both on (Karen Carney, Sue Smith) and off (Emma Hayes, Katie Shanahan) the pitch.

Progress is being made, albeit clunkingly, and these women are showing themselves more than capable of doing some research and describing something they have either just seen, or expect to see, at least as well as men, and in many cases, better. There are still rumblings, and Twitter, a cesspool at the best of times, must be nightmarish should any of these pundits make a mistake of any kind, but the tide is definitely turning.

I remember Karren Brady taking the reins at Birmingham, and recently watched back a Fantasy Football League upon which she appeared. I think it’s fair to say neither David Baddiel nor Frank Skinner emerge with a huge amount of credit, but I’m certain neither would make the same jokes now. As for the (then) future West Ham vice-chairman, she came in for some stick for building what was already a competitive squad just a few games into the season. Imagine thinking you might want to win a competition you entered.

Karren Brady and her husband demonstrate the easiest way to stop West Ham blowing bubbles.

That was twenty years ago, twenty years during which I’ve attended countless football matches with women, talked about football (and loads of other sports) with women for far longer than I probably should have, and found that – don’t get too upset by this – some women know a lot about sport, and love watching it. Others know less, but still enjoy it. Some don’t like it and know very little. All of these are fine. I have male family and friends who fall into all of those categories, too (if you’re the latter and you’ve got this far, well done).

Yet we live in a world where an initiative called HerGameToo is bringing to light exactly the opposite – men, usually but definitely not always (and horrifyingly so) on social media, abusing women and girls simply for liking, and having an opinion about football.

I don’t need to say much about how I feel about this. All sport should be able to welcome all kinds of people – if you think otherwise, then you’re part of the problem. If you think that your experience is somehow more valid than somebody else’s, then you’re part of the problem.

If you can see it, you can be it.

I came to realise that this phrase, for all the good it does, isn’t just positive, is it? If you’re young, and you see racism, sexism, homophobia, any other way of singling out and demeaning people, it gives it a validity it should not have. We are not all parents, of course, but we are all humans, and we have a responsibility to one another. It doesn’t take a lot, does it?

It isn’t difficult to not abuse somebody who says something about Bristol Rovers¹ that you disagree with. It isn’t that difficult to have a word with a friend if you see them doing it themselves.

So often, the argument posited is ‘how would you feel if it was your mum or your sister?’; and I get that – I’ve been to countless football matches, and sadly fewer cricket matches, with my mum (she’s in that second category I mention above; loves watching sport, but doesn’t know, or want to know, all the inner workings – I’m sure I’ve bored her more than once, I’ve certainly left voice messages on Sunday afternoons ranting about Yorkshire’s team selection) and I would be horrified if some of the things I’ve seen posted by #HerGameToo were directed in her direction.

But it’s a little more than that, and there’s an easier way (for me) to get people onside. If you welcome people into your club – be it football, cricket, ice hockey, or whatever – they will be far more likely to put something back into it. It might be a ticket when they come back, it might be a shirt, it might become a lifelong obsession, it might only be a positive word to a work colleague because they’re visiting your town from Dresden on business and had their Tuesday evening free.

If you are hostile to people, while all of those things above might still happen, it will take something, somebody, else to redress the balance. In short you are actively hurting the thing you profess to love. How can you justify that?

If you can see it, you can be it. Youngsters, keep dreaming big, your time will come, and you can be anything – indeed, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean you can’t be it, you might just have to be the first. Adults, you are it already, so be the best version of it you can possibly be.

¹I choose Bristol Rovers because I believe the first inklings of #HerGameToo were from a Bristol Rovers supporter.