Ah, Sevens. Rugby’s travelling circus. A great party. Super athletes. Epic atmosphere. Great vibe. Sevens is, rightly, hailed as a more inclusive version of its XV-man counterpart.
It’s true, mostly. The players come from a more diverse background, aren’t always from “traditional” rugby schools and transformation is embraced rather than frowned on.
There’s just one niggle. Most people won’t notice. Some will saying it’s “just an angry feminist overreacting”. But every woman has her limit.
The first year the Sevens came to Cape Town, men next to the press box were so astonished to see a woman writing about rugby, they nearly fell over the banister to inform this writer how interesting it was.
In isolation it’s not a big deal. When you’ve worked in sport for over a decade, you kind of get used to it. And decide to just not bother with the whole shindig again. Working from home is far more comfortable anyway.
But, the Blitzboks are an enchanting team. You can’t just give them up.
So, when a young gentleman arrived, beer in hand, and started taking a keen interest in female fingers tapping away at a keyboard, an almighty sigh emerged.
It wasn’t even malicious. The man in question would have no idea how irritating it was. He meant no harm.
In fact, that he was so genuinely floored by the presence of a woman in the media box probably serves to illustrate the point about lack of representation.
But to be gobbed off at before noon was a new record. A polite smile, some engagement and eventually pulling down the cap and just cracking on sent a pretty clear message.
It wasn’t threatening, it wasn’t directly harmful. It was just tiring. And even while writing this, reading it back, the self-doubt, questioning whether it’s not just “over sensitive” is painful.
But the response, simmering in your gut is the culmination of years of exhaustion. And it shouldn’t be a surprise.
We’re still willing on dancing girls. Women are still being told to “smile” because they have the privilege of working on sport. Because how dare we get a bit of a grump on after a long day.
We still belt out the entirely unimaginative “I wanna know, will you be my girl” as an anthem. We still normalise ownership of female bodies. And we make women doubt themselves over whether their concerns around how we are treated are raised.
We’ve still got break-time entertainment asking “where the sexy girls are at” and women are still vastly outnumbered in the sports press box compared to men.
No, not all men are sexist. No, not all men are obtuse. And no, not all men make women feel uncomfortable in the press box.
But some men do. Some don’t know that they are doing it, perhaps because some other men never challenged them on their behaviour.
In Afrikaans, there is a saying that goes: Dit is the klien jakkalsies wat die wingerede verniel.
It translates to “it’s the small jackals that destroy the vineyards”.
For too long, the girl child and women have been told to shrink back. To smile and nod, to be polite and not be disrespectful. Don’t swear. Don’t dress this way. Don’t say that. Don’t. Because if you do, you might get a response you don’t like.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it perfectly with one quote:
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
The world is changing, slowly. The explosion of #MeToo means that women are increasingly comfortable with women speaking out. We are seeing more women on TV covering sport.
But, it takes just one man, with or without malicious intent, to sour the experience of a budding journalist.
Too often, the response to these seemingly ‘frivolous’ complaints is ‘if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the concrete slabs in the box’.
Nobody has bothered to ask why this is still happening. Or why it bothers us so much.
It’s time this changes.
Maybe when it does, sports coaches who have a duty of care towards young athletes will no longer get away with years of abuse. And maybe, when it changes, seeing a woman writing about sport will just be normal.