One re-arranged fixture aside, the first part of the Scottish Women’s football season came to a close last Sunday as Rangers defeated Glasgow CIty in a top of the SWPL1 table clash with the SWPL returning on the 17th January 2021 following a winter break.
They will return in January as a result of a government exemption that has allowed the 18 sides participating at SWPL (Scottish Women’s Premier League) level along with 300 teams in the men’s game to continue in line with stringent health and safety protocols which includes, but is not exclusive to, the absence of fans from stadia. For Falkirk Women player and Stirling University PHD student Chelsea Raymond those numbers didn’t add up, prompting her to write to First Minister Nicole Sturgeon and Minister for Public Health, Sport and Well Being Joe Fitzpatrick to challenge the conditions that have seen female clubs, including her own, without football for almost the duration of 2020.
Always keen to understand more, we dialled up Chelsea to ask her some questions about the campaign and fortunately for us she was more than happy to oblige.
Leading the Line (LTL): Hi Chelsea, thanks for taking the time to speak to us.
Chelsea Raymond (CR): No worries, thanks for taking the time to talk to me and to find out more.
LTL: Aren’t we all being polite! Let’s get straight into it, first of all can you tell us what is the #SameGame movement all about?
CR: Sure! So while I focus on gender in my appeal, I see the #SameGame movement as a launching point to seek equality for all underrepresented groups in sport. The pandemic has highlighted pre-existing and longstanding inequalities in all areas of life and sport has exemplified this. While we would love to dismantle and reshape all the hegemonic aspects of sport, we would really like to start with seeking equality in access to existing support networks, with a tangible and realistic target of allowing just as many women and girls to play as boys and men currently can under current restrictions. We’re all playing the same game; gender should never play a role in who can and who cannot have access.
LTL: We always try and keep on top of the women’s game as best as we can but for those that don’t know what is the current state of play for women’s footballers in Scotland?
CR: Before the pandemic, women’s football in Scotland was growing at an incredible rate. This, however, has been brought to a standstill as a result of current restrictions due to the pandemic. Since the start of the circuit breaker lockdowns in early October, only 18 women’s teams were granted the right to continue to train and play matches under professional exemptions. In contrast, nearly 300 men’s teams were granted the same exemptions. This, in conjunction with current travel restrictions, have had a disproportionate effect on access to even non-contact training for girls’ and women’s teams across the country. While the game is growing, there are limited options across the life span in each council area. Therefore, movement out of council boundaries is almost essential for girls and women to access organised football.
LTL: So what are the current challenges that women’s football in Scotland face?
CR: Honestly, I think the list is endless at this point in time. From a player perspective, maintaining fitness and engagement during a dark and wet winter is compounded with potential challenges to accessing facilities and equipment. The waiting and lack of clarity of when we can even begin to think about returning to training and matches creates a really debilitating mental challenge for players to stay motivated and positive. Coaches, staff and clubs face these same challenges with maintaining engagement with players and the communities they serve. I think they equally are finding it challenging mentally because they have potentially hundreds of people coming to them every single day asking for clarity in a return date. At this point in time, there is none, so I feel for staff who so desperately want to offer hope to their players and communities, but cannot do so. In a long-term sense, I worry of the longevity of a lot of clubs that are currently facing major challenges to delivering in-person services (across all age ranges). I do think that this will inevitably have a detrimental impact on the success of the National Team as well. Especially with half of the elite pathway on an indefinite hold, players at critical ages of their development have spent an entire year with little to no football.
LTL: In the letter you also mentioned potential issues, away from the pitch, with female players being unable to play, could you share some of your concerns?
CR: I think the biggest concern of mine, and what prompted this action, is the mental health toll that this has had on players and staff. During the first lockdown when all football was halted, I think we all coped a lot better because we knew that everyone was in the same boat. Albeit the long absence definitely did affect the mental health of many. Obviously, everyone was quite anxious to get back to the pitch, but it was easier to wait and train on our own during that time because there was a sense of solidarity that everyone, no matter age, sex, socioeconomic status, etc. all had to stay at home. But once the additional restrictions that came with the tiered protection strategy and the professional exemptions came into play, it became increasingly harder to cope. To see some, but not all have access to football is really difficult to accept. Without requiring additional testing, bubbling or any stricter protection guidelines, it seemed ludacris that some could continue while others (who are following the same protocols) could not. The longer this has gone on without clear transparency to the decision-making processes that led to the disproportionate concessions between men’s and women’s football, the worse the toll has been on the collective mental health of all of us who have been forgotten about. As much as we would all love to play again, it isn’t even about the football anymore. It’s about the social connections, the emotions of the game and the peace it offers us. This year has been so alienating, so debilitating. All we want is to feel the power of being in a collective again.
LTL: You’ve clearly assessed the landscape in some depth so why have you decided to grasp the thistle and do something about it?
CR: Grasp the thistle!? I like that! Well, as one of our captains and as someone who has been really heavily involved in a number of areas in Scottish women’s football, I often had people come to me and ask if I knew anything about the situation and if I could do anything about it. I got messages almost daily about people struggling with their mental health as a result of this and it became harder to cope with. The longer this went on, the more I came to the realization that nothing would change unless action was taken. There was absolutely no indication that there was a plan for re-evaluation of restrictions or that a plan for a return was in the works. Naturally, as a typical American, advocacy action felt like the natural next step. I knew that the collective voice of the whole community was stronger than just my own. I also knew that all the women’s and girls’ teams across the country were facing similar challenges. I felt like collective action would not only amplify our voices, but also garner a sense of collective solidarity so that we can continue to lean on each other throughout the pandemic and beyond. Women in sport have always had to fight for their voices to be heard and to receive the equitable treatment and recognition that we deserve. I hope that this is the first step in empowering our whole community to be louder with our voices and to demand that the future is more equitable.
LTL: You’ve mentioned potential first steps but what will you hope to be the outcome of the letter you have sent to the First Minister?
CR: Ideally, the outcome would be a full return to sport for all. I am, however, well aware of the challenges coming following the festive period and containing the virus, so that seems incredibly unlikely. I do hope that this opens the door to productive conversations between the government, SWF and the SFA about how we can get more people playing football. I will be really disappointed if no additional leagues are added to the professional exemptions list. I have spent two and a half months trying to find a reasonable explanation to the difference between concessions and I still struggle to find a single one. I think we lay out a very informed argument for more women’s leagues to return to play and I sincerely hope that happens.
LTL: You’ve certainly put forward a lot to consider, what kind of support have you had behind it?
CR: I’m actually incredibly pleased with the support I was able to garner in such a short amount of time. We have almost 40 clubs that represent SWPL, Championship, National Performance, BUCS (University sides) and youth teams. I’m also really delighted to have the Football Collective backing us. They are a fantastic collective of academics, students and individuals involved in all aspects of the game that brings critical and informed debate to all areas of football. I think it can be quite scary for us, especially as organisations that serve women, to use our voices loudly and to back something like this. I sent out this appeal with hopes for maybe a handful of responses, but I was beyond pleased to see such strong support from all levels of the game.
LTL: So, as it stands, what is the current future for women’s football in Scotland at the start of 2021?
CR: Right now, it doesn’t seem like any of the currently sidelined teams can expect to start training (if they have been unable to do so) and matches any time soon. There have been some announcements inferring that seasons will recommence in February, but without significant changes in travel restrictions, I highly doubt this will actually happen. Even centralized leagues include teams from a number of council areas, with players and staff likely coming from even more council areas. The likelihood of all these councils (especially in the central belt) being in tiers 2-0 seems quite unrealistic. I really worry for the longevity of teams; money and interest will continue to wane the longer this goes on. These are two critical and necessary components needed to grow the game, without them, I’m not sure women’s football will bounce back to the same pre-pandemic levels any time soon.
LTL: There will be those that would challenge that some levels of women’s football currently aren’t in a position to re-commence safely what would you say?
CR: I have to start by saying I am not a public health expert at all, but I would wholeheartedly challenge anyone who attempts to make that claim. Hundreds of teams across all ages and gender have continued to play in the most heavily restricted areas of Scotland during the fall. While some teams have identified individuals and groups that have tested positive for COVID, it appears as though current protocols set forth by Sport Scotland, the SFA and the Scottish Government have been effective at limiting wider community transmission. There is simply no just reasoning for one to think that women’s football cannot return under the same guidelines that others have been playing with for months. I also think that certain leagues, for example, the women’s Championship and U-19 National Performance Leagues are in a particularly unique situation, where many of these teams play their home games in club owned stadia. This alone can ensure that the requirements for no spectators are met, that proper hygiene measures are maintained and that the access of non-essential individuals to grounds being used for games is limited.
LTL: You’ve mentioned you see the #SameGame movement as a potential launchpad for equality for underrepresented areas in all sport. What does equality mean to you?
CR: To me, equality equates to respect and opportunity. It means that everyone has the same level of respect and opportunity from birth to thrive and to achieve their goals, whatever they may be. In sport, I think we have a very, very long way to go to reach even a fraction of what I would see as gender equity. We need more investment, more media coverage, more engagement and more programmes designed specifically to suit the particular needs and challenges that women and girls face throughout their development. In Scotland, the foundation has been laid for this, but a setback like this could reverse existing progress significantly.
LTL: Finally, if somebody is reading this, why should they sign the petition?
CR: If this year has taught us anything at all, it is that supporting one another, no matter circumstance, background, age, race, sex, religion, etc. is the fundamental duty of us all as members of the human race. I am well aware that the women’s and girls’ football community is not the most dominant in this country. People may say, well this isn’t boy’s or men’s football so I don’t really care, but you should. The women and girls struggling to cope with the ramifications of this discrimination are daughters, sisters, mothers, granddaughters, nieces, aunts, partners. Continued silence, continued discrimination, and continued apathy speaks volumes about how much our dreams and our needs matter.
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