Moira Lovell, “John and Precious” from Stand Your Ground
Doncaster Rover Belles players and their coachThe unfairness of discrimination can be so lacerating, so outrageous that you hesitate to speak directly to the experience of it. Once you start, you are sucked into a tornado of totally justified and completely disabling paranoid thinking. Who wants to count the ways in which the game is fixed, ruined at the outset? That’s the pall that the English FA is casting over the women’s game it claims to want to develop.
At the start of this season, the FA announced its plans to relegate the Doncaster Belles from its “Super League” no matter how well they perform.* This is so that they can make room for Man City’s women’s club, which finished 4th in the “Premier League” (the 2nd tier league in the women’s system). Man City is to be promoted no matter how poorly they do.
To say that this would not happen to a men’s side is to say the obvious. That complaint doesn’t say much. It is perhaps more accurate to say that this decision represents an attempt to map the lack of integrity of the men’s game onto the women’s game in the name of the latter’s “development” – as if one could squeeze grassroots football out the women’s game overnight and replace it with the hollow commercialism of the men’s game.
The FA believes that Man City is a better product than the Doncaster Belles, and that fans are satisfied with the fact that women play, and so it doesn’t matter who plays on what team or how well.
The Doncaster Belles have played in the top division in women’s football for 22 years. They are founding members of the National League (the FA’s first women’s national division), and completed the 1991-1992 inaugural season without conceding a single game. Why did the Doncaster Belles enter the first season of FA-sponsored women’s football as the overwhelmingly dominant club? Because they’d been playing since 1969: they were founded before the FA allowed women to play. They are, in fact, England’s longest continuously operating women’s club. (For a good portrait of the club, read The Popular Stand’s The Belles Toll.)
The Doncaster Belles are a model organization: In 2009, they established “The Belles for the Community” initiative, integrating the women’s club into “community, social, health and educational services.” They are (according to their website) the first women’s club in Britain to do so – in doing so, they honor the roots of the women’s game as not only grassroots, but communitarian.
In early years of the women’s game in England (1919-1921), clubs raised money for the community – for injured and unemployed veterans, for war widows, and eventually in some cases for striking workers. People knew that in turning out to watch women’s football, they were supporting each other – so they turned out in huge numbers and raised an astonishing amount of money from communities with few resources to spare. Barbara Jacobs, in her must-read history of the women’s game, speculates that the communitarian orientation of women’s game was one of the reasons behind FA’s 1921 ban. She writes:
For the FA, the psychological reason was that women’s football was something they were powerless to control. It has sprung up as the spontaneous expression of free-spiritedness by the lower orders, in a totally different way from that in which men’s football had developed. Men’s football had initially been a game for gentlemen which had only later, after its control by the FA, turned into a rough-house performed for the working classes by the working classes, which they and they alone paid to see while the owners and investors pocketed the proceeds….But in women’s football there were very few rich men, just a lot of common factory women. There was no League structure, no hierarchy,no fees paid to accountants, no skimming off dividends, no affiliation to a professional body. Women’s football was random and organic…. It was out of control, and it was a bad example to set the nation as a whole, which was already rebelling against the old power structures.
If women’s football, which had shifted slightly from its factory roots and begun to establish itself as a sporting means for raising huge sums of money for charity,were to continue, how long would it be before the man in the street…started to ask – where does the money raised in men’s football go to? (Jacobs, The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, 166)
Jacobs’s analysis of this history is important. Sexism does not stand alone. The FA did what it could to kill the women’s game in the 1920s not because women weren’t suited to football (that’s the official reason they gave), and not because the women’s game was corrupt (ironically, that’s another reason they gave). The FA did what it did because the women’s game was organized differently. It represented a different cultural possibility. This was expressed in the game’s material structure – in particular in the way that the people organizing the women’s game approached the money. Money, in the women’s game in those years, was meant to circulate – it was not to be gathered by a single owner or set of investors. The women’s game was a means for taking care of each other.
I see the echo of this moment in the FA’s current behavior towards the Doncaster Belles – otherwise why single out the most stable club, with the best playing grounds and with the most articulated relationship to its community for this treatment?
I’ve resisted thinking about this (I’m writing this months after the FA announced its intentions) because the idea of it is just so painful. As one fan put it to a journalist reporting the story for The Independent:
Doncaster have one of the best stadiums in the [Women’s Super League]…Arsenal play at Boreham Wood, Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon, Liverpool at Widnes. We have a 15,000 seat stadium. We have eight England internationals…we could lose all these players.
The Independent rightly called the story a “relegation scandal.” The Doncaster Belles are appealing this decision – the stakes are high. Not just for the Belles, but for every fan of English football. If the FA feels it can go after the integrity of the women’s game, perhaps it feels it must, because the integrity of a side like the Doncaster Belles throws the state of the men’s game into such stark relief.
*For US-based readers unfamiliar with the relegation/promotion system that defines this sport: Teams that finish at the top of their division are promoted and teams that finish at the bottom are relegated to the next division down.