David Flatman: why women’s rugby needs criticism, and how to give it constructively

David Flatman: why women’s rugby needs criticism, and how to give it constructively

We live in a world where social media is a central aspect to our daily routine. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram are often used to support and grow the women’s game. However, ex-England international now turned sports pundit, David Flatman, has argued that the positivity which surrounds the women’s game now needs to move to criticism to enable the game to grow in a sustainable way. Flats opened up the conversation by remarking: “I don’t think it helps when men are overly hyper about the women’s game to the point where it becomes sickly, because it’s not real, it doesn’t help and it’s not subjective. It paints women’s rugby in a false light because in reality the game, just like any other sport, does have its flaws.” He has called for more open and honest conversation surrounding the female game, and less empty support:
The game does need cheerleaders, but it also needs genuine criticism and analysis, this doesn’t have to be harsh, but it must be honest.”
Flats went onto explain that as a sports pundit, if something is poor in a men’s match, he will point it out, and the same must now be done in the women’s game. “If it’s not a good game, I’ll say so, and I think that’s important.” He is not alone in his opinion, as Charlie Beckett echoed the same thoughts in his #Icare column, making it clear that female rugby players must be subject to the same on-field criticism that male rugby players face. It is important to understand the definition and scope of criticism that both Charlie and David are talking about. Neither are suggesting that the women playing in these games should be criticised for the pure sake of it, but both are saying that if a player could improve aspects of their performance, they should be told. On the flip side, Flats explained that often people can go over the top with supporting the women’s game, praising them for basic things that wouldn’t be given the time of day with the men’s game. He argues that this “support” is detrimental to the game’s progression because it gives an overly sensational, and false, perspective of the sport. “Don’t get me wrong, if I see a good bit of play on social media, for example Jess Breach’s try, I will share it, but ill be sharing it based on her skill, not for the fact that she is a woman.” His sentiments are summed up perfectly with the following:
“In my personal viewpoint, saying that everything you do as a woman involved in rugby is flawless, will hinder, not help, the evolution of the women’s game.”
This is something which players themselves have recognised. Girls Rugby Club founder and Harlequins captain Rachael Burford touched on this in her column, explaining that the support for the women’s game must come from a genuine place, it cannot be contrived, or people will see straight through it. She went onto say that if Owen Farrell, who rarely uses social media, suddenly tweeted asking followers to watch the women’s game, his audience would know he had been put up to it. In my opinion, I compare this empty support for women’s rugby to the #ad’s on my Instagram feed. When you see a celebrity awkwardly posing next to a product, claiming it’s the next best thing, you know the post isn’t genuine. Therefore, the entire point of the post is wasted, because the audience can see straight through it. I would echo Rachael’s thoughts on this and be wary of asking people to publicly support the women’s game when it is not a natural fit for them. Male Allies In terms of male allyship in the women’s game, I don’t think we should be actively asking men to fulfil this role, because, as mentioned, this defeats the purpose of a true ally. If you have to push someone to support something, it’s never genuine. If someone wanted to support something, whether that be a charity, brand, sport or individual, they would already be doing it, and you would certainly know about it. On the topic of allyship, Flats explained often it is the smaller, more private, gestures which serve more use. “What I can do is be involved in conversations with players on a private level. If I see something that I think a player has done well, or something catches my eye, I think it’s important that I tell them.” For example, after the Premier 15’s final he sent Shaunagh Brown a direct message, saying it was great to see her enjoying her rugby and congratulating her for a great performance. This small message might seem irrelevant, but for the players involved in the women’s game it’s important to let them know that men involved in the men’s game are enjoying the female game too.
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“It’s good for them to know that the men they watched on TV also enjoy watching them play rugby too. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.” At this stage of the interview Flats did acknowledge that he, along with many other males in the sporting world, would like to understand more about how they can provide real and genuine support to women in rugby. He remarked: “The last thing I want to do is tell a woman what she needs, when she could sit here and tell me herself”. For me, that self-awareness is central to growing this game. If more people asked the question “how can I help” as opposed to assuming what they are already doing is right, we would be in a much better place.

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