Commentary, Opinion

Toxic sports environments are symptomatic of sexism on and off the pitch

“Oh, she’s tough!” shouted one of the boys during our 11v11 McGill intramural soccer game at the Molson stadium this October. This “insightful” observation was sarcastically directed toward one of the women on the opposing women’s team as she took a missed shot to the stomach. When I played in the match, this was only one of the many instances of derogatory behaviour directed toward the female players. When the whistle was blown, the boys immediately sought to establish a clear atmosphere of superiority: They chuckled at every header, laughed at every attempt on goal, and walked as slowly as possible back to their side to waste time and aggravate their opponents whenever a centre-kick was taken. This made for some very ugly soccer.

It was incredibly enraging, disappointing, and disheartening to bear witness to yet another display of misogynistic and sexist behaviour––one which I certainly did not expect from adult McGill students at a friendly intramural match. However, the women disregarded the boys’ outright lack of sportsmanship, and continued to support each other and play as hard as possible throughout the entirety of the game. At the end of the match, everyone in the stands, including the referees, supporters, and substitutes, ran onto the pitch in support to join the women’s team in an impromptu, informal match against the boys, ending the evening on a more positive note.

I was a participant in this match and have played in hundreds of others since I was four. Unsurprisingly, this was not the first time I had experienced sexist behaviour from my teammates or opponents. I have endured so many boys telling me that I was not allowed to play with them because of my gender. And when I did play, they often laughed at me or even sexualized me, as a means to re-affirm their masculinity. These experiences only strengthened me and taught me how to use this kind of behaviour to my advantage. Nevertheless, it is exhausting to have to constantly push my limits to challenge gender-based stereotypes in sport. 

Truthfully, the reason this experience at the recent game upset me so much was because it completely dismantled the sense of security and confidence that I had cultivated. Before this match, playing intramural soccer allowed me to feel a kind of freedom that I had experienced as a youngster. It was the kind of freedom that stems from playing amongst non-judgemental peers who encouraged me to be myself with no gender-based expectations and no need for performance—something I value highly as a non-binary, queer person. 

Since the event, McGill’s intramural faculty met with the captain of the team to discuss possible sanctions. But this is not enough. Although it may have only been one soccer match, it highlighted the ongoing misogyny and sexism that women, non-binary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people continue to face on and off the pitch. It is dangerous to let these issues go unnoticed since they are representative of the larger issues women and female-presenting individuals have to deal with on a daily basis.

This experience should serve as a reminder that, though gender inequalities are still rife in our everyday lives, we cannot remain silent about them. The fight is not over: We need to be louder than ever, we need to keep defying gender norms. When we continue to play soccer, we show them what it means to “play like a girl.”

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