Walk into any netball association on a biting cold winter morning and you will notice one thing. While parents and spectators are wrapped up in heavy coats, nursing hot cups of coffee, the players do their best to fight off the cold while wearing sleeveless dresses.
Frostbitten arms and legs are one thing, but even more alarming is the fact that young girls and women are turning their backs on the sport because of the nature of the uniforms. According to Netball Australia’s State of the Game report released on Thursday, this is an urgent issue to address.
The report canvassed opinions from across the netball community, from grassroots to elite players, and the issue of uniforms was one that echoed strongly through all levels of the game. As one stakeholder quote in the report puts it: “We need to be creative in how we include everyone in our sport. For some people, the uniform is the issue and allowing them to wear different clothes would be a simple fix.”
Dresses and skirts have long been a staple of the game, from the box pleat tunics of the 1920s through to pleated netball skirts, lycra bodysuits and the lightweight A-line dresses that players now don each week. A move away from this style would be a radical change for a sport that is deeply rooted in tradition.
And yet, observe any training session from the local under-8s through to district representative teams, state teams and the elite level and you will see there is nary a skirt or dress to be found. When players choose what they want to wear, rather than being given a prescribed uniform, they are almost exclusively choosing shorts and tights.
Thankfully times have changed since I was a child playing in the 1990s and we were required to lift our skirts up to show the umpire that we were wearing bloomers underneath before starting each game. Although it was important that we participated in the performance of femininity by wearing skirts, it would have been unthinkable to allow anyone to catch a glimpse of our underwear while doing so.
But the attitudes that shaped those kind of rules and rituals unfortunately have not evolved. Despite the frenzy around innovative rule changes such as the two-point super shot, netball has still not confronted the female/athlete paradox, where the traditionally ‘masculine’ traits of strength and aggression – which are required in sport – must be balanced by femininity in appearance. This is where the dresses come in. There is an idea that the audience can feel comfortable in seeing players clash in the air, fight for the ball and be taken from the court with blood streaming from their faces as long as they do so while dressed appropriately for their gender.
However, is this all really worth it when the pool to draw players from is ever-decreasing as young girls refuse to participate in the sport at all? As the State of the Game report also addressed, netball still relies on a bottom-up funding model, meaning the fewer players stepping out on those cold winter mornings, the fewer dollars in the bank account for Suncorp Super Netball to pay its players and market its product.
One of the most difficult things to grasp about the fact that this change has taken so long to even be considered, let alone implemented, is that grassroots netball does not require uniforms at all. Players wear positional bibs and many social competitions have recognised this completely does away with a need for uniforms. When one team wears fluro pink bibs and the other team wears yellow ones, it simply does not matter that some players choose to wear baggy T-shirts and tights, while others opt for singlets and shorts.
This also makes it easier to account for the religious and cultural needs of some players, such as those from Muslim backgrounds. When inclusion is built into the fabric of the sport, rather than granted by special request, it allows everyone to find their place within it.
For as long as it has existed, netball has been a sport by women, for women. That comes with challenges, as it lacks a powerful and well-funded men’s league to pave the way, but it also has plenty of benefits, such as the ability to be unashamedly female-centric. The time has now come to listen to the voices of girls and women across the country – not just those who fit the traditional mould of a netballer, but those who sit outside it as well – in order to grow the game and ensure it is a sport for all women.
Netball has the opportunity to become a safe place for girls to be more active, play with freedom from concerns about body image and claim their space. Currently the sport is building its own barriers out of lycra and nylon and needs to start tearing these down if they want to remain relevant in this new, more competitive sporting world for girls and women.