The New Zealand Rugby report has just been published on the growing black ferns the women’s national team is overwhelming, but sadly all too familiar.
Like a number of previous investigations into the codes of elite sport – including football, cycling, rowing and gymnastics – it reveals abuses of power and inadequate systems that sportswomen lack. Despite significant investment in women’s sport in recent years, her speed professionalization exposes the problems of systems designed by and for men.
Rugby may be New Zealand’s national sport, but it’s the women’s team that has won the most World Cup titles. Historically underfunded and undervaluedwomen’s football (15-a-side and 7-a-side) has become a source of pride and mana with a strong player culture.
Until very recently, the Black Ferns dominated the international game. But the team‘s disappointing year-end European tour didn’t go as planned. Back home and stuck in quarantine without support, Black Fern Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate used social media to express concerns about the culture of coaching:
My confidence and self-esteem were so low it made me act like I was walking on eggshells and I was constantly too scared to express myself […] I let the words over the years get to me, the words became the flesh.
The Instagram post prompted internal and external demands for an investigation, with New Zealand Rugby commissioning the “cultural and environmental review” which hit like a hard tackle this week.
Stuck in the past
The report made 26 recommendations and identified seven key themes, including:
a strong culture among Black Ferns players that is not aligned or supported by management structures
significant communication issues between coaches, managers and players
gaps in athlete health and wellness support
and that NZ Rugby has failed to sufficiently support top-flight women’s rugby.
The results are familiar and reflect the six goals set out in New Zealand Rugby’s 2017 “Respect and Responsibility” reportand bears striking similarities to similar recent reviews in Ireland and Canada.
This sends a message that they are maintaining the status quo […] New Zealand rugby needs to think about this [message] which sends to the players and the rugby community.
The report tells us in many ways what we already knew, that these are long-term systemic issues that affect and impact women who want to play rugby in Aotearoa.
Toxic Sports Cultures
While it is important to focus on the specifics of the black fern review, it is also necessary to consider the broader patterns that emerge in light of previous reviews of other sports.
Investigations and athlete testimonies have revealed the damage caused by abuse, neglect and psychological harm. The “win at all costs” mentality has come at a high cost, resulting in harm and trauma for many athletes.
Read more: Toxic sports cultures harm the health of female athletes, but we can do better
Although each review was commissioned to address a specific incident, in most cases they revealed systemic issues. These stem from gender inequality and organizational failures such as bullying and lack of player welfare – while crawling in world elite sport.
Although High Performance Sport New Zealand is launching a new NZ$273 million strategy giving priority to the well-being of athletes, it does not address the distinct aspects gender dynamics of the problem.
Despite major initiatives to increase women in leadership positions, sports cultures that genuinely value and respect women as athletes, leaders, coaches, managers and experts are still a long way off in New Zealand. Women’s sports leadership and management teams do not represent gender and cultural diversity on the pitch, and that’s part of the problem.
Turning words into action
Supposedly about responsibility and change, critiques of sports culture rarely translate into action by national sports bodies.
Small changes could be made – hiring an HR manager, providing unconscious bias training, or add a high level trainer – but the hard work of real cultural change tends to be avoided.
Read more: The price of gold – what top sport in New Zealand must learn from the tragedy of Olivia Podmore
None of the reviews attach a timeframe to their recommendations and very rarely are the recommended change processes subject to systematic monitoring and evaluation processes.
In the case of Cycling NZ, a second opinion was necessary to identify why the changes had not occurred, to the detriment of the health and well-being of the athletes.
The self-regulating nature of sports organizations and the associated “one step forward, two steps back” reform process suggest that more accountability is required from a model of elite sport that has too long been designed by and for men.
If sports organizations are serious about supporting women, on and off the field, they must invest in programs and structures designed by and for women’s sport. It is no longer a bold and courageous move; it is a long overdue and urgent solution.