Equal treatment for Elite Girls’ Football: 2nd Half

Equal treatment for Elite Girls’ Football: 2nd Half


CategoryArticles Author Richard Harwood OBE QC Date

As the second Covid lockdown got underway in England supporters of women’s football were treated to the disturbing sight of the elite women’s and girls’ training squads being closed down whilst the boys’ and younger men’s squads continued. This was severely criticised, with headlines such as ‘Suspension of elite girls’ football slammed as ‘unbelievable’ while boys continue playing.

Female elite football development is organised into regional talent clubs (U10 to U16) and academies (16+).

I wrote about the problem in Equal Chances: preserving elite girls’ football in lockdown. It may be interesting to catch up with how it has been resolved.

Lockdown 2 had prohibited collective sport (including two player games) other than elite sports or elite training. In terms of the professional or semi-professional teams, the top four tiers of men’s football and the two top tiers of women’s football were permitted, along with training for national teams and those on elite development pathways.

The causes of the discrimination between male and female footballers were two-fold:

  • A decision by the Football Association that the women’s academies and the RTCs were not ‘elite’ for coronavirus purposes;
  • The requirement in the legislation that elite sportspersons be aged 15 or over[1] and the existence of the separate, but widely drawn, exception for education.[2] The boys’ academies which took their players out of school for training were characterised as educational, but the girls training in the evening were not.

The FA immediately came under pressure over their view that the female squads were not elite. Since many were part of men’s Premier League clubs and were already adopting strict Covid procedures, this stance was remarkable.  The FA then sought to enable some of the academies to resume. Protocols were then agreed with some academies that they could return to training and matches.  Towards the end of lockdown the FA also agreed to class a significant number of RTCs as elite.

In respect of the problem caused by the regulations, my note proposed to reduce the age to 8, thus allowing the regional talent clubs in particular to reopen.

With the ending of the second lockdown, the new tiers in England permit the resumption of organised grassroots outdoor sport.  They do also make specific provision for elite sports.  The ‘elite sportsperson’ definition has been amended to remove the minimum age limit, so any person on an elite development pathway will now qualify, see the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020, reg 2(1). Such a pathway is to prepare sportspersons ‘so that they may derive a living from competing in that sport’ or for the next Olympics.[3] The practical significance of the change in the current tiers is relatively modest: outdoor sport is permitted generally so the rights it gives are for indoor activities, which clubs are trying to avoid through their own Covid protocols at present. It will though be important if a further lockdown or tighter restrictions are imposed.

There is also a wider symbolism. Allowing players under the age of 15 to be elite sportspersons is a recognition by government of the importance of the youth sports training regimes which are in place. Given the unforeseen consequences of the second lockdown it is an affirmation that girls’ elite football should be treated the same as the boys and that they matter and a recognition that women’s football is a professional career.

 

[1] Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020, reg 3, defined as ‘is aged 15 or above and is on an elite development pathway’ unless they were already earning a living from competing in sport or considered to be a candidate for the next Summer or Winter Olympics.

[2] Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020, reg 6, 11.

[3] Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020, reg 2(2)(a).

 

 


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