Equal chances: preserving elite girls' football in lockdown

One of the casualties of lockdown has been most sport.  The regulations do though seek to protect elite sport, including players on development pathways which seek to lead to professional sport.  As the details of the lockdown were worked out there was considerable debate about children's sport generally, and in part on elite sport.  The latest regulations reduce the age limit for elite sportspersons from 16 in previous legislation to 15.  Whilst grassroots sport generally was prohibited, sport in education or training could continue.

What does not seem to have been anticipated was how this would work out in football.

The Football Association England Girls Talent Pathway:[1]

"was put in place to support the identification and development of those with elite potential.

It also ensures that appropriate playing opportunities are in place to enable players to fulfil their developmental needs and reach the ultimate goal of producing elite English female players to compete on the world stage."

The principal part of this pathway below national camps are the 29 regional talent clubs which run from U10 to U16 level.  Half of the RTCs are part of men's Premier League clubs, with another quarter run by Championship teams.  Above U16 level, the leading women's teams run academy or development squads.

The Football Association cancelled the girls' regional talent clubs and the Women's Super League academies but kept the boys' (category 1 and 2) and youths' academies going.  Their reasoning was:

  • The male squads are elite whilst the women's and girls 'do not meet the necessary 'elite' protocols'
  • The higher category boys' academies take their players out of school for some of the time so they are partly educational or at least regulated by OFSTED.  They therefore qualify as educational, whilst the girls are in full-time school and train in the evenings and so do not
This discrimination has caused outrage: see here and here.  It is apparent that this anger is widely felt, both within the elite girls' system and amongst those who support women's and girls' sport.

The girls' RTC squads are well-resourced, particularly where they are part of a Premier League club, and have been operating strict Covid protocols, including pre-arrival questionnaires, temperature testing, wearing snoods, the use of separate equipment and equipment cleaning, socially distanced team travel and keeping parents out of the way.  There is no reason to think that continuing their activities poses any risk.

The FA are trying to resolve the problems, allowing women's academies to reopen for 16+ players, and working with government.  That still does not solve the unequal treatment of girls in RTCs.

The current Coronavirus regulations have been amended once since they were made last week, to allow Armistice Day ceremonies.

The exception for education or training does not seem to be applicable to the RTCs.  The appropriate change would be to amend the relevant definition of 'elite sportsperson' the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 which is presently 'is aged 15 or above and is on an elite development pathway'. There would need to be a reduction in the minimum age from 15 to 8.  The RTCs are 'an elite development pathway' as they are 'development pathway established by the national governing body of a sport to prepare sportspersons … so that they may derive a living from competing in that sport'.  Elsewhere the regulations enable sports facilities to remain open for elite sportspersons.

The substance of the amendment is no more complicated than leave out "15" and insert "8".

Such an amendment would enable elite girls' football to resume.  It would remedy an unfortunate problem of discrimination.

It would also reopen other elite sports pathways, in less well funded sports, for both boys and girls.