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It has to be said I’ve had this debate with friends, family, my students and other football fans on a number of occasions. Most people have pretty clearly defined views on the question; there simply isn’t, and will never be, a woman who would be strong enough, skillful enough or even psychologically capable of playing against men at the very highest level of the game – let alone be accepted or able to cope with the ‘banter’ of the dressing room environment.
It’s tempting to simply agree and move on to another topic to argue over. There, are, however, a number of things we might want to consider before we fully rule out this possibility.
Firstly, there are already a number of sports where men and women compete together at the highest levels of performance. There are already several mixed-gender Olympics events in sports like tennis, badminton, equestrian, ice dancing, skating, shooting and sailing. Admittedly many of these don’t involve regular physical contact, although female tennis players seem to be more than capable of dealing with the strength and power of their male opponents.
In sports that both males and females compete but in separate competitions/events (often because they are prohibited from playing together by law) the difference in performance has markedly reduced in recent years.
In sports that are measured by times, such as swimming and athletics, female world records are about 90% to that of the male time; the late and infamous sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner got that gap to 95% when she ran 10.49 seconds for the 100 metres in 1988 (though widely believed to have been aided by performance enhancing drugs).
When Paula Radcliffe set her marathon world record in 2003, only a small handful of British male athletes could match her performance levels. We should also not forget the small group of sportspeople who sit on the fringes of traditional male/female definitions of sex differences.
Outstanding performances from athletes such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have recently begun to blur the boundaries of the distinction between male and female in a sporting context, to widespread controversy.
We could perhaps plausibly make the case that the physical performance gap between men and women is not so far apart as we may assume. That said, even if a female footballer had all the physical attributes to compete at the very highest level of the men’s game, the way in which elite men’s football is organised and the underlying cultural norms of the game would perhaps provide the biggest barrier to a woman playing in the Premier League.
Until only very recently, The FA banned girls from playing alongside boys from the age of 11, making it impossible for girls to develop their skills in mixed teams.
The two forms of the game remain seen as very separate entities, again making ‘mixed’ football teams highly unlikely other than at very young ages. The recent experience of former Chelsea FC doctor Eva Carneiro also gives an indication of how women are often received in elite football.
Following a dispute with then head coach Jose Mourinho during a match, Carneiro subsequently took her employer to court claiming sex discrimination. She claimed to suffer harassment from a variety of club personnel throughout her time at Chelsea, while she regularly had to endure sexist chanting from fans during matches.
Thinking about it this way, it may be a case of would a women ever want to play in the Premier League, rather than could they.