LockerRoom

Time to stop forcing netball down our girls’ throats

LockerRoom columnist Taylah Hodson-Tomokino says sports should strike while there's a chink in netball's armour, and entice girls to try other codes. 

There’s a negative attitude in New Zealand that any other female sport is inferior to netball. And it all starts in our schools.

I went to Mount Albert Grammar School – a powerhouse in schoolboy rugby. I was astounded to discover we didn’t have a women’s team, so I started one myself.

Portia Woodman, the current World Rugby Player of the Year, was the star of our premier netball team at the time. She played one game of rugby, scored a hat-trick, and the next day was banned from playing because it would jeopardise the netball team’s success if she was injured.

The netball coaches fought tooth-and-nail to have our team dismembered. And they were successful. The head coach told me: “There’s no career path for women in rugby. These girls need to focus on netball.”

I was quick to point out that rugby sevens was now an Olympic sport and netball was not, but it fell on deaf ears.

The success of the Black Sticks, the Black Ferns Sevens, Joelle King and Julia Ratcliffe at the Commonwealth Games, coupled with the Silver Ferns’ failure to secure a medal, has revealed that netball is not the be-all and end-all of women’s sport in New Zealand.

The women in New Zealand’s Commonwealth Games team secured more medals - including gold - than the men. The medals came from basketball, squash, hockey, athletics, swimming, rugby sevens, cycling, triathlon, lawn bowls and boxing. So why is it that netball is forced on our young girls?

Children can be so unforgiving. I was taunted for being a tomboy because I played any sport but netball in primary school. So much so, I ended up playing the game just to fit in.

As a child, my idol was cyclist Sarah Ulmer. Watching her claim a world record in the individual pursuit at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and her prowess on the track, was inspiring.

I picked up BMX Racing at the age of six and, five months later, I was the national champion in my age grade. I represented New Zealand in Paris, Amsterdam, Denver and Perth before I’d even finished primary school. BMX gave me opportunities that netball never could.

On a global scale, netball is dwarfed by sports like BMX, basketball, rugby and hockey. But if a young girl wants to become a professional athlete in New Zealand, she is pushed towards netball. It’s about time Kiwi women spread their fledgling wings and looked at opportunities abroad.

The Tall Ferns secured Commonwealth bronze on the Gold Coast, in spite of minimal funding. In 2016, Sport New Zealand cut Basketball NZ’s funding by just under 40 percent. What was left of the funding was allocated to the Tall Blacks and the men’s development programme - despite both teams having an equal opportunity to qualify for the world championships.

The lack of a professional basketball competition in New Zealand has seen our top female athletes migrate to Australia, America and Europe. In fact, of the 12 Tall Ferns who won bronze, only two live in New Zealand.

When comparing opportunities that netball and basketball provide for women post-high school, it’s hard to understand why more young girls don’t opt for the orange ball. There are limited spots in netball’s six-team ANZ Premiership, but no limit to the number of American colleges throwing full athletic scholarships to international players.

The NCAA Division 1 is the crème de la crème of women’s basketball in the United States, second only to the WNBA. Tessa Boagni, Rhaiah Spooner-Knight, Brooke Blair, Stella Beck and Jacinta Beckley are some of the Kiwis playing in this league.

Their games are televised on ESPN, with thousands of students and local supporters attending the matches in sell-out crowds. Penina Davidson is a popular figure in the NCAA, playing for the University of California Berkeley, yet very few people in her native New Zealand would know her name.

The earning potential in the WNBA (America), Euroleague (Europe) and the WCBA (China) is higher than any netball league, with the WNBL (Australia) not far behind. Beckley and Davidson were invited to the WNBA combines – invitation-only camps - for a chance to impress coaches and other hopefuls in the league.

More and more young women are heading to the US on athletic scholarships to chase their basketball dreams and, by default, are gaining a university qualification. However, this exodus has seen some amazing talent leave our country for good, with the Tall Ferns feeling the brunt of it.

Age grade representative teams have suffered in previous years because the teams were made up with players who could afford to play, not necessarily those who were the best athletes.

Basketball, like many other codes, is a sport where you don’t get paid to play for New Zealand - you pay to play for New Zealand. It’s time Sport New Zealand increased the funding and created affordable, desirable pathways for women. 

Rugby is another sport that has recently appealed to more women. Not because of a conscious effort to promote and encourage young girls in schools, but because the success of our women has been too hard to ignore.

I have female friends who attend University in Hawaii on scholarships for volleyball, friends who have travelled the world and been paid for it with rugby, and friends who have played at the Olympics in hockey. There are countless opportunities awaiting those who seek to pursue them.

With netball in New Zealand now in a slump, it’s time for the administrators of other sports - minority or not - to begin recruiting the younger generation. There are other career paths that have equal, if not more opportunities than netball. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching netball and enjoy playing it myself, but there are far more opportunities for women in sport if they only look beyond the shores of the land of the long white cloud.

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