Monday, April 25, 2016

More than Trolling: Gender Disparity in Chasing

By Jackie Woodburn

*DISCLAIMER: The terms AFAB and AMAB (Assigned Female/Male at Birth) are used frequently in this article. This is to distinguish between female players, and female-passing players who are in fact nonbinary, who together encompass the demographic Jackie examines in this article. We understand that this is problematic, as these terms can serve to demean trans people’s identities in favour of supposed biological objectivity. Unfortunately, better language to word these issues does not yet exist.

We also acknowledge that the extent to which transfeminine and transmasculine people are affected by the issues discussed in this article is not addressed. This is for two reasons: 1) there were no openly transmasculine/feminine players in the match used here as a case study, and asking those players to disclose their gender identity would have been extremely inappropriate; and 2) the topic deserves an article in its own right, and is one which Jackie does not feel qualified to address.

You look at the title of this article. You sigh. Another person discussing gender equality in quidditch. Haven’t we read enough about this?

Yes. Probably. I’m about as tired of debating the same gender issues as you are: the endless loops of “female chasers are shoehorned into one role on pitch,” “there’s no difference in skill level if you work hard enough,” “why are we still only running 4:2 line ups?” and a million other questions besides. It’s boring, mind-numbing, and it leaves you confused about what the initial argument even was.

What I hope to do with this article is look at those arguments and apply them to the 2016 British Quidditch Cup (BQC) final. The fact that underutilised female and female-passing AFAB chasers were still prevalent at BQC justifies this discussion in itself. It should be noted that this commentary is based purely on the footage of the BQC final, and not any other games that these teams played; therefore, the conclusions that can be drawn from it are limited.

My primary query was whether the disparity between the time male chasers had the quaffle and the time female and female-passing AFAB chasers had the quaffle was due to the players themselves, the teams’ mentalities, or the general evolution of quidditch at the highest level that we see here in the UK.

Initial Impressions
I will admit that I was thrilled watching the live match. The game was clean with excellent contact put in by both sides, amazing goals from both passes and drives, and a beater game that proved to the whole crowd why Warwick Quidditch Club and the Radcliffe Chimeras were in the final. I only began to feel troubled when, a few hours ago, I let procrastination overcome me and went back to watch the recording of the game (I have linked it here for reference, as later I refer to certain timestamps). 

Here is an excerpt of a message I sent to a friend after watching approximately half of that game: “For real, just watching the final footage properly, and I’m pretty sure I could count the number of times a female player touches the quaffle on one hand... It’s kinda sickening. Hella sexy quidditch but such a shame those players are being overlooked.”

It’s safe to say that my initial reaction was to pull out a broom and start whacking the male quaffle players around the head with it. However, in an attempt to retain the appearance of a reasonable adult who does not jump to conclusions and rally a lynch mob on a second’s notice, I went back to rewatch the game. 

Both the Radcliffe Chimeras and Warwick Quidditch Club have a disparity in skill level between most of their AFAB and female-passing quaffle players and their male quaffle players. Especially noticeable in Warwick, there is even a disparity between tiers of male quaffle players. That being said, I do not think anyone would dispute that when you are on pitch, you are not considered prejudiced or oppressive if you simply choose to pass to the better athlete. 

When you look at these players as simply that players then there can be no qualms over the choice to pass to certain male teammates; if the men are simply the better players, then they are the better option. To this extent I realise I cannot blame individual players for ignoring their AFAB teammates. They are doing exactly as I would do in that situation and using the passing option that gives their team the best chance.

I have two notes to make here. Firstly, none of these AFAB players are bad some of them are the best in the country at what they do it’s just that when you are looking to pass to someone to make a run, and you have the choice of Andrew Hull or any other player of any gender, you choose Hull.
Andrew Hull at BQC 2016 | Photo by: Ajantha Abey Photography
Secondly, I hear you cry, “But how will these players ever improve and move out from the shadows of their teammates if they’re not passed to?” That is a problem for training, not a national final.

At the start of the game, Warwick actually go so far as to run two female chasers, but even then the entire passing game is between Seb Waters and Luke Trevett until 3.39, where a single pass is made to a female chaser (and the catch is, unfortunately, missed). Meanwhile, Kat Jack, the second female chaser on pitch, is never once considered for a pass during her entire run.

Kat Jack at BQC 2016 | Photo by: Ajantha Abey Photography
The Radcliffe Chimeras second goal at the 3.55 mark is a joint effort from all three male quaffle players on pitch at the time and, aside from one fumble, it’s beautiful. The AFAB players here are not ignored, nor overlooked for a pass; they are simply not present, but instead stand back on the halfway line. It’s quite likely that this is due to team tactics to have a reset option, but as the men charge up pitch, you can’t help but sigh that since the larger male players take the initiative to drive, the smaller-bodied player often female is left doing what’s best for the team, acting as reset, which only increases her already whittled down time with a quaffle in hand.

This is all not to say the AFAB chasers are not doing anything; at the 4.39 mark, Kat Jack shields Ben Malpass from Tom Heynes as Malpass receives the ball behind the Chimera hoops. A few minutes later, at the other end of the pitch, Chimeras’ Fran Morris mirrors the move, setting a pick in front of Malpass and facilitating Heynes’ drive past. In addition, these players are marking up on defence and putting on the pressure, increasingly being seen as the first line of defence on point. Indeed, this positioning of AFAB chasers on point may be symptomatic of them hanging back as the reset on offence, giving them the positioning to step up on defence as soon as the goal is scored.

As a last observation, it is worth noting that this disparity is something I mainly noticed in the final. This was a sentiment echoed by female chasers from both of the finalist teams. 

“Every Warwick chaser did score [over] the course of the tournament… [but] driving was more important in the final, and for this reason I took a step back,” said Dina Caruso of Warwick. It wouldn’t have bothered me in any other match; when I hear drive and I’m holding the quaffle, I drive to the best of my ability. But the context of the game is really important here. Given the pressure of the final, it was more a case of allowing our best athlete to drive.Chimera captain Abby Whiteley noted that the mentality and pressure in a final, especially when simultaneously playing and captaining, can also be a defining factor:There were definitely a couple of times I deliberately didn’t shout for a pass because I could see another option,” Whiteley said. I was in a weird headspace, so I wanted to let them take care of it.”

Abby Whiteley at BQC 2016 | Photo by: Ajantha Abey Photography

Of course, certain players are ignored in teams at all levels of the game, but these top-tier teams seemingly only revert back to bad habits in high-pressure situations. This is either indicative that the top level of quidditch in the UK at the moment is very much developing into a “No Bludgers and Drive” event I hear it’s the new Netflix and chill or that a seeming instinct to just pass to their male counterparts overcomes conscious inclusive efforts when players are put under pressure.

Is it the Fault of the Male Chaser?
Whiteley acknowledged that many of the Chimera hoops came from “a combination of Andrew [Hull], Heynes, and Luke [Twist] all of whom have been training together with TeamUK for two years. That trains instincts and trust, which training with us less frequently (as they all live out of Oxford) can’t replicate.” It’s an astute point, and certainly one that could be applied on Warwick’s side of the debate, with Waters and Trevett both current members of the TeamUK training squad.

Luke Twist at BQC 2016 | Photo by: Ajantha Abey Photography

In addition, if we are looking to blame male chasers here, then the male off-ball chaser also has some of the burden to bear. The best players – whom we expect to see in our national final are adept at positioning themselves into space for passes. Yet one of the female chasers I interviewed said that while keeping in open space behind the opposing team’s hoops in the final, one of her male counterparts “came from nowhere” to the same area and was passed to preferentially. Whilst again betraying the bias of the distributor, this also made her efforts to stay an open option in the area feel pointless. If male chasers are occupying the same spaces as female and female-passing AFAB ones on offence, then they are indicating a mistrust in their teammate to carry out the same job as effectively as they would.

Is it the Fault of the Team?
At this point, it would be very easy for me to continue to demonise the male chaser; however, it’s an argument that we have all seen before, and having witnessed these teams play outside of the BQC final, I firmly believe that had the game not had so much riding on it, passes would have reached the female and players. It is more interesting at this point to consider that it was the style of play enacted by each team in the final that deprived the female and AFAB chasers of quaffle-time. 

Because the Chimeras were so good at marking and their beater game was so intense, our passing in the opposition half was worse than usual,” said Caruso.Hence driving was more important in the final.” 

I realised on reflection that I wanted to be mad because EQUALITY FEMINISM ANGER, but the only reason I could be mad was that the best teams have developed an offensive game that doesn’t utilise every quaffle player on the pitch, regardless of gender. Pure drivingor at the very least, driving to put a last-minute pass in hoops is something we now see in many top-tier teams such as the Nottingham Nightmares, Chimeras, and Warwick. It definitely limits the options of a female player who is not yet comfortable with driving herself. It’s worth acknowledging that because of this development, male chasers are now also being ignored for passes, too: at 10:27 in the video linked above, Heynes calls for a pass and Ash Cooper simply puts the ball through the hoop, because why waste a pass? 

Is it the Fault of the Female Chaser?
To flirt with the controversial, let me now put forward the case for this discrepancy in on-quaffle time being the fault of the female chasers themselves. The main issue to be addressed is that when the passes are made either around the hoops or along the midway line, why are female and female-passing AFAB chasers not on the receiving end? I am tentatively beginning to believe that it has become the responsibility of female chasers to “prove themselves” worthy of the pass over another option, much in the same way as any male chaser grumpy at being overlooked would have to. Regardless of gender, if you are the best player on your team you are the one whom we see the majority of passes going to. It is a harsh truth, but at the highest level in the UK game, it is unavoidable.

Unfortunately, in this drive-orientated final it seemed it was no longer proof enough for a chaser to be able to catch and release adequately. The ability to drive, even over a short distance, was suddenly required, and whether due to lack of confidence or actual lack of ability, these were not drives that we saw our AFAB players making. 

I was passed to right by the hoops and did almost score, but the opposing keeper was larger than me and effectively blocked my potential goal,” said Caruso. “Size has never scared me on defence; I’m prepared to tackle any player regardless of their stature. But sometimes I feel that being 52 and fairly petite holds me back on the attack.

Caruso went on to emphasise that this is very much an issue personal to her, astutely noting that other female chasers of a different stature may not find themselves able to empathise. However, when a catch-and-release did not do the job, a short drive past the keeper may have.

It seems, then, that if we are to blame female and female-passing AFAB chasers for anything, it is for lacking the confidence to make a drive; this hesitancy is picked up on by male players who then choose an alternate passing option. Again, I emphasise that this is a problem seemingly unique to the final for these two teams; against one another and under high pressure, driving was the name of the game, and this unfortunately led to the exclusion of AFAB players from the offensive on-ball play.

On the Value of Off-Quaffle Roles
There is one more argument to be made. When forming the bones of this article, I sent my ideas across to a few of the female chasers involved in the final. One of the most perceptive comments I received back was from the Chimeras’ vice-captain Olivia Payne.
Olivia Payne in blue at BQC 2016 | Photo by: Ajantha Abey Photography

“I think a lot of articles like this downplay other, vital roles that many female chasers tend to take,” Payne said. “Even in articles that celebrate female players.

And it’s true! I’ve spent this whole article talking about female players, and just under two paragraphs actually talked about their work setting picks and the like on offence, or being stalwarts of defense.

Whiteley concurred: “The assumption of marking, picking, or other general off-ball activities as less valuable is problematic.”

Whilst it’s important to debate why female and female-passing AFAB players aren’t getting time on-quaffle if only because that’s the most visible part of the sport we partake in it is remiss of me to note earlier in the article that the best teams have developed an offensive game that doesn’t utilise every quaffle player on the pitch. These players are being used, and to brush off their efforts as anything less important or impressive than on-quaffle play is to underestimate the value of off-quaffle players.

How to Encourage Driving (in all players)
That having been noted, I return to the point of “but on-quaffle play is fun.” Coaching in recent years has vastly improved in order to accommodate different play styles and integrate players of all genders into plays. Seemingly one of the last areas where this has not happened is providing women with the confidence to drive a quaffle up-pitch, thus supplying them with the tools to flourish and be acknowledged as equal passing options in such high-pressure games as the BQC final. 

Caruso put forward that her hesitancy to drive was not based on her gender, but on her size.

She said, “Playing against Leeds [Griffins Quidditch] was really interesting because of the amount of small female chasers the team has. I felt that I was able to shine in that match and played a much more active role in driving/attacking because there was no player [whom] I felt I wasn’t able to run through.”

Dina Caruso front and centre at BQC 2016 | Photo by: Ajantha Abey Photography

And within that last sentence I believe lies the issue: run through. As a female player, it is easy to assume that driving is a set style of play, as opposed to an action that can be implemented in many ways. For example, when you see Jonathon ‘Farmer’ Cookes drive past, leaving people reeling on the floor in his wake, it is a simple leap to think that this is the only way to drive, as opposed to seeing this as just one of many ways

Instead, consider a troll behind the hoops. Here, height is a distinct advantage, offering you the capacity to simply reach the ball before your marker. But time and time again we’ve seen a smaller player get to the ball first. Height or lack of it can be accommodated for in speed and agility to outpace a marker, and it’s something we see female players do off-ball every game. These skills now need to be encouraged to be taken on-ball, and the idea that sheer bulk is a necessity for driving shooed. To quote a phrase engraved on my grey matter by Durham coach Robbie Gawne, “Hit doors, not walls.” Agility is everything.

A quick conclusion, then, for those still with me over 2,000 words later.

And it’s a short one, summed up by the ever-eloquent Abby Whiteley:We basically need a dual shift of attitude: an increase in the appreciation and acknowledgement of off-ball chasing, and a decrease in the expectation of that as women’s natural domain.”

P.S. I actually was sad enough to go through and count when female-passing AFAB players touched the ball/were considered for passes in the final. It’s worth acknowledging that as soon as the snitch comes on, this data becomes nearly useless as the camera barely follows the quaffle game in the last 25 minutes of the game. Whiteley herself mentions an additional three times that she remembers a female player contributing to an offensive play during snitch-on-pitch. In addition, the data is nearly meaningless as I didn’t count passes to male players, so no comparison can be made. This is really just for your own interest:
11.17 - Pass to Chimera, Morris

26.28 - Pass to Warwick, Lauren Hewitt

29.18 - Pass to Chimera, Morris (intercepted)

34.59 - Pass to Warwick, Caruso (intercepted)

37.33 - Recovery of ball by Chimera, Whiteley

39.39 - Pass to Warwick, Jack (intercepted)

51.54 - Turnover to Warwick, Hewitt

So there you have it; I was wrong. There were more times than I could count on one hand.

All of my thanks go to Dina Caruso, Kat Jack, Olivia Payne, and Abby Whiteley for their invaluable opinions and insights into this topic.

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