More than a game: the power of local sport to prevent violence against women

How local sports clubs can shape what it means to ‘be a man’, support healthy relationships and level the playing field for everyone.

It's no secret that being involved in sports is good for your health. But local sports clubs also play an important role in the greater wellbeing of all its members – and can help shape a community where we are all safe, equal and respected.  

Local sports clubs are about more than just playing and training as a team. For kids, teenagers and adults alike, the culture of a sports club influences our attitudes, beliefs and values, the way we see ourselves in a community, and the way we get along with friends, coworkers, partners and families.  

But sexism and harmful expressions of masculinity, both conscious and unconscious, still exist at all levels of sport and the beliefs and behaviours associated with them can shape the culture where violence against women thrives.

At the local club, this can include a lack of change rooms or limited access to equipment and playing time for women and gender diverse players, or women under-represented in club leadership. This sends a dangerous signal that women, girls and gender diverse people are not as valued as men and boys.

For a long time, sport has both responded to and shaped the idea of what it means to be a “real man”. When it’s negative, that looks like players believing they need to act tough or use violence to get respect – on and off the field. Using “locker room talk” as an excuse to objectify women. Bullying by coaches. Aggressive behaviour from parents and spectators on the sidelines. Homophobic, racist and ableist slurs in play. Hazing rituals.

But sport also has the power to bring out our best selves: to work as a team, to foster a feeling of community and belonging, an opportunity to role model.

Everyone wins when sports clubs promote positive masculinity

Many of us have heard about “toxic masculinity”. It’s a phrase that has become so widespread that it can be easy to start believing that all masculinity is toxic; that it’s impossible to be “a good man” these days. 

The reality is, toxic masculinity describes social pressure for men and boys to act a certain way – to hide his feelings, to be tough, to only have “manly” interests and shun “girly” ones, to be the breadwinner and decision-maker, to use violence to get respect. Some of these harmful ideas are described in The Man Box rules.

This pressure is damaging to everyone in our society, including men and boys. It contributes to the culture where violence against women continues, it also feeds violence against men and frightening outcomes for men’s health and wellbeing. Most men don’t want to be boxed in to harmful stereotypes based on their gender – who does?!

Traditionally, sports has been seen as a “masculine” interest (despite being enjoyed by all kinds of people for just as long!). It’s also been a home for role models, at all levels from community to professional sports.  That’s why encouraging and promoting ways of being a man that are healthy and supportive in your community sports club can be so meaningful: when those we admire show us there’s more than one way to be our best selves, we believe them.

Your local sports club also has the potential to either be a space that upholds the culture of violence against women – or a space that actively challenges it.

How to model positive masculinity in your sports club

Club leaders have an important role in making sure the club culture is one where everyone can create meaningful and respectful relationships and friendships – at home (within the club) and away (out in the wider world).

  • Foster a club culture where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. No one has to “prove their worth” by being tough or aggressive.
  • Role model respectful, consensual, empathetic attitudes to relationships and sex – for instance, taking a stand against locker room talk.  
  • Share your whole personality – and get to know others’. It can be easy to limit your beliefs or assumptions about someone when you only know them in one context.
  • Remember that a person’s sporting ability or potential doesn’t outweigh their responsibility to keep their relationships respectful.
  • Host speakers and educational opportunities at your club about how to prevent gendered violence, respectful relationships and consent.

Make your club a safe and inclusive space

As well as supporting healthy forms of masculinity, challenging inequality is also an important step in creating a community where everyone can be safe, equal and respected. This can include:

  • Treating teams or players of all genders equally – including access to equipment, opportunities, and award value.
  • Having a clear stance against “locker room talk”, “boys will be boys” attitudes, “jokes” about playing like a girl, homophobia, ableism and racism.
  • Asking the women and gender-diverse people in your club and community what they think – listen without being defensive or trying to justify past and current inequalities, and create a plan to address any concerns.
  • Making sure there’s adequate, safe and accessible changing rooms for everyone.
  • Making sure club activities like coaching, canteen duty and grounds maintenance are equal opportunities, regardless of gender.  
  • Showing that your community is safe and welcoming to LGBTIQA+ members – you could proudly display pride flags, and encourage all people to share their pronouns on name tags, email signatures, or when introducing themselves to someone new.
  • Making facilities and events accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Including Acknowledgements of Country in your events and at your facilities.

More information and resources

Change Our Game is working to level the playing field for Victorian women and girls in sport and active recreation. Take a look at their resources and grant opportunities.  

Our Watch’s resources on Equality and Respect in Sport include practical tools for organisations.  

Carlton Respects is one of the Carlton Football Club’s flagship community initiatives, promoting gender equality for the prevention of violence against women.

Equal the Contest is a documentary about gender diversity, inclusion and belonging in a regional Victorian football club.