Ugo Monye: Former rugby star explains why he feels a duty to be a women's sport ally

Ugo Monye, Game Changers

The ninth series of The Game Changers podcast continued with former Harlequins, England and British & Irish Lions rugby star Ugo Monye. 

The ex-winger is chair of the RFU’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group and recently became a trustee of the Women’s Sports Trust charity. 

Speaking to host Sue Anstiss, Monye opened up on his “duty” to be a male ally for women’s sport. 

During an inspiring conversation, the now-renowned broadcaster questioned whether women’s rugby is truly “professional” at this moment, why more investment is needed and how male players can do more to publicly support their female colleagues. 

Asked how he first became a part of the Women’s Sport Trust, Monye cited his change in mindset following the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. Owing to his own emotions, he understood the need for more ‘allies’ and soon recognised the importance of fighting other injustices –– not just those that affect him personally. 

“I think for me there’d always been a fire within me to want to do something more in the women’s game,” he revealed. “But I think in the wake of George Floyd and his murder I spoke a lot about it and it really triggered something in me. I had a lot of emotion and [with] this unwanted relationship I have with racism, the one thing I kept repeatedly saying is we need allies. You know, it’s not just a black people problem. 

“If I’m trying to combat injustice, I can’t just combat injustice for the things that matter to me. I need to look beyond just the things that affect me. And I have two daughters –– what’s the world going to look like for them growing up? How can I protect that? I need to be an ally and to use my voice and passion. And it has to be a passion. It can’t just be a flag bearing exercise to try and combat and position myself to try and help and support.”

The gender inequality in women’s sport is something Monye feels passionately about and he has played a key role behind the scenes in pushing for more coverage of women’s rugby. 

According to the ex-England star, some people often feel too afraid to speak out in support of female athletes. Yet, in Monye’s eyes, he feels a sense of responsibility to translate his love for rugby into looking out for the sport as a whole. 

“First of all, sport doesn’t have a gender. If we’re talking globally about football, rugby, tennis, hockey, badminton, tiddlywinks, whatever, it just doesn’t. I’m passionate about rugby. I am passionate about the game and, therefore, I dedicate and position myself to try and protect the whole game, and that includes men’s and women’s rugby.

“I think people are inhibited to do things because often they don’t want to be the first,or they don’t want any kind of backlash, or to come across as sanctimonious or righteous or virtue signalling, which is a phrase I hate. But if you think it’s the right thing to do and you’re passionate about it, then do it. Just be consistent in your actions.

“I’m also fully aware and accepting of the fact that if I was a female, I never would’ve achieved the things that I achieved in my career, just because I was a woman. Period. It’s just undisputed. It’s just case closed on that. And so in the same way, when I look at rugby now, and my focus is on the next generation, it should be the next generation for men and women to create opportunities.”

Another reason for Monye’s commitment to championing women’s sport stems from his two daughters, whom he wants to have equal opportunities in life. 

“I think when it’s closer to home, it gets more personal, doesn’t it? I want Phoenix and Ruby [his daughters] to be anything they want to be. Do I strongly believe that is possible today? Yeah. Do I think they’ll have more barriers because of their gender than what I had? Yeah, absolutely. So I want to break them down. I just want to support them.”

Monye believes the number of barriers still to overcome is more than many people might have you believe. Elite level women’s rugby is technically classed as ‘professional’ but given that many are still forced to work other jobs, the former Harlequins legend pointed out that this terminology doesn’t necessarily count for much.

“It’s not good enough. It’s actually just not good enough,” he exemplified. “The headline is the women’s game is professional, but scratch the surface and you’d have to deconstruct the meaning of what professional is? That you get paid? Does that mean it’s professional? Because I spoke to and reached out to a couple of female rugby players throughout the last season who had to crowdfund in order to pay for their own surgeries. International players. What? That’s not very professional.

The level of playing fields are not good enough. The pitches aren’t good enough. The money’s not good enough. The medical system’s not good enough.

“But the headline is ‘we’re number one in the world, we’ve won back to back to back Grand Slams.’ The women could break a record in the next match they play of consecutive matches won. They go to the World Cup later on this year as tournament favourites [after] record victories against New Zealand.

“It’s great, but let’s put context to all of it. It’s not good enough. And I think there needs to be a mental shift in the women’s game from ‘I’m just grateful that we’ve got money.’ Of course, everyone’s grateful that it’s better than what it was, but at some point, it’s got to also be allied with ‘It’s better, but we’ve still got a long way to go.’”

Part of the problem, believes Monye, is that the women’s game is compared in parallel terms to the men’s game, when in fact there are a number of differences. In the same way rugby sevens is different to playing 15s, women’s rugby is a different ‘product’ that should be recognised in this way, instead of being treated as inferior. 

“They’re just two separate entities [men’s and women’s rugby],” he said. “And I think we need to delineate the men’s game from the women’s game rather than competing. They are separate products for separate athletes and specimens and totally different stories. The men’s teams in the Premiership or at the international level commit their whole lives from morning to night to be professional athletes. 

“There will be certain female athletes that have had to do a full day’s work and then arrive at training. So I’m sorry if the product that you see at the weekend isn’t as good as the men’s because it’s just not starting on the same level playing field.”

In terms of being a male ally in women’s sport, Monye also emphasised the need for male players to support their female counterparts and teammates, though he admitted that for this to happen, it’s the job of the organisations and teams themselves to vocalise their commitment to their women’s sides. 

“I guess with lots of it, if you’re not quite sure, then you need someone to set an example. So if I was at the club that I used to play for, Harlequins. If the Harlequins men’s team aren’t celebrating their women on social media –– putting up team sheets, time tables, where you can watch them –– that’s the organisation.

“How do I expect a player’s behaviour to be able to trump the organisations? Someone has to lead the way and I’d expect every club [to do this.] Some clubs are better than others. I think Bristol Bears do a really good job of it actually.” 

There are a number of ways male players can set about supporting women moving forwards, but Monye clarified that the most beneficial way would be to actually make the effort to go and watch them play. In this way, the now-pundit also urged those who ridicule the standard of women’s sport to ‘challenge’ their reasons for thinking this and not make baseless assumptions. 

“First of all, I’d encourage them to go and watch a game, because some of the ignorant comments you see online are ‘women’s rugby is [derogatory term]. It would just be a derogatory term. I often think there’s this misplaced opinion about the game, which is prejudged or predetermined based on nothing 

“For someone like @misogynistidiot1234 online who made that comment, if I asked him why he felt that, he wouldn’t be able to coherently answer it. ‘Oh, well, did you see the drop balls?’ It’s just nonsense. Challenge yourself to understand why you think that.

“[In terms of young players] I’d go out and support your team. If you can, get down and encourage and support or do things for others, which you would want to be done for you at any point in your career.

“And in fact, the more profile, the more responsibility you have to be able to do that, go and support your team because the more you get to know people, the more invested you are emotionally and attached to them.” 

This article was produced in partnership with the game changers podcast, which is supported by Sport England. You can listen to the full episode with Ugo Monye here.

News Now - Sport News