Mene Confessions: Tall Tales from Netball’s Inner Circle
Bernice Mene (and Geoff Young)
Hodder Moa Beckett, $24.95,
Picture the scene: an exceptionally glum group of public servants in Wellington one Monday morning in October 1999. The reason seems unclear to the casual outsider: has the last two-year-long project been scuttled in the lead-up to the election? Only something these people had put their life and soul into could make the workplace so glum.
But this glumness has nothing to do with an event in the workplace, or in Parliament, or in the Beehive. To find the reason, you need to step back two days to Christchurch and a last-minute goal by a young Australian in a netball match. The consequence of this shot by Sharelle McMahon was that Australia once again beat New Zealand to the World Championship of netball.
Surprisingly, a few weeks later we did not seem so depressed about the All Blacks’ fourth place in the men’s Rugby World Cup. Perhaps it was because there had been some doubt about the ABs’ ability to perform. After all, they had come off a poor season, and there was clearly widespread disquiet among the viewing public and the team itself.
This contrast suggests a social significance of netball that extends beyond that usually recognised. Netball has long been the poor cousin of men’s team sports. Even so, it is traditionally one of only four sports where TV networks compete for the right to broadcast – the others are rugby union, rugby league and cricket.
Netball is the principal sport played by women in New Zealand. The growing number and sophistication of netball facilities around the country suggest that there really is something going on. Christchurch’s Hagley Park now has 52 courts, and the facilities at Mt Mauganui serving the Tauranga area are equally impressive (if somewhat smaller).
Netball emerged in England in the 1890s as a version of basketball considered suitable for girls. The game became popular in New Zealand and Australia in particular by the outbreak of World War One. It was institutionalised in the 1920s with the formation of local associations and competitions. A national governing body – the New Zealand Basket Ball Association – was formed in 1924. A national tournament was also instituted, with the first being played at the Empire Exhibition in Dunedin in 1926.
A bare statement of facts such as this risks representing the development of the game as simple and uncontested. This is not the case, and netball’s significance as a national sport must be read alongside a dominant set of sporting images that prioritise contact, force and physicality through the potency of both rugby codes. During the 1920s there was some disquiet over netball’s development. Newspaper coverage of netball games contained the patronising and belittling tendencies common in much coverage of women’s sport, which deny its seriousness and promote behaviour considered appropriate to women. In 1929 the Christchurch Sun captioned a picture of one team at that year’s national tournament with “thirteen pretty maids, all in a row”.
Changes in the game during the 1920s perhaps contributed to its acceptance. The most significant change was that full court passes were outlawed in favour of the current rule that a player must touch the ball in each third of the court. This change seems to have allowed the game to be seen as suitable for New Zealand women because it was presented as a thinking rather than physical sport. It was no longer considered a potential threat to dominant notions of feminine-appropriate behaviour or physicality.
At the time of the 1929 national tournament, the Christchurch Sun seemed to sum up public perceptions in a lead article that stated:
Basketball provides splendid exercise for those engaged in it, but it has the added charm of not being too rough. Science counts in it more than strength, and it is a fact which makes the game so good for girls. Speed and general nimbleness are developed through it, and it also encourages team spirit.
Significant elements of this view remain in discussion of netball, although the contemporary game is barely recognisable as the basketball of the 1920s, at least in this perception that it is not “too rough”. Older netball followers often complain (or comment) that the game is rough, dirty or simply too physical.
The key change, however, came not with the 1950s shift to seven-a-side teams, or even the changes in rules in the 1970s accompanying the increasing internationalisation of the game. The fundamental shift came in the increasing commodification of sport-as-entertainment in the late 1980s.
The New Zealand Netball Association recognised that it faced challenges from other sports such as basketball or softball for women’s involvement, but also that there were growing alternative leisure and entertainment interests. In this sense, netball was little different from other sports. The NZNA set itself on a conscious, market-oriented path and became Netball New Zealand. Through the 1990s the NNZ sought out sponsorship, began a serious debate about player payments and professionalism, and began to compete with other sports for the audience dollar.
The game is now effectively professional. The Coca Cola Cup, netball’s answer to rugby union’s Super 12 competition, allows that. Most Coca Cola Cup teams now include overseas players – Elaine Davis from Jamaica and Villimaina Davu from Fiji are perhaps those with the highest profile. Yet, as Bernice Mene points out in her book Mene Confessions, the game does not have the money, support or drawing power of the big (men’s) professional games. The advantage of this, for netball, is that the game’s strength still lies in its mass Saturday participation, and that the club and regional game seems to have retained its following. There is, therefore, not the same apparent threat confronting rugby union – alienation of the big game from the mass participant base.
Netball audiences are not yet big enough to generate big money. To be sure, venue size is part of the problem as is the strength of competition: in the current balance of the game, Australia and New Zealand are almost always significantly better than most other teams. But in other professional codes – such as rugby union and league, soccer, and Australian rules football – the real money comes not from bums on seats but from TV broadcast payments. International games and the Coca Cola Cup draw significant TV audiences – perhaps Netball New Zealand should be looking to renegotiate those broadcast contracts. TVNZ seems to be getting relatively cheap prime-time broadcast material.
Associated with this growing professionalism in and commodification of the game are the politics of celebrity, which is where this book comes into the play. In many ways, this is a classic sporting biography that exists as much to promote the game as anything else. It reads like an extended article in a glossy magazine: lots of friendly family background, plenty of tour diary colour and a sense that Mene is a wide-eyed innocent in the big wide world. That is also part of the book’s charm, but it remains a light and unsatisfying flit over a netball career.
I have a real sense that Mene has been badly served by her editors and ghost writer: the brief chapter “Tomorrow’s World”, towards the end of the book, points to a more critically engaged netball mind than comes through much of the rest of it. But this chapter is only four pages of text in a 190-page book. There are references to the problems of Anzac dominance of the game, to underfunding and underdevelopment in former netball powerhouses in the Caribbean, and to the problems arising out of gendered assumptions of “women’s lot” in many countries. Mene also proposes that NNZ should be playing a greater role in netball development in the Pacific. Team Pacifica – a last-minute substitute for Fiji at coup-time – is perhaps a good start, but it will need to be accompanied by grass roots support.
Netball is not well served by its literature: there are few books published and little analytical journalism. There is also very little academic analysis of the game (unlike the big boys’ ball sports) either in its culture or from sports science perspectives. The only regular magazine is NNZ’s quarterly Hoopla – basically a promotional magazine. This book will make no significant contribution to correcting that deficiency but I’d like Mene to turn her pen to a wider question of the potential for and development of netball. Her now eight-year playing career as a Silver Fern and some of the hints in this book suggest that she could make a useful critical contribution to our understanding of netball. That book I’ll look out for.
Malcolm MacLean is a lecturer in the School of Sport at the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, England. He acknowledges the work of John Nauright in providing some of the historical background in this piece.