Bibiana Steinhaus: Performance, not gender should matter

Bibiana Steinhaus entered history books yesterday, September 10, 2017 by becoming the first woman referee to officiate in a top European football league. She was the referee in the Bundesliga game between Hertha BSC and SV Werder Bremen on Match Day 3.  She became a celebrity and was trending on social media.  So far so good.  

B Steinhaus
Bibiana Steinhaus (Photo: Reuters)

But once this initial euphoria dies down is when we will get to know the real impact of her path breaking beginning. To begin with this is 2017 and yet we have to talk about gender equality. Not just in football, in sports in general but even in other spheres of life. That there exist a gap be it in opportunities, be it in equal pay, be it just the general perception.  Women are fighting on all fronts to find their footing.

However, I want to focus here more about the world of sport, the world I am familiar with.  As a sport administrator, I have come across attitudes that are patronizing, condescending, and downright, why exactly are you here to oh, poor you. I am sure there are many other women out there in the sport industry who would have many more stories to share.  Back to Bibiana though.  

That she has broken the glass ceiling is to be appreciated. It has to be celebrated. Because hopefully she has opened the doors for many other women out there who are interested in careers as referee at the highest level. And not just in football/soccer but other sports too. Well, cricket did see women umpires standing in for men’s games. But again, it is not yet a regular thing.  

So when are we going to see Bibiana again in action in the Bundesliga? More importantly, I wonder what will be the reaction if she makes a mistake in her next game or in future matches? Will the narrative read, oh what is a woman doing in the men’s game? Will the talk be about her gender or will she be given the same benefit given to other men’s referees – they are human after all and/or incompetent? Because even while her appointment was widely accepted all around, there were still some social media posts which highlighted the gender bias (the most common question – does she know the offside rule? C’mon, give me a break, there are many men who still don’t the exact rule and no, I am not the expert either).  

While we are on subject of mistakes, two recent high profile matches (both 2016-17 season) come to mind. One the round of 16 UCL quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG at Camp Nou and the other the UCL quarterfinals between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich at Santiago Bernabéu. Both matches involved some questionable/debatable decisions from the referees and his assistants. But all the talk was about either it being human errors and/or incompetent officiating.  I wonder if Bibiana find herself in similar situation, will it all be blamed on her gender? I genuinely hope not.  

Also, hopefully to those who it matters the most – the players on the field, it is about their confidence in her as a referee and not about her gender.

As much as we celebrate Bibiana’s achievement (and it surely it has to be applauded), I just hope in future we concentrate on her performance (or lack of it) rather than talk about her gender.  Here is to many more Bibiana Steinhaus’ on football pitches at the highest level and hope to see her on pitch soon in the Bundesliga and other competitions.  



Hardened sentiments – Borussia Dortmund bus attack

It seemed like a routine match day for a football team. They are ready to leave for one of the important matches in their football calendar – first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals at home. The team leave their hotel in the team bus and within few minutes – boom, an explosion. Three bombs detonated. Bus windows shattered, tires flattened.  We get the news one player on the team is injured and so is the police escort on the bike accompanying the team.  

News spread around fast, through media and social media. What followed after this is what I am trying to understand here. The fans of the two teams – Borussia Dortmund and Monaco shared wonderful camaraderie and came together in wake of this attack. The match was postponed till the next day and the away fans were offered accommodation by the home fans. Images of this camaraderie were to be found, where else, but on social media.  

However, there was some backlash too on social media. Some fan photos were labelled as attention seekers or cringeworthy. Some people called it overreaction to the incident. Why overreaction? Because there were no casualties. Because only one player was injured. And his injury was not too serious – just an an injury to his arm and wrist.  Even the injured player, Marc Batra’s post on his Instagram account evoked some negative sentiments like, rich footballers, spoiled, soft, etc. What is the big deal? It is only his arm and wrist.  

Yes, this is also the reaction we got on social media. One has to wonder have we become so immunized by bomb blasts/terrorist attacks all around that the attack on the Borussia Dortmund football team bus didn’t deserve any sympathy/empathy? It appears that now for us to react to any tragedy is by means of how many lives are lost in such attacks. If there are no casualties, it does not really matter. In a sad way, had this been any other bus, in any other part of the world (read – developing nations) then probably it would not have received much attention.

So the basic answer to my earlier question – yes, we have been immunized. But probably our reaction would be different if we or those close to us are caught in such a situation. Perhaps then we would be able to fully grasp and understand the condition of those players on the bus that evening in Dortmund. That the players were shell shocked after the incident would be an understatement. Because, yes,

They are footballers. They are rich. They are privileged.  

Now, how about if we start from the very basic.  

They are human beings. They are mortal beings. They have loved ones.

So, if we look at the very basic elements, they are not any different to us.  Rich, yes, privileged, yes. But they are first and foremost human beings. Just like us, they too are mortals.  

There is no denying to the horror we see around us in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. We cannot imagine how people survive in those hostile conditions. However, it is not about comparing this incident to the people living in those environments. It is about showing empathy. It is about what could have been in the Borussia Dortmund case…

It also shows how we react to such incidents. The show must go on. Get on with life. Such attacks can happen anywhere, anytime in the world.  We are not cowards, we should not bow down to those terrorists. We have to continue living the way we have been. All this bravado is nice. And yes, life has to go on.  But is it too hard to even pause for a bit, to take time to process, to come to terms with reality, to get over the shock, and when lives are lost, to take time to grieve?

Also, what would are the wider implications of this incident? Police protection was provided but it was not able to prevent the attack. With active social media accounts all sport teams keep their fans updated on teams’ schedule and activities. Will this make them ponder to be a bit discreet about some of their activities? After the attack the location of the Borussia Dortmund team members was kept hidden. I recollect the friendly match between Germany and France in Paris on that fateful evening in November 2015.  DFB (Germany) team’s social media account mentioned about the team’s whereabouts and that tweet was deleted immediately.  

It may not happen instantly, but teams may start to be a bit discreet about their activities if, god forbid, security issues become more threatening in the future. And as for dealing with terrorist attacks, even if it looks less tragic from far off, let us at least be sensitive to those who are caught in such unfortunate attacks.  Let us give them time and space to deal with it.