Verbal abuse and body image in Gaelic games – ‘More conversation and awareness is a good thing’

VIKKI WALL, FOR one, was certainly taken aback by the positive response.

On last month’s ladies football All-Stars programme on TG4, the Meath All-Ireland winner opened up about the regular verbal abuse — related to her weight — she has been subjected to from the sideline and stands while playing inter-county football.

The 2020 Intermediate Players’ Player of the Year used her winning interview to speak about her horrific experiences for the first time.

“To be honest from 2017 to 2019, I heard something in every single game about my weight,” she told ‘Peil na mBan – Foirne na Bliana – le AIG Insurance,’ recalling how she once got a call from an opposition manager apologising for what he had said, and how a woman next to her mother in the stand said that Wall was “too fat to play football”.

The Dunboyne ace’s brave and powerful account shone a light on an issue that is often swept under the carpet, and sparked plenty of conversation online.

Wall came in for high praise for sharing her story and using her platform for the better, and her experience seems to have resonated with many.

Huge admiration for Vikki Wall opening up on this.

The Intermediate ⁦@LadiesFootball⁩ Player of the Year used her winning interview to speak about the regular — and horrific — verbal abuse she has been subjected to on the pitch.

Brave & powerful.

— Emma Duffy (@emmaduffy_) February 27, 2021

“It was not something I gave a huge amount of thought to,” the 22-year-old said at the announcement of the Gaelic Games Player Pathway yesterday.

“I said I would bring it up in the interview but I definitely didn’t expect the reaction it’s gotten so far. I’m overwhelmed by it but I also think it has been really encouraging in the fact that a lot of younger girls have reached out to me.

“I didn’t realise it was such a problem but the fact that these people have reached out to me with similar stories, having that extra conversation on the topic is definitely not a bad thing.

“I had contact from some parents thanking me and it kind of shocked me how young it is, players who are U12, U14, and it is not something at that age I would have been conscious of. I think it is definitely trickling down into younger ages and a little more conversation and awareness about the topic is a good thing.”

Sledging on the pitch has emerged as a problem in sport over the past few years, but most players would brush it off in the moment.

Is it better to address it head-on and call out this unacceptable behaviour? Wall isn’t quite sure.

“It is a catch 22: do you ignore them and let it fizzle out or do you tackle it head on, and I think it is trying to find that happy medium of how you approach it.”

Source: Sport TG4/YouTube

Likewise, she’s unsure if anything more could — or should — be done going forward, rather than keep the conversation going, and the issue in the spotlight.

“It’s kind of a tough one. I hadn’t really thought of strategically how you’d kind of tackle it. It is tough and I think stuff gets said at matches, no one’s perfect when you’re under pressure, or when you’re in a high-pressure situation like that and you want your team to win. I understand that stuff gets said, so I don’t know.

“I don’t think I have a perfect answer, but I do just think more talking about it and more acknowledgment that it’s not okay, maybe, is the way forward. The fact that maybe more people are coming out and talking about it — it’s definitely not just in the female side of things, I know it’s relevant to the male game as well.

“Maybe just a bit more [conversation] about a body image as a whole to do with GAA and stuff like that, I’ve seen a few more articles this week. I think maybe the starting point is just the awareness side of things.”

Wall is just thankful that she stuck at football, well aware that her career could have taken a completely different direction had she let the verbal abuse take over.

“I reflect on it and think if I did not have such a love for the game and if I didn’t have that underlying confidence in myself, I do think it could have gone a different way. It probably did affect me more than I would have liked to admit at the time. I definitely think that the strong love I had for the game helped me but I do think it did affect me as well.”

2020 was a memorable one for Wall and for Meath, as the Royals made it third time lucky, finally getting their hands on the Mary Quinn Memorial Cup after back-to-back decider defeats.

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She stepped up with 1-3 in a Player of the Match-winning performancecto inspire her side against Westmeath, banishing the heartbreak of previous finals and defeats — one particular 40-point hammering at the hands of Cork in 2015 standing out.

But Wall — who “definitely wouldn’t rule out” pursuing an AFLW journey having impressed at a Combine in Melbourne in 2019 — is pleased with the “huge improvements” Meath have made of late, and feels they are ready for senior football.

“In 2018 when we were playing against Tyrone, if we’d gone up senior, I probably would have questioned how we would have survived,” she concedes.

Facing Westmeath in the All-Ireland final.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But we’ve got a few more years’ experience under our belts, and I’d be more confident in the fact that we can compete up with senior and could probably hold our own. We don’t want to be coming up to go straight back down so I think definitely, we’re a lot more confident this year.

“We are not naïve in not thinking we have big challenges ahead of us this year and if the provincials go ahead, it means we will be in a straight final against Dublin so you could be playing the All-Ireland champions in your first match. We know we have to increase physicality and strength so in that sense, preparations will be a bit different.”

And playing Mick Bohan’s four-in-a-row winning Sky Blues is certainly a challenge she is relishing.

“Definitely,” Wall, who is happy to report that her sister, Sarah, is on “the road to recovery” after her second cruciate rupture in December’s All-Ireland final, concludes.

“You want to be playing against the best and that has been our goal since we got relegated to intermediate a couple of years ago so we are happy to be back up playing the best.”

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