In 2022, there were 290,200 people playing netball in England Hannah Mawardi with permission for Varsity

The netball girl is often blonde, bossy and wearing a GA (goal attack) bib, or in the most extreme cases, C for centre (of attention). She may also be sporting a knee brace and enjoys shouting at the less athletically inclined on a concrete netball court. As co-president for Homerton netball, the recruitment process into college sport began with me sitting at a table in the great hall, begging freshers to scan the QR code to sign up. It also involved a lot of aggressive marketing tactics that involved pleading with potential players that college netball would not induce flashbacks of getting yelled at to “just catch” during a rainy PE lesson. As someone who has formed some of my strongest friendships through netball, at school and at club, I was a little surprised to realise the potency of the netball girl stereotype. How real is the stereotype, and what role does misogyny play?

“Netball is not basketball. Netball is also not slow”

All netballers know that telling a man you play netball will be inevitably met with a response involving the words “slow” and “basketball”. Netball is not basketball. Netball is also not slow. However, World Netball documents that the history of netball does share a past with basketball. Indoor basketball birthed netball when a letter containing the rules was misinterpreted in the 1890s. The original letter had an image of a court with zones intended to illustrate where it would be best for players to patrol. The illustration was misinterpreted and the areas were understood as zones to which players were bound. This mistake was ratified, and the netball court divided into strict thirds was born. Since then the sport has continued to develop and grow, with new formats recently introduced, including Fast5, a version intended to be faster with multiple shooting zones and fewer players on the court.

Despite the sport’s evolution into a fast-paced game, netball has struggled to shrug off its public perceptions as a ‘school-yard sport’, and there is a failure to recognise netballers as athletes. Netballers are athletes, and the sport is fast, demanding, and intense. It requires constant quick decision-making and teamwork at a level that few other sports require. Unlike football, rugby and hockey, no one can hog the ball and score solo. Yet netball is still seen as slow and boring. The perception of netball as not a ‘real’ sport, I believe, is rooted in the same systematic sexism which undervalues (or doesn’t value) women’s housework, childcare, mental load, and female-dominated industries such as the care sector and teaching.

“Boys and girls are held to different standards of acceptable competitiveness”

The other element of the stereotypes around netball concerns the ‘netball girl’ in particular. The netball girl is primarily identified by taking PE too seriously. However, the boys who throw a tantrum (complete with throwing themselves on the ground) when a referee’s decision doesn’t go their way escape the same fate. Boys and girls are held to different standards of acceptable competitiveness, and competitiveness in girls is penalised more strongly. The stereotype outlined earlier uses the adjective “bossy” – a highly gendered word that would never be used to describe a boy dictating the football teams.

It’s really important to consider the traits we value in women and girls, as reports show that women with a background in sports make great leaders. The winner of last year’s Apprentice was Marnie Swindells, a woman with a background in boxing, and this year Flo Edwards, with a background in professional netball, became a finalist on the show. Sports can be a powerful environment for girls to learn leadership, communication, teamwork and resilience.


Mountain View

Emmanuel crowned champions in hotly-contested netball Cuppers

The netball girl is also often described as “catty”. Bitchiness and netball are not mutually exclusive, but, unlike short fingernails, bitchiness is not a requirement for the sport. I’m exceptionally glad to find that Homerton Netball agrees, with players reporting “we are chill” and one Homerton Netball player sharing: “you delivered on your promise of college netball being a fun, chill sport that you can enjoy playing”. Beyond college netball, my brief experience playing in a university varsity match against O*ford (which we won #GDBO) allowed me to chat, train and sink jagerbombs with players from the club. This snapshot convinced me that the netball stereotype is a load of rubbish. The players are funny, kind, welcoming and amazing athletes. All the players in my local team are friendly, supportive, and have provided haribos every halftime and plasters when I have catapulted myself across the concrete. I honestly couldn’t ask for more. Netball is a sport I love, and will always find a way to play.

Finally, I want to encourage anyone who has been scared to join their college netball team to think again. Netball is, in a way, the perfect college sport. It has little required equipment, its rules are easy to understand and, to start, it only requires the ability to throw or catch a relatively big ball. It isn’t like rugby where contact can scare people away, or like football where one star player can make the game boring for everyone else, and it isn’t like hockey where everyone needs their own equipment. If you want to play a sport in Cambridge, netball should be the sport you choose.