“I believe in the power of football to bring people together. However, I say that with a pinch of salt. Because I know that it excludes a lot of people.”
Hayley Bennett, 28, takes no prisoners when it comes to sharing why football needs to do more for inclusion and diversity.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some amazing people through football but I know that there is so much more that can be done.” she says.
Hayley’s sheer passion and enthusiasm for her work as leading inclusion and diversity practitioner can be sensed through her tone. She casts her mind back to the moment that sparked the ‘inner social activist’ in her.
“I remember being 14 or 15-years-old and it was around the 2006 World Cup. I wasn’t sporty but my friends bought a football in and we started playing football in the playground.” she pauses and laughs for a moment, contemplating where she should share the next point.
“Like, it sounds so ignorant, but I honestly didn’t know women played football for teams until I was around 15, which seems ridiculous. And that’s because I didn’t have access to role models.” She laughs and continues her initial point.
“Instead of encouraging this group of inactive teenagers for using their initiative and playing a sport, the teacher pulled us aside and said ‘you can’t play football, you are wearing a skirt’. I think that really sort of made me think more about the role that women have in sport and opened up my eyes to see what was out there.”
It’s an experience that sticks with Bennett and a story that serves as a stark reminder of the inequalities that women and girls face in sports.
Bennett’s career started in education and she ran anti-racism workshops for leading football equality and inclusion organisation – Kick It Out. She then took her skills to media, banking, finance, and other industries before returning to football as a specialist.
However, it is her pioneering work with her own organisation, Nutmegs, that has catapulted her to the top of the Practitioner category for the Football Blacklist Awards.
“I had so many conversations with my co-founder Ammarah about needing space for women like us. We are women of colour that don’t want to go to pubs to enjoy a football game. Yet that shouldn’t exclude us, we still need a place to feel welcomed and comfortable.”
Through her organisation, Nutmegs, Bennett is creating an inclusive and safe environment where women and non-binary people can share their passion for football. The collective is committed to ensuring no woman or non-binary person is excluded from football.
“From researching we realised, there is a lot of fear and resentment towards trans women, and trans people in general. And we wanted to make sure that we were inclusive, which is why when we say we are a space for women, within that, we mean trans women, trans men, and also non-binary people as well.”
“There are not many spaces in football that use inclusive language, they’ll say female football because of an iteration, not knowing that they could potentially be excluding people and that is really damaging.”
It is a simple idea but one that holds great value to Bennett who is essentially providing the space for women whose voices are often overlooked and not represented in media. The cohort of women and non-binary people that attend her forums and events are multigenerational.
“It’s more so important for the older generation. We have older women that come to Nutmegs, maybe like my parent’s age. They must have missed out on so many opportunities to see people who look like them in any sort of capacity in sport.”
She adds: “I think it’s a shame that we’ve lost so many generations because there hasn’t been that visibility. But we will continue running Nutmegs until there isn’t a need for us to forge our own communities and spaces.”
This year has presented communities with challenges they didn’t envision due to COVID-19. Its impact on women’s sport has been catastrophic and the ripple effect might be something that continues to be felt in the coming years. However, black women in sports continue to be at the forefront of activism and change. The narrative of intersectionalities on gender, race and sexuality are often missing in sport, yet these award winners are unapologetically changing football from the inside.
Leon Mann, co-founder of the Football Blacklist, said: “Every Black woman on this year’s Football Black List has played a key role within their communities, organisation or business in the response to the global pandemic. They are an inspiration and we are delighted to highlight their excellence in the football industry.”