As part of National Inclusion Week, England Netball’s head of officiating Gary Burgess joined Sky’s Sportswomen show to discuss his experiences of being a man in a female sporting world.
If you speak to any individual involved in netball – whether a player, coach, fan or volunteer – then Gary Burgess’ name and his achievements are well-known.
The international umpire has cut through the gender stereotype, ignored the fact that few men were involved in netball early on, and worked hard to reach the pinnacle of officiating in the sport.
In National Inclusion Week, the importance of ‘allies and advocates’ is being discussed, and as a champion of athletes who play a sport that is driven by female participation, Burgess is well placed to talk about the theme.
“A lot of sports can learn a lesson from both England Netball and the International Federation of Netball, because I’ve never been made to feel anything other than welcome in the sport,” Burgess told a Sportswomen special on Sky Sports News.
“There haven’t been any barriers, no negativity at all from the organisations. Now you’ll always have it from social media – people are able to pick out certain things, and they’ll always default to it being a man in a female environment.
“But certainly the organisations and structured organisations have been absolutely supportive, and I’m proud to now be able to be in a position where I’m opening the doors to other people.”
He will remain in his role as England Netball’s head of officiating, and will be at the forefront of ensuring that the sport continues on the right path in terms of its inclusiveness and development.
6:15 Look back at the highlights of the 2019 Vitality Netball World Cup final, which Burgess officiated
In July, Burgess took charge of his third Netball World Cup final, but one of his most memorable moments of the competition actually happened off court.
“I’ve been really lucky myself to have quite a few accolades from this sport, but one of the most valuable experiences that happened to me was at the recent Netball World Cup,” reflected Burgess.
“I had a 13-year-old girl come up and ask me for a photo. She said to me, ‘I want to be an umpire, I want to be just like you, and you’re a role model to me’.
“That a 13-year-old girl has a middle-aged man as her role model… I think that in itself speaks volumes.
“I’m not the only man involved in netball. There are a dozen male umpires, and there are countless coaches and men’s players throughout this country. That inclusiveness for men’s [netball] is coming but at the moment though, England Netball is funded for women’s and girls’ participation.”
“I certainly think that from our point of view, the way in which officials themselves interact with netballers, it’s not a ‘them and us’ situation. We don’t ever stand there and say, ‘without us, you can’t play the game’ and likewise, without them, we can’t do our role.
“Officials, players, coaches and everyone involved in netball, they really are allies to producing this massive sport that’s on the rise. It’s a sport that’s breaking boundaries that it hasn’t done before and getting to people who haven’t seen it before.”
As Burgess takes time away from officiating to support his own family, 19 umpires have been selected for the 2020 Vitality Netball Superleague season – and five of them are men.
This figure may not be 50/50, but it is only set to grow as those individuals flourish and Burgess himself potentially returns for more.