On The Ball: The grassroots movement for free sanitary products at football grounds
We are often told that modern football has lost all connection with its traditional working-class roots.
Whereas the national game was once the pursuit of working people, it has gone through a gradual gentrification and not-so-gradual commercialisation, and lost part of its soul in the process. It renders the match-going punter less and less important in terms of financial stability, and far less relevant to the culture and everyday running of our clubs.
In such an era of disenfranchisement, it is heartening to hear of cases where football clubs are actually listening to their own supporters, and thus cultivating a community spirit that seemed lost. It is doubly so when the catalyst is a grassroots movement made up of normal folk intent on progressive change and helping those less fortunate.
In Mikaela McKinley, Erin Slaven and Orlaith Duffy, you have three such individuals. They are a group of season ticket holders at Celtic who identified a concern they cared deeply about, and quietly but diligently worked towards a solution. In their case it was the lack of free sanitary products for women and the social taboo around the subject.
Hey! We are Orlaith, Erin and Mikaela. We successfully campaigned for free sanitary product provision @ our own club, Celtic. Now, our goal is for other teams to follow Celtic’s example and get #OnTheBall ⚽️💥 pic.twitter.com/qQtykDw2x0
— On The Baw (@OnTheBaw) June 29, 2018
Some may question how that becomes an issue that football in particular must address. The simple answer is that it doesn't, not specifically anyway. But when you seek to instigate any positive change, you naturally turn to something you have a personal stake in to be at the forefront - especially if it is the central focus of a local community.
Mikaela, Erin and Orlaith are committed to the idea of universal access to vital sanitary products, regardless of income. And it is clearly a pressing concern. Plan International UK have found that one in 10 of girls (14 to 21-year-olds) have been unable to afford sanitary products, whilst 12% have had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues.
Connected through their love of Celtic, the three friends mobilised under the moniker of On The Ball to petition for free sanitary products at Celtic Park. Lacking any real infrastructure or resources, they still managed to amass thousands of signatures from fellow fans backing the initiative. With this considerable mandate, they contacted Celtic.
As Mikaela explains, the online discussion was just as important as the support they garnered:
"We started the petition in March, and contacted the Supporter Liaison Officer at Celtic with our case. It took around three weeks, and by that time we had nearly 3,000 signatures. But I think even more important was the debate that started around it on social media and fan forums.
"I think Celtic probably noticed how many people were talking about it and wanted to find out more, so they asked us to come in for a meeting. We went along and it was with the SLO and Company Secretary. We presented a thoroughly prepared proposal and thankfully they decided to go with it."
Despite positive feedback and plenty of good will, not everyone was behind On The Ball's efforts. Some Celtic fans seemed intent on arguing that tackling period poverty was somehow a bad idea.
"We got a wee bit of the 'No Women At Football' stuff, but also a whole range of arguments like: 'What about razors and shaving foam for men - are you going to start petitioning for that?' and 'Why should women get this paid for them - will it make my season ticket more expensive?'
"We got quite a bit of stick. At the time we were on our way to winning the Double Treble, and there was even people saying: 'Is that not enough? Are these girls still not content? They just want to get free stuff from Celtic Park!' Some of the angry reactions were bizarre."
Another common contention is that if people can afford to go to games, they can afford to buy sanitary products themselves. On The Ball's counter-argument is two-fold: Firstly the make-up of football crowds spans the full range of income brackets, with tickets often given away to people in disadvantaged areas through various foundations and charities.
Secondly, it is a matter of principle. Sanitary products should be free everywhere - it is basic hygiene requirement that should be addressed in the same way that toilet roll and soap are provided as a standard courtesy. Where football leads in making clear that sanitary products are a need not a luxury, the rest of society can hopefully follow.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about On The Ball's grassroots efforts is that they have inspired something of a snowball effect. Since their success at Celtic, seven other clubs have followed suit and provided similar provision. These are: St Roch’s, Tranmere Rovers, West Didsbury & Chorlton, Kilmarnock, Queen of the South, and most recently, Barnsley.
— Hazel (@hackneyhaz) August 18, 2018
What's more, there's something refreshing about On The Ball in that there's no ego involved in maintaining control or ownership of a movement they started. Their intentions are purely altruistic. When I ask how they are rolling out the initiative to other clubs, Mikaela's explains they themselves are not - rather they are focused on empowering others.
"We're not going out blanket messaging every club because we like the idea of empowering fans to get involved themselves, and it demonstrates to the clubs that it's their own fans that want change. It's mostly working-class people who are getting in touch and that's a really important aspect for us. We want to keep it grassroots and organic.
"It really shows you which clubs are in touch with their fan base, and receptive to supporters approaching them with ideas. We've spoken to fans who've sadly had no traction at all with their clubs, whilst others, like Barnsley, have been brilliant and actually got in touch with us. You can tell the relationship they have with their support and it's great to see that."
For anyone interested in getting involved, On The Ball provide an info email with useful guidance from their own experiences, but they try not to deal in specifics about factors like overall cost and implementation, simply because circumstances can vary so markedly from club to club.
Instead they seek to encourage and advise the best they can, and champion cases where change has been successfully implimented. It's clearly important to them to promote these instances, as creating a discussion around menstruation and breaking the taboo is part of what they hope to achieve.
As Mikaela explains, it has been enlightening on a personal level too:
"There's definitely still a stigma around talking about periods and stuff. Even when we first started, a week or two into the campaign I thought it was so weird that we'd been on social media telling people to talk about it and I'd not even mentioned the campaign to my dad yet, because it still felt kinda funny. So I thought, right, I need to do that because it's just ridiculous. I phoned him to explain what we were doing and he said it was great and to send him our page so he could put it on Facebook - just totally normal about it!
"It was also funny when we went to speak to Celtic. At one point, the guys were like 'Aye you're right! I've never spoken to my daughter or my wife about it...' We can see people's brains ticking when we talk about the campaign, and it's because as a society we just don't speak about it."
They're certainly talking about it now, and On The Ball should rightly be held up as a exemplar for fan empowerment. Their passion, tenacity and hard work - even in the face of criticism and blatant misogyny - is reaping rewards and rightly so. The final word goes to Mikaela, who is eager to stress that their success could and should be translated to other causes that need addressing too:
"We just had an idea and went to the club, and made this change. It shows that this kind of change needs to come from the fans. It's not from politicians or counsellors or academics, it's just normal people. If you have an idea or something you want to change, you can do it. If really want something to change, you've got to fight for it."
You can follow On The Ball on Twitter here