Profile: Celia Brackenridge

June 22, 2007

When Celia Brackenridge decided in the sixth form to go to PE college rather than university, she was summoned to see her aghast headmistress. She had taken A levels in music, biology and geography, but as an enthusiastic athlete, she was determined to study PE.

“I think I was deemed a failure,” she says.

However, she did go on from the college to Cambridge University, where, as well as making the England lacrosse team, she gained a first-class degree, as did two ­other former
PE college ­colleagues.

“It consolidated our status, that we weren’t just thick athletes,” she says. “I took great delight in writing to the headmistress and saying I’d got a first — could she put me on the honours board? But I don’t think they did.” Her academic career, however, speaks for itself.

After a year in teaching, she be­came a lecturer in 1974. She is now chair in sport sciences in Brunel University’s School of Sport and Education and an expert in sport sociology.

She has been prominent in raising the status of what was seen as one of the original ­Mickey Mouse subjects. She remembers the de­vel­op­ment of human movement studies being greeted by a letter to The Times: “Whatever next, coffee studies?”

She believes the scepticism about intellectual rigour goes back to the Cartesian concept of a split between mind and body. “It’s nonsense. Anybody who performs at a high level has to be extremely able, to have a critical mind and be able to contend with multitasking. That’s why it’s not unusual to find people in politics and academic life who were athletes.”

Her international career made Professor Brackenridge aware and critical of the lack of media coverage in women’s sport. She was instrumental in setting up the UK Women’s Sports Foundation in the mid-1980s, a lobby group she describes as “a Greenpeace for women’s sport”.
Her research into discrimination and harassment led her to study sexual, physical and emotional abuse in sport. Her research was controversial.

“People thought I was a ­trouble-maker and trampling on paradise. It was the same in the Church — people could not bear to believe this [abuse] could happen because these were places you went to for sanctuary.”

The scale of the problem is still un­known because until now there has been no funding for research into its prevalence. Professor Brackenridge’s research has been qualitative, based on the snowball method of one interviewee leading to the next one. When she sought support from the former Sports Minister the late Tony Banks, he said he had to know how big the problem was before he could ask Parliament for money. “I said, I can’t tell you because you won’t let me do a prevalence study.”

She is delighted that the NSPCC children’s charity is now funding quantitative research, which will compare the prevalence of abuse in sport with the NSPCC’s general findings.

Professor Brackenridge be­lieves that only a tiny minority of coaches are abusers, but that it is essential to consider child protection at all levels of sport. An elite squad can become a surrogate family, she says, and this can mirror dysfunctional families, particularly with a patriarchal coaching figure.

“Sexual harassment and abuse are to do with the coach being all-powerful and not being able to be challenged. There is also a false belief that someone who is technically competent is morally competent.”

Her work has influenced pol­icy abroad, including in Norway, Australia and Canada, and last autumn she led an expert panel for the International Olympic Committee.

She is also concerned to combat physical and emotional abuse, unashamedly crusading to ensure that young athletes are not used as “medal fodder” for the London 2012 Olympics. She warns of the danger of athletes being put under undue pressure, swept up in the desire for Britain to do well, with the Government itself setting the goal of being fourth in the medal table.

“In some contexts, people look on it as the price to be paid, the ‘no pain, no gain’ ideology. Some people have normalised practices in sport that outside would be seen as abuse, such as very extreme eating regimes and authoritarian behaviour,” she says. “We’re very bad in sport about giving athletes a voice and giving them choices.”

She is an accredited re­searcher with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, which has set up a training course to help coaches understand personal boundaries and to encourage whistle-­blowing.

Professor Brackenridge is dismayed by what she considers the Government’s “obsession” with competitive youth sport. “The core business of schools and university is learning. The core business of PE is learning, not competitive sport. The values in teaching are not the same as in youth sports clubs.”

As a schoolgirl, she not only played lacrosse but was also a county swimmer, a nationally ranked athlete, and a member of the track and field club.

“I had a paradise of choices. I was able to do six or seven different sports, and do them all year round. I think these days that would not be possible or would be much more difficult,” she says.   

Bedford PE College and Cambridge University

as an assistant PE teacher at Bournemouth School for Girls

persuading sport scientists and sport practitioners that their work is mutually reinforcing

is the pretence that research is value-free

I hope to have established a global dialogue about how sport can stimulate learning and address social inequalities; designed and built a zero-carbon house in the countryside; become closely reacquainted with my cello and settled into happy retirement with my partner

What does a feminist squash ladder look like?
The steps are side by side instead of above each other.

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