FROM BRUM TO BOSTON
As something different to include for this edition, M00R5 caught up with old university friend Ruth Matta, one of Britain’s top American Football players. Yes, you read that correctly – Ruth is probably the most celebrated British athlete in her sport that you’ve never heard of. Until now.
For readers who didn’t meet you from adding a random Sociology module to their timetable at Durham University in 2009, nor watch you playing American Football in the British leagues in the early 2010s, could you tell us a little bit about who you are and where you come from?
I’ll keep this factual. Just turned 32. Grew up in Northfield, South Birmingham. Studied Sociology at Durham and later completed my Mental Health Nursing degree back in Birmingham. I’ve been a qualified mental health nurse now for about 5 years. Sport is my life. I currently play American Football for the Birmingham Lions, Great Britain and last year played for the Boston Renegades in America. I also have 2 one-eyed cats.
What were your first experiences of sport growing up in Birmingham? I remember girls playing on my brother’s boys’ football teams in the early 00s due to there being a lack of girls teams around Birmingham at the time, or them having to play with their brother’s pick of club, at his comfort level, because it was easier on parents. Thinking back to the 90s, how easy was it then for girls to get into stuff like organised team sport?
As a girl in the 90s my opportunities to play sport were very limited. In primary school I was told I couldn’t join the school football team because I was girl, despite being better than a lot of the boys in the playground. I could only play netball while the boys were driven off to the football fields. I competed in whatever sports I could, but my options were limited due to having a vagina.
For secondary school I went to an all-girls Catholic school, so my sporting options didn’t improve. Sports were practically the lowest priority in an all-girls Catholic school. We didn’t have a football team and my only options were netball, hockey and athletics. Tennis if we were lucky enough to have a summer. I had no idea if any girls’ football teams existed and this was before the time of Google. I wrote to John Gregory, the Aston Villa manager at the time, asking if they had any teams and I was thrilled when they got back to me with the opportunity to play for the Villa. It used to take me an hour and a half one way on the bus to get to training, but it was my only opportunity to play football that I was aware of.
As a teenager, you played women’s football for West Bromwich Albion. What was that like as an experience? In many ways, given your subsequent sporting success, would it be fair for readers to consider/pigeon-hole you as being part of the Karen Carney breakthrough generation, just destined for a different team sport?
Not sure I’d float my name alongside Karen Carney although we did play against her Blues side in a final once. Our sports are at such different stages that I find it hard to draw any comparison between us really. Without the funding and coverage to professionalise American Football I even struggle to see myself as a serious athlete despite what I’ve achieved.
Playing for West Bromwich was a great experience and I’m still in touch with some of my teammates from back then. It was my first real experience of playing at a senior level and really opened up my life to competitive sport as a woman. I really enjoyed being able to play football alongside other women who had followed their passion despite the lack of opportunities available. It was actually comforting to know that I wasn’t the only girl to enjoy playing
football and there were many more women around just like me. Finally I wasn’t the odd one out and I had finally found a like-minded circle of friends. I was no longer abnormal for playing football.
Sports weren’t readily accessible to girls when I was growing up and I really had to make a concerted effort to get myself involved. With each sport I’ve played I’ve always wonder just how much better I could have been if given the opportunity to play in my formative years. I’m often frustrated with the view that boys are ‘naturally’ better at sports. Boys are given far more opportunities to condition themselves for physical activity which lead to a more developed skill set when it comes to the key elements of playing sport. If girls were given the same playing field and encouragement as boys at a young age, I think we’d see a huge difference in women’s sports. When looking at women’s sport I think it’s important to recognise the different starting position from that of our male counterparts. Luckily, I was allowed to indulge in any activities as a child at home. I’d kick and throw a ball against my house for hours and would ride my bike around my garden. I learnt how to use my body and I believe that because of this I was able to take to sports and build up my skillset. Because of this I was labelled a ‘tomboy’ when all I was really doing was doing what I enjoyed. I never understood why activities and interests were viewed and determined in relation to my gender.
Are these questions already full of horrendous and offensive stereotypes that betray my lack of meaningful
Actually not at all. I’d always rather people asked questions. Rarely do people take women’s sport seriously and I’ve often sensed a sceptical view of our skills and abilities talking about playing rugby and other more traditionally masculine sports. Dialogue is always good.
Whilst at university, you represented Durham in rugby and cricket (feel free to correct me and add football, too – it was a long time ago and even trying to remember people’s names gives me information overload these days). As well as helping spawn the highly successful Durham WFC side who play Championship football these days (currently top, in fact), Durham Uni also has a rightful reputation as one of the top institutions across a number of sports, and is one of four university clubs which technically count as first-class county cricket sides. What was your experience of university sport like? How easy was it to pick up new sports and end up representing the first teams?
At Durham I started off playing for the uni football team. I did dabble with the uni cricket team but if I’m honest I was pretty rubbish at that. I decided to try out rugby and soon fell in love with the sport. Luckily, I took to it pretty well and I ended up playing for the uni team. For me playing rugby was one of the best decisions of my life. It gave me so much more confidence as a person and I was surrounded by a great bunch of women who accepted me as I was. It was a safe space for me to come out as gay and no-one cared. This was incredibly empowering. All that mattered was your character. We transgressed so many normalised ideas of what it was to be a woman. Even something so simple as fancy dress on a night out. In society the usual trend for women is to maintain female attractiveness. However, with rugby that wasn’t necessarily important anymore. The focus was to just enjoy ourselves, even if we looked completely ridiculous (similar to the freedom I presume men experience). I had a safe space to escape the male gaze and still find acceptance among my peers. It’s not that you couldn’t focus on being attractive, there was just there was no pressure to do this and it was very much your own choice.
Jumping ahead, your sporting career has taken you to the USA, where college sports are a huge deal and attract large crowds and funding packages. Colleges are also required by law to provide the same standard of facilities and investment to men and women in each sporting category – often cited as one of the reasons that the US Soccer women’s team has been so hugely successful. Any thoughts on how the system works over there, as someone currently an American sportsperson?
I observed a massive difference in America when it came to sports. Their whole culture is geared around sports and people are absorbed into it. In England sports are always an extra-curricular activity that the child has to opt for, when I was growing up anyway. I really had to make a concerted effort to get myself involved. In the States however sport just seems like a fundamental part of life that is ingrained into the Americans and is always actively encouraged. They have a competitive mind-set and attitude that seems to infiltrate every aspect of their lives and often gives them an edge and drives their development in sport. Even if these sports are still potentially gendered, young girls participate more in sports and learn a lot of the fundamental skills and co-ordination that can later lead them to transition to other sports at a later stage.
You continued with rugby after your studies. Who did you play for?
I played for Camp Hill back in Birmingham. They played in the division below the Premiership back then but unfortunately the women’s team have now dissolved. I currently play for Moseley which I have to juggle between my commitments to American Football.
How did this lead you into American Football?
One of my Camp Hill rugby teammates messaged me asking if I wanted to play in a non-contact flag football tournament. I dismissed this instantly as I had no desire to play American sports, let alone play non-contact ones. She later offered a kitted taster session for full-contact American Football, so I appeased her with no real intention of going back again. Six years down the line here I am, still on the fence.
You played for the invincibly successful Birmingham Lions, winning six national championships in six years. Wow. The GB women’s national team also boast you as one of the nation’s most-capped internationals. What does it feel like to represent the place you’re from at international tournaments?
The idea of representing my country in sport was a distant pipe dream for me. I always felt like I had missed the boat with my sporting career, with investment in women’s football coming too late in the day for myself. I never realistically imagined myself singing the national anthem but it’s an achievement that I hold dear and will never get old. Hopefully I have many more anthems ahead of me.
I’m also incredibly proud to play for my home team of Birmingham. I was born and bred in Birmingham and see it as a big part of my identity. It may not be the most desirable place to come from for some, but I’ll never shy away from it.
You are a European silver-medallist, finished fourth at a world championship where you were awarded most valuable player for the Bronze Medal match, and have been reviewed by my co-editor, PsychoMouse, also a club ‘gridiron’ player in the UK, as “very talented” from the times he’s seen you play. That’s pretty incredible going, isn’t it? Which of those has been the biggest honour so far – or is that something else?
The biggest honour so far would have to be becoming a National Champion in the US with Boston and being named as the MVP in the Championship final. It’s currently the highest level I can play at so to achieve that in my first season over there is pretty incredible. I was also named in the All American first team which I found amusing considering I was British. It felt good to challenge them at their own game and show them what a rugby player from Birmingham could do.
You were picked up to play major league football in the USA – the Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem of the sport – for Boston Renegades in 2019. You’re a championship-winning pro-footballer in the United States. What has that journey been like for you?
My season with Boston was just incredible. It was daunting at first. Having to fit in with a bunch of Americans and prove myself to them. I was a nobody over there and the nerves all came back again. For me I felt it was very much sink or swim. The Boston team were fantastic. So many great athletes and coaches, well-organised and professionally run. Focus was on perfection and every dropped catch, missed block or fumble was unacceptable. That drive, dedication and focus was just fantastic to be a part of.
I think it’s worth noting however that I wasn’t picked to play. I sought out the opportunity to play in the US and this scenario seems to parallel my other previous sporting opportunities. I had to spend my life savings and sacrifice career opportunities to dedicate my time at being the best athlete I could be. My dream would to be a paid professional athlete so I could focus everything on development. However, this is not the case and 13hr shifts are still a must to pay the bills alongside juggling my training outside of work.
What was the biggest culture shock about playing in the USA?
What surprised me most was how even in America women’s football is just as marginal as it is over here. No-one knows it exists outside of the women’s football world. When you mention it to people, they always question whether it’s full-padded, full-contact. Unfortunately, people are more aware of lingerie football which still insists on the objectification of women. One woman in America actually laughed in my face when I told her why I was over there. I’m not sure whether it was women playing full-contact football, the fact that I’m very small or that I was British.
Is there anything you miss about British sporting culture that you think American sports would benefit from adopting?
I have to admit I’ve always struggled with the culture of American Football or my perception of it anyway. It’s all so hyped up and loud which is like the complete opposite to me. I’d class myself as very traditionally British and so prefer to keep a lid on my emotions. The idea of whooping and high fiving everybody makes me die inside a little.
As a major league footballer in Boston, you must enjoy almost godlike power and status. What’s your favourite way to exploit such immeasurable potency?
I think my power and status is mainly fuelled by my British accent. The Americans really are obsessed. One woman at Dunkin Donuts insisted on shaking my hand because I was British. With my teammates I also ended up striking a deal. For each touchdown I scored I’d receive a can of overpriced imported baked beans ($2.49! per can). Against our closest rivals, the DC Divas, this doubled to 2 cans per touchdown. I’ve still got a few cans left in Boston waiting for my return.
Which athletes have inspired you the most? Who in your sport would you pick out as the most iconic figures, or role models for yourself and others?
I tend to be inspired my any female athletes that compete in a traditionally male environment. It can be daunting when you’re outnumbered and feel the constant pressure to justify your presence in the male arena. Competing at the highest levels are tough enough, never mind the additional institutional and societal barriers that those women have had to overcome.
Within American Football I’d definitely say Barry Sanders. He was a running back for Detroit Lions in the 90s, but I only found out about him when I started playing. He was an incredible player and so exciting to watch. He was also quite small in height for an NFL player so that definitely endeared me to him more. He wasn’t a flashy player, caught up in his own ego. He was actually quite the opposite and disliked media attention. I suppose I see him as an incredibly talented play who had a lot of integrity. A characteristic not often seen with major sports stars nowadays.
Solihull Moors player-coach and eternal 18-year-old boy in the collective cultural memory of the city of Birmingham, Darren Carter, is a big fan of American sports and their coaching and management techniques. Is there any golden nugget of information you’d like me to pass on next time I bump into him in the bar and he’s forced to nod politely along while I compare adapting American methods into the conservative world of English football to adapting lessons from continental philosophy into the conservative world of academic History at British universities?
I’ve found the addition of film study incredibly useful in American Football. We used it all the time in America for training, game prep and review. It’s fundamental in learning and improving as players. I’ve never used it previously in other sport but would definitely recommend it. The ability to review your performance and realise you don’t look how you feel like on the pitch is an incredible useful tool. It’s also very useful in creating highlight videos too as an additional bonus.
You’ve been quoted on the feeling of freedom you get for being defined by your ability as a sportsperson on the pitch, rather than your gender or any other label or factor. How important do you feel it is to feel free to express yourself as a player? Is this something women’s sports tend to better facilitate than their male counterparts?
For me, the female identity is governed by multiple demands and expectations. Whilst the traditional female societal expectations have widened and diversified, there is still great pressure to conform to certain standards, especially those imposed upon the female body. I suppose that quote was referring to the freedom I feel when playing. I’m all covered up in my pads and helmet and people are purely focusing on my abilities on the pitch. I don’t think that men have the same issue as they occupy and define the original expression of the sport.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote about how women in society often occupied the position of ‘the Other’ and I would definitely say this was the case within sports. Men are often automatically assumed as the default position and for a woman to enter this arena she must pass a series of tests or benchmarks to justify her transgression of cultural norms. Men have previously remarked that women’s football just isn’t as good as the men’s game and women aren’t as fast or strong as the men. The focus of women’s sport is often a comparison to that of the men’s game and how it compares. People tend to focus on these comparisons rather than appreciating the game in itself in its own right.
I remember talking to you in Durham, perhaps during the 2010 World Cup, about how you felt you had to wear an England shirt to watch games at the pub, just to defuse any issues that others might provoke about your appearance, etc. As I’ve grown older and understood my sexuality better, and been involved with LGBTQ+ organisations and issues in sport, it’s led me down a path of thinking more and more about structural barriers to participation in sport for all sorts of people, in football right down through non-league and grassroots levels. I’ve seen racial abuse directed at players and friends, seen players and fans openly expressing homophobia, so on and so forth, and there being a sort of knee-jerk instinct from lots of people to respond to criticism by acting as cultural gatekeepers of what football is, or should be – or what fan culture is, or should be – and what is or isn’t important. You’re also someone who has worked in mental health, alongside your sport. I guess, where this question has been leading in a very roundabout way, is what sort of importance do you place on being free to be open about who you are in your everyday life, and not being defined by it? What can sport do for people in particular? Are we any closer, with everything currently going on in the world, to people getting judged primarily on their actions and character rather than other people’s definitions of who they are and where they should be?
For me sport has been very liberating with regards to my identity and confidence within the world. Sport has been the place where there’s been a place for me regardless of my appearance. You end up mixing with a range of people, all with different life experiences and with whom you wouldn’t necessarily mix with. Sport strips you of all other labels and focuses purely on your ability and work rate on the pitch.
When an individual is unable to express their true nature this inevitably stifles personal development and the individuals’ satisfactions in life and even sanity. From my experience, suppressed desires and emotions only lead to unhappiness and struggle. The liberation and relief I experienced when I found the safe space of rugby was so important for me. Without that I truly doubt whether I’d still be here.
What do you think of how the Villa have been doing lately, or are you too big to follow such mediocrity now you’re objectively a more successful athlete than the entire Villa family, including the sainted Jack Grealish?
Unfortunately, I’ve fallen out of touch with football since I found rugby. I still keep an eye out for the Villa and watch whenever I can but I’m nowhere near as clued up about them like when I was younger.
Were you aware Villa lost a derby at home in the WSL the other weekend…? How much do you follow the WSL, or women’s football in England more generally? How much do you think the sport has changed since you were involved as a youngster?
It’s fantastic to see how far women’s football has come since I was younger. I never really expected to see that in my lifetime. I don’t really follow it as I’ve generally lost touch with football, but my partner does so I have some sense of what’s going on.
I love to see young girls now dressed up in football kit with their parents taking them to football training. I used to be that girl, but I was usually the odd one out. Now it’s becoming more of a norm and acceptable for girls to play. Visibility is key. The more people and young girls see women playing the more mental barriers are broken down and the more options available as to how you want to define yourself as what it is to be a woman.
Finally, what’s next for Ruth Matta? Are there new heights your sporting career can scale? Or are you planning to retire soon to Sutton Coldfield with some kittens a nice pouffe to put your feet up, and a jumbo-sized reinforced trophy cabinet?
Well I already have 2 lovely cats so I’m wondering whether I’m already part way there. I’m keen to continue to head across to Boston each season and see where that takes me. The next stage would hopefully to be paid to play and to see women’s American Football actually become professional. To be able to dedicate all my time to my sport would be the dream. Not having to work alongside my sporting commitments would be fantastic and you’d see a massive improvement in the game as we have seen already with the professionalization of other sports previously.
I’ve also got my sights set on one day winning Gold in the Europeans with Great Britain at some point. It’s escaped us on 2 occasions so far with the last one being heart-breakingly close. I’m determined to bring success to Great Britain, and I do believe we’ll achieve it someday.