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How Mary Earps seized a moment and ‘changed the world’ in 2023

When the newly crowned Sports Personality of the Year was told her kit would not be available for sale during the Women’s World Cup, the Lionesses goalkeeper sparked a movement that led to something bigger

Jamie Braidwood
Tuesday 19 December 2023 22:14 GMT
Women’s football star Mary Earps wins BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2023

It’s perhaps important to point out that as Mary Earps won the Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award on Tuesday night, her biggest on-field moment of 2023 was saving a penalty in a World Cup final that England lost, a stop that is best remembered for Earps yelling “F*** OFF” as the Lionesses scrambled forwards in search of a late equaliser. When it came to the end-of-year montages at the SPOTY ceremony, the BBC were faced with a dilemma, in that the goalkeeper’s iconic reaction to denying Jenni Hermoso’s spot-kick was too X-rated to be broadcast before the watershed.

It should have be shown in all its glory, not just because it was brilliant, but because it encapsulates the story of how Earps made 2023 her own and why, after years of women’s sport being ignored, disrespected, and undervalued, that the time had come for one big, collective outcry: a massive “F*** OFF” to inequality in football and where women are consistently reminded of their place within it.

Enough was enough and, like her timing to save Spain’s penalty in Sydney, Earps judged her rallying cry to perfection. Impossible to overlook now, the goalkeeper tapped into a movement and seized a moment: the 30-year-old’s response to Nike’s decision not to sell her shirt during this summer’s Women’s World Cup sparked a wave of support and led to something extraordinary. Those England goalkeeper kits Nike didn’t believe were worth selling? They sold out within minutes when eventually released before Christmas. That simply does not happen for goalkeepers. Or at least it didn’t, until Earps spoke out.

Earps was underestimated, her platform unrecognised, and how far along in the journey to becoming a national treasure she had already travelled underappreciated. Through her performances for Manchester United last season and in helping steer England towards Euros glory in 2022, Earps was recognised as the world’s best goalkeeper but it was not a straightforward journey. Her honesty and openness in revealing how close she came to quitting football – of the “dark place” she once knew and how she was “picked off the kitchen floor” and told to keep going – resonated further with an audience who were taken in by Earps’ character and personality, of the dancing and wiggling hips on the press conference table after winning the Euros.

'It's coming home': singing Lionesses gatecrash post-match press conference

Throughout it all, the message from Earps has been to “be unapologetically yourself” – then, at the World Cup, her role became much bigger than being goofy and doing dances on TikTok. Earps admitted recently that she didn’t know whether to use her voice when she first became aware of the issue, given the attention it would create, the additional pressure it could lead to, the perception that each goal that flew into England’s net would be assessed differently after being so daring as to ask for more as a female footballer. Or, if anyone would even care. She was a goalkeeper, after all.

But in Australia, England captain Millie Bright told her that she didn’t understand why she was unable to buy her young niece an ‘Earps 1’ jersey and the penny dropped: perhaps in previous years an oversight by one of the biggest companies in the world would have been brushed aside but it was now more important than just her. When Earps spoke out on the eve of the World Cup, calling Nike’s decision “hurtful” and “hugely disappointing”, the sense of injustice was felt not just by the goalkeeper’s union, but by a wider group of people – those who recognised the feeling of having to settle for less.

Earps roars at her Lionesses teammates after saving Hermoso’s penalty in the World Cup final (Getty)

It led to a petition, set up by a 16-year-old from Northamptonshire, demanding Nike to make the England goalkeeper kits available to purchase during the World Cup. The movement started small but was galvanised by Earps’ performances in rescuing the Lionesses, first in their nervy opening win against Haiti, then as England defeated Nigeria on penalties to survive a last-16 shootout. As support grew for the Lionesses ahead of the final, the petition had reached almost 100,000 signatures, the disbelief at Nike’s error widespread. The story was international news.

Yet, when England returned from the World Cup, Earps maintained its momentum. Nike, not embarrassed enough by the debacle, said a solution wouldn’t be found until “future tournaments”. After a limited edition kit was eventually released in October and snapped up in seconds, Earps pushed for more. And when Nike finally committed to a full sale, putting up the equivalent number of goalkeeper shirts from a men’s World Cup, the jerseys were again sold out within minutes following “unprecedented” demand.

“I can’t thank the public enough for their support and, really, we wouldn’t be in this position without it,” Earps has since said. “We’ve really changed the world, so thank you to everyone.”

England’s goalkeeping shirts were sold out within minutes after ‘unprecedented’ demand (Getty)

Her name is now cheered louder than any other Lionesses player when the team line-ups are announced. It helps that she combines fierce competitiveness with genuine authenticity. Perhaps being close to the end makes Earps more real, her struggles to make a living in the professional game and the continued fight for recognition even once becoming the best in the world has won her a legion of supporters. Earps was close to quitting football – believing she had “reached [her] limits” – before Sarina Wiegman took charge in September 2021. It was the moment her life and career were transformed.

Now kids can wear her England shirt and, while there were nominees up for the SPOTY award who won bigger prizes than Earps in 2023, no one combined performance on the pitch with achievement off it as well as she has. So show the save: show the moment where Earps stopped a penalty in the World Cup final and then released her frustration at a game that wasn’t fair towards her. Show how she used it to make a better world, all while being unapologetically herself. Show what resilience and inspiration looks like in sport, and then try to tell anyone it’s not what the Sports Personality of the Year should be about.

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