Julia Hobbs – sales manager and American football player – on leading a sports league that is 95% men
As a sales manager and President of HKAFL, Julia spends much of her time outside of work organising the American Football League in Hong Kong. It’s an interesting position in that Julia is one of few people in sports leadership in Hong Kong who is a woman overseeing a sports league that is 95% men.
We spoke with Julia, who shared with us her experiences in American Football, as both player and organiser. She will also be one of our coaches at our upcoming “WISE Start With Sports” Mothers and Daughters Sports Day on 10 March 2018!
(This interview has been edited and condensed for length.)
How did you get into American Football in Hong Kong?
When I moved to Hong Kong, I wanted to get involved in sports. I tried a few different sports initially but those didn’t stick. Then while visiting family in the US, my work contract was extended and as I waited for my flight to come back I thought to myself, “I need to play some sport this year and I really want to join a team somehow. What sport is there for me?”
So I thought of American Football. I’ve always enjoyed it and played it in college and in middle school. I played touch football with my siblings and it was never something that I took seriously. In middle school I played on my school team – which was all boys and myself –and in college I played intramural flag football on a mixed team. I also did set up a Powder Puff League and some games for the sororities to play in. So for me, it was always more about the community aspect than it was about the actual football.
With that prior experience, I thought playing American Football in Hong Kong could be fun. So I looked up the sport and found an online post that said the American Flag Football season was just starting up and they were looking for players and that both men and women were welcome to join. It sounded like there was an equal distribution of gender and so I contacted the organizer and thought, “let’s just see what happens.”
I landed into HK, checked my messages and the organiser had replied and told me to join so we could toss the ball around and such. I thought ok, “if I’m going to be in HK for another year I might as well try it out.” So I went … and there were only men. I think there were 5 of them and just me. I didn’t even wear proper shoes; I didn’t take it very seriously but I think they were very excited that a woman was there.
The team was very friendly, and they invited me to join the league and the team. I said sure and I’ve been playing since.
Sunday night league gameYou’ve always been the only or one of few women playing American Football around you. How does that make you feel?
It feels normal. It’s always been that way for me. Women aren’t particularly drawn to football but maybe it was different for me because I’m the youngest of four with two brothers right above me and I think my brothers really influenced me. When my sister went away to school it was my brothers and me, so we watched a lot of football and we’d go to the backyard and toss a football around.
I can see that I am the only woman in the sport and sometimes when I think about it then yes it bothers me. But I also recognize that many young girls aren’t in their backyard playing football. I have to accept the fact that my situation is a bit unusual because my parents put a football in my hand, instead of say, volleyball.
In our League in HK, women score nine points instead of six. It’s a bit controversial but it feels great because I feel I can contribute in some way. When I first started playing, I wasn’t necessarily as good as the boys but I could be helpful to my team because the opponents would try to defend me and I could open up other players or I could score more points! One year we beat the team that had never lost in three years of league history because I scored a touchdown and we won by two points. It felt very good.
You weren’t brought up to think football is a boys’ sport. Sometimes playing sports isn’t about gender but too often we add a gender lens and impose our own constraints that we can’t play certain sports because we aren’t the “right” gender. What are your thoughts about this?
It’s true. Football is an interesting one in particular because it really is only catered to men. The most popular league is the NFL and it’s tackle. I think it’s quite freeing to run someone over or something and it’s unfortunate that society has dictated that women are not supposed to be hitting people or getting into these strained situations where we’re getting quite physical. If that is the accepted thinking from the get-go – that football is a rough sport, that it’s for men – then there really isn’t much opportunity for women to learn about it, let alone to try it. And then maybe women don’t feel there is much need to learn about the sport because it’s such a “man’s sport.”
I think many women don’t even know that flag football exists. And flag football is no contact! It’s just a bunch of people running around. And actually, women are likely to be really good at it. Women are really good at flag football.
What reflections do you have about being the only woman in league?
There certainly was a lot of pressure. Everyone knew and saw me, so I didn’t want to drop or lose the ball. Because not only was I the only woman in the league, but also I was bad at the sport! I felt I had to do justice to women everywhere.
What I have realised is that if you’re not comfortable about men or if you let doubts fester, then you will not jump into a “man’s sport.” It’s much easier to stay playing sports that are catered to women in those situations.
And then of course, when we start working or if we have family and are faced with stresses from these, why would we put ourselves in a situation that is so far out of our comfort zone?
I was lucky in that my upbringing was unique and I am comfortable playing sports with guys.
How do you feel about women getting nine points when they score, compared to men who only get six points? Do you feel that at some point women and men should score the same number of points?
I hope not! To me, if I want more women to play football, I hope they can have the feelings that I had experienced, where I felt “powerful” because I could score more and could contribute in that way. I want women to tackle the challenge of being up for playing American Football, and if giving them the ability to score nine points is the way to do it then I don’t want that to change.
I also know that the nine points forces my team to think more strategically and it makes them want to help me get better at the game. They are more invested in my growth, which I appreciate. I don’t know if it would be the same if I didn’t get nine points.
If it ever becomes 50-50, then I’m sure the scoring will be more equal. When both women and men believe that women can be as good as men at football, then ultimately, yes, everyone should score six points for a touchdown and no one notices what gender scored.
Julia, with the teamYou assumed the post as President of HKAFL less than one year ago. What is it like to be the President in charge of developing the sport in HK where basically your audience is 95% male?
It’s difficult. I don’t think I had completely recognised the corralling that needs to occur. I think about this a lot with my league. Some people want to play once a week for fun, some people have families that they want to go back to after games, and some people play in HK because they played in the US and are looking for a way to keep up with the sport. Then there are some players who are really good, and some who are very dedicated. Having such a wide swathe of people with different commitment levels means that I do a lot of corralling with a lot of organisation that may or may not be appreciated by our community.
And while we have a few more women who play now — which is very exciting — being the woman President of the League does make me feel like a mother to adults. I have to chase people for money and scores; I ask them to do this and that for me, I order jerseys and ask what equipment they need…
There are both bad and good things to being a woman President. For example this past summer we were involved in SummerFest and when the organiser first contacted me, the fact that I am a woman probably made the organiser think, “she’d be more game to organise this.” I think when someone sees a man leading a league, it’s more likely s/he thinks, “he’s really good at Football and that’s why he’s running League.” But when they see a woman leading a league, they think of the woman as an organiser and running the community side of things. In my case, because I do want to build a community, if that is how they see me it’s okay, but I also want them to think that I am a good football player (not that I am).
Have there been any very challenging moments being the President so far?
Laying down the law. That’s been a big one just because the League is casual and I only have so much time to devote to this. I am friends with many of the people in the League and sometimes they don’t see me as the President but as their friend, and getting people to do things or demanding that they do things has not always been easy.
It is difficult for me personally to separate myself from the football banter to say “hey, no, you really need to do this now.”
Completely unrelated to my gender, generally, it’s been a challenge to get people involved. I’ve seen that across many adult leagues across many sports.
Given organising sports in Hong Kong is not easy by any means, why did you take on the challenge to be President?
I cannot not get involved in things; I like to participate. And if it is something I like, I want to get my hands dirty and do it. I love volunteering. I also truly felt that if I didn’t do it, no one would do it and that maybe no one could do it as well as I could (though I don’t know if it’s true!).
The previous president stepped down last spring – he was the one who had founded the League and ran it for seven years – and he deserved to not have to do it anymore. When he sent out an email to see if anyone was interested in taking over, four or so people got back to him and I was one of them. I simply thought, who else was going to do it? I had already been involved in organising and obviously I wanted the League to carry on. Some people who play have no idea how to book fields or pay or know what’s involved, but I felt that because I had some exposure to it already at least I knew how. So I stepped up.
Organising sports is quite a thankless job and many people who play have no idea what effort goes in to make a League successful. There are many free riders in sports organising. And then it’s always the same people who step up to contribute. How do you deal with this?
I’ve thought about this and wondered if we should require participation in organising something, but even that itself requires organising. And then monitoring and yelling at people and laying down the law … not to mention that people also didn’t sign up to organise events when they signed up for a Recreational League.
People don’t realise that every little bit of contribution can help. I don’t think of it as wanting to be appreciated, but I do wish people knew the amount of work that goes into organising League. So that if I ask for help or a favour – which I don’t think I do often – then they would do it, or at least give me a bit more leniency. When someone asks me why something hasn’t been done then sometimes I have to sit him or her down and explain where I am at right now. Most of the time things are fine, but occasionally when I’ve dropped the ball on something then I think “oh no!”
You now have six women playing in your League. What hopes do you have for the future of American Football for women in HK?
I would love to see more girls playing sports in HK. When I walk into Happy Valley Recreation Ground on Sunday nights, I mostly see men. Women are out jogging with headphones or at yoga. I work in the same building as Pure Yoga and that’s where all the women are!. I generally see far fewer women playing sports in HK.
I would simply love for women to know what American Football is. I would love to have girls as comfortable with an American football as with a soccer ball. The most important is to be aware that it exists. Women and girls can try it and realize that it’s not for them; that is okay. American Football isn’t for everyone but it saddens me that women aren’t given a chance to learn about football or to like football. And so they don’t.
So I would love to see a girl tossing around a football with her father or mother on weekends. That does of course require an education in Hong Kong of what American Football is. And that is what we do at HKAFL, as we want to promote the sport, to expose the sport and facilitate people’s learning and playing. Of course, if a girl comes across American Football and ends up liking the sport, I hope there’s an avenue that we can provide for her to play.
I also have this dream that sometime, we can have an all-women’s team where we get to score 9 points and then we’ll just terrorize the League! I hope more women come and just try the sport! There are so many roles to play and we look for such a diversity of skills, so really, trying is key.
The thing is also in my League we have 130+ men, quite a few of whom are fathers to daughters. And I hope they expose the sport to their daughters! Why can’t we have daddy daughter days around football?
Check out our upcoming Mothers and Daughters Sports Day, “WISE Start With Sports” on 10 March 2018 from 9 – 11am at the AIA Vitality Park by The Observation Wheel!