Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘MANSPLAINING?’ Jo-Anne Polak joins Football Canada board of directors

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As Jo-Anne Polak talked to a group of teenagers at Carleton University during the U18 Women’s National Tackle Football Championship a year ago, she really connected when she spoke about her love of football and how she has evolved far beyond the “mansplaining” that takes place when a guy tries to discuss football with her.

The young female football players lapped up her words as the women’s football trailblazer, the first female general manager in pro sports (with the Ottawa Rough Riders from 1989-1991), talked about how much football means to her.

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And now, Polak, senior vice-president of corporate and employee communications for Canada Post, has joined the Football Canada board of directors. Her term will go through 2026.

Looking back at her involvement at the U18s, Polak says she was asked to do a coin toss and speak at the tournament banquet. But, it turned into so much more.

We’ll let Polak take it from there: “When they asked, I was like, Yeah, of course.’ I never get asked to speak at something like that. I went to the first game, did the coin toss and I was hanging with the girls. People were introducing me. ‘This is Jo-Anne Polak, she was the former general manager, trailblazer, woman in a man’s role, blah, blah, blah.’ The girls were very polite, but they could not have been less interested. They’re like, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m listening to somebody my grandmother’s age.’

“I came home and thought, ‘I have to really rethink my speech (for the banquet), talking about what it was like back then will land like a ton of bricks.’ I threw out what I was going to say. I thought, ‘What do we have in common? They love football, they’ve made the commitment to play tackle football even though it’s all in men’s equipment — the odds are stacked against them.’

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“So I went in and said, ‘OK, you’re expecting grandma to talk about the old days, I’m not going to talk about that. I just have to say one thing, I love football. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and it’s the last thing I think about before I go to bed.’

“I just talked football with those girls, the whole time it was all about football. It was about the positions they play, it had nothing to do with the history. We had such a good time.

“To watch those young women who were so passionate about tackle (last year), I was blown away. They were marvelling at the complexity and depth of the sport. You see them get it and they’re amazed, they really do fall in love with football.”

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And, yes, they talked about “mansplaining.”

Polak, as it turns out, has spent hours and hours and hours watching what happens on the football field, gaining a thorough understanding of not only the game, but how it works, position by position. Yeah, so she knows football.

Said Polak: “Those girls listened as I went on about how much I love football. I’m sure they were thinking, ‘Somebody is talking to us.’ What happens, and they all told me this, is when women start to talk football, you get mansplained.

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“I’ve been at almost every single game with the Redblacks and the Rough Riders and the Renegades, the same with the Buffalo Bills. I live and breathe football, but still I get mansplained all the time. There’s nothing worse than watching a man try to explain football to a woman. Some of them are using it as an opportunity to show off. And you’re thinking, ‘Man, do you really think I’m an idiot?’ So (the girls and I) had a lot in common. I loved everything about that experience.”

So, how about Football Canada and joining its board of directors, how did that happen?

“I’ve never been on a board before; this is my first time. I thought that’s something you do when you retire and I don’t plan to retire anytime soon,” Polak said. “(At last summer’s Canadian championship), Jim Mullin (president of Football Canada), came up to me and said; ‘Would you ever be interested in serving on the board of directors?’

“Before he even got it out, I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, someday if we have a position.’ I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I would.’ He called a couple of weeks ago and said there was a position open.

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“I think it had everything to do with that speech last July. I remember back then thinking, ‘Could there be a better night than talking football with a whole bunch of young people who love football as much as I do?

“I talked to (Canada Post) HR, I talked to my CEO, I wanted to make sure there’s no conflict here. (My CEO) was all in, he’s so supportive. He knows it’s going to take time, but he also understands I’m somewhat obsessive about football.”

“I’m in a different place in my life right now. I couldn’t love this sport more. I know what is required of a board of directors. I know because I have worked with four great boards over the course of my career and I know what a board of directors is supposed to be versus what a bad board of directors looks like. I come in with a with a healthy understanding of the governance aspect of what a board of directors is supposed to be.”

Polak is all about the giving back; if she can in some way make a difference, that’s what she’s there for.

“I really believe the sport is at a big crossroads,” she said. “The emergence of flag football is huge. There’s no reason why flag football can’t compete with soccer. None. Football right now is such a monster in terms of eyeballs. Everybody really believes there is lots of potential and lots of growth, especially at the amateur level.”

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