“A big thing for rounders is nostalgia, that and it’s very social. It is competitive but it’s not all about competition”
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
“I feel quite lucky, I’ve always worked in sports. Always played sports,” explains 43-year-old Natalie Justice-Dearn as we discuss her recent appointment as CEO of Rounders England and this year’s Rainbow Laces campaign.
“I played football from being a young child,” Natalie tells DIVA. “Yet, in the 80s, girl’s football was not something people did. One story I remember very clearly is being in primary school where the school would separate so-called boys’ games from girls’ games in PE. The boy’s would go off and play football while we were lucky not be kept inside because it was ‘too cold.’
“After that, my parents wrote a letter to the school to ask, ‘Can Natalie play football for the boy’s team?” Shortly afterwards, we were all summoned into the headteacher’s office where my parents got a roasting: ‘How dare they encourage their daughter to play a boys’ game!’
“I can remember sitting at the back of that room thinking, this is so wrong, and that’s what probably gave me this drive [for women’s sports]. It made me want to play football even more.”
Thanks to people like Natalie, many things have changed for the better when it comes to women’s participation in sport. However, according to recent Stonewall research, four in 10 LGBTQI people still think, “public sporting events aren’t welcoming.”
Rainbow Laces, a yearly campaign led by Stonewall, aims to raise awareness and make change so that every person feels welcome in sport and this year, more sports than ever are taking part across the three-week campaign – and Rounders England are just one of those.
Rounders: The “best kept secret”
After university, Natalie worked in football development at the FA, in British cycling – where she established the Breeze Network women’s cycling initiative – and in British triathlon before moving into her current position at Rounders England where she aims to “grow the sport” and let more people, particularly women and LGBTQI people, know what’s out there.
“I feel very lucky to have had a career in sports, especially around participation, because that’s what I’m most passionate about. When I was approached to apply for my role with Rounders England, I had absolutely no idea that Rounders was played by so many people. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is the best kept secret!’
“There are 700 teams throughout the country, which is amazing. And lots are made up of women. Because it’s a mixed sport, it’s very attractive to women and everyone has such a strong affinity for the sport, everyone always says, ‘Ah, I loved Rounders at school!’
“And crucially, the sport is so accessible. You don’t need a lot of money to play it and so many people love it because its social. My goal is to grow the sport and make more people aware of what’s already out there for them – especially this Rainbow Laces season.”
Natalie on why rounders is so special to many…
“A big thing is about nostalgia. It’s been played for generations and that is key. Rounders as a team game is very social, it is competitive, but it’s not all about competition. At the moment, people look for things that they love doing and that’s not competitive – Rounders can be as competitive as you want it to be. It’s also a chance to meet up with friends or make new friends and right now, I think that’s what people are looking for.”
On rounders as being open to all…
“That’s definitely the key, and it’s cross generational as well. In that sense, the barrier is not there – all you need is a ball, a bat, and some posts. It can be played by everybody. We also have an England team who are highly skilled. It’s great to watch; it’s fast and skill based.”
As a safe space for LGBTQI people…
“There is a strong LGBTQI community in rounders. Anybody can play and that lends itself really nicely to the LGBTQI community and what they are looking for in a sporting activity – especially if you’ve not felt comfortable in sports in the past. You just haven’t got the same barriers with rounders in that way.”
Only reading DIVA online? You’re missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, support queer content and buy the latest issue. It’s pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.