Sunday, 30 January 2011

Sexism is society's problem, not football's

I'm sorry that my blogging has been less frequent this week. I'm afraid sometimes life and more pressing commitments get in the way of my good intentions.

It's been a fairly interesting week. Let's kick things off with the story everyone seems to have an opinion on - the row over sexist comments made by Sky pundits Andy Gray and Richard Keys in reference to a female assistant referee.

The official in question is Sian Massey, who has suddenly become a household name. Prior to the Wolves v Liverpool match in which Massey was due to officiate, Gray and Keys were recorded making apparently sexist remarks including making a judgement about her perceived ability: Gray observed that she "did not know the offside rule". Keys added: "Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her."

Well, clearly she does know the offside rule. In fact she knows it better than they do because she allowed Fernando Torres to run on to score Liverpool's first goal when the commentators and a lot of fans within the ground evidently thought him to be offside. It was only after TV replays that we saw exactly how good an official Massey is. She got that one dead right.

More tellingly - but regrettably overlooked by the media - is that prior to the off-camera "joke" at Massey's expense Keys and Gray had already complained that "the game had gone mad" because West Ham United vice-chair Karren Brady had recently written a piece about sexism in football. That Brady's contributions to both football and the business world far exceed their own seems to have passed Keys and Gray by. Their attitudes and prejudices were evident for all to see. This wasn't simply a silly joke blown out of proportion; the unadvised pop at Brady suggests more deeply held convictions than a peculiar belief that only males can comprehend the offside rule. They obviosuly interpret any woman's involvement in football as encroaching on "their" territory - unless, of course, they're working in the snack bar.

We know what happened thereafter. Gray was dismissed and Keys forced to quit after further evidence emerged about their misogynistic behaviour. In Gray's case this bizarrely took the form of an accusation from within Sky of sexist behaviour and lewd comments directed towards a colleague, Charlotte Jackson. In the meantime a clip emerged showing Keys making deeply personal and unpleasant comments to ex-Liverpool star Jamie Redknapp about his partner.

Whether the pair should have been sacked is a question I'm not in a position to answer. But their conduct was embarrassing and raises the issue of sexism in football. People defending Gray and Keys are quick to dismiss the comments about Massey as "banter" and nothing more harmful whereas others see this as evidence of sexist undercurrents within the game. Curiously, sections of the media supposedly horrified at the "sexist outburst" and "shocking behaviour" took a great delight in publishing several pictures of Charlotte Jackson - the victim of Gray's unwelcome attention - wearing only a bikini. Describing her casually as "the glamorous sports presenter at the centre of the sacking" and invariably referring to her "attributes" (as if that's relevant) the tabloid press seemed more determined than Gray and Keys to prove that sexism is alive and well - at least in Fleet Street. The Daily Star went so far as to suggest that Jackson actually enjoyed Gray's suggestive behaviour, claiming that "she appeared to be giggling. She doesn’t seem to find it offensive in any way." How helpful.

Let me put one thing straight. Football isn't sexist. Football is a game, enjoyed and appreciated by millions of people around the globe irrespective of gender. Women watch football, play football, coach football and - yes, actually officiate in matches. It's not the game itself that is sexist. Neither does it create the misogynistic attitudes, which in turn lead to the kind of behaviour we've witnessed in the last week. The problem, as we see, lies with a resignation that such behaviour is inevitable, that it is an integral part of the "lad's culture", which - in Key's words, "is common to pubs and dressing rooms up and down the land". And so sexism is accepted and where it manifests itself is normally casually dismissed as "male humour". As the wonderful Jane Martinson makes clear in a Guardian column, "a culture of sexism is endemic at our dominant sports broadcaster".

What Keys and Gray failed to realise - especially the former - is that society has moved on. Not sufficiently, that is true, but enough that the "lads' mag humour" Keys referred to is now a minority taste. Keys argued that he was simply reflecting social attitudes and "what goes on in pubs and clubs" but that's simply untrue. Nobody thought it was funny that Keys referred to Redknapp's partner as "it" and the sexual act as "smashing it". Few people really believe the inaccurate perception that the ability to understand something as mind-bogglingly complex as where someone is standing when a ball is played forward is determined by gender. (Actually, in my experience, women are much quicker at grasping this than most male players - and Premiership managers.) For so long sexist and other primitive language that would have been unthinkable elsewhere has been allowed to flourish and thrive in football circles by the likes of Sky. So long as it was kept behind closed doors or in "between the lads" situations. But by doing so, Sky - along with other sections of the media - have tacitly approved the existing culture rather than challenging it. Now, rightly embarrassed by Gray's and Keys' comments, Sky has been forced into taking overdue action.

This should have been the end of the matter. But it isn't, because Massey was withdrawn from officiating in the midweek game between Crewe Alexandra and Bradford City and also in yesterday's FA Cup clash at Torquay United. While I fully understand the reasons behind this thinking, surely the best way to deal with the unwelcome attention Massey has received is to allow her to do what she's clearly good at? Shielding her from the media glare is counter-productive.

Keys and Gray behaved despicably. However, in my view, the real problem is the media's willingness to both cultivate stereotypes and play to them. Through resignation towards outdated attitudes rather than openly challenging them, it is the media have helped to propagate, if not create, the demon of sexism.

I should make it clear I have an interest in this. I was, for a season, on the board of a non-league English club, during which time I experienced a number of female officials in action. At that level it was not unusual to see a female referee or assistant referee every other game. It was very clear that while there remained some supporters (and, sadly, players) with less than progressive attitudes towards women, the general view was that officials should be criticised for their performances (and frequently were) but not for their gender. Many fans rightly felt that more women becoming actively involved in this way was good for the sport - some had always felt this way; others had their minds changed over time, often being convinced by strong performances from the women. It was obvious to me that as the presence of female officials became more normalised (at that non-league level at least) there was less of a focus on their gender. Referees and their assistants might be called cheats or incompetent, but wouldn't be abused on the basis of their gender any more than they would for their skin colour.

Then again, non-league referees don't generally come to the attention of Sky Sports and are spared unhelpful public attention. It's hard enough dealing with unhelpful attitudes among supporters without having to endure the stupid, uninformed criticisms of Andy Gray. Unfortunately for Sian Massey, she's one of a tiny group of female pioneers who have earned (yes, earned) the right to officiate in the top league. With this comes more media exposure and the obvious pressures. She's dealt with these reasonably well and is the only person to come out of this sorry saga with any credit. As someone who has actually been a referee I don't quite understand why any intelligent person let alone a woman would wish to take charge of 22 men on a Saturday afternoon while having every decision made scrutinised by those hoping for you to make mistakes (answers on a postcard please). Hopefully, however, as female officials become a more regular feature of Premiership and SPL football and becomes "normalised", perhaps the media might have something more interesting to say about Sian Massey and others than the quite obvious fact that they're women? Let's hope so.

Sexism is society's problem, not football's. In the light of recent events, I hope the FA and the Referees' Association (and their counterparts in Scotland) take further action to tackle sexism in football, as they have done reasonably successfully with racism and (less successfully) with homophobia. But they don't carry the ultimate responsibility for ridding the game of sexism. While the media has a huge role to play, society must also do its part to ensure that football more accurately reflects the realities of the modern world and women's roles within it rather than the taxi-driver, footie lad, backward-looking attitudes expounded by Keys and Gray.

It might also be helpful if some politicians started to take the issue more seriously. For every Jo Swinson there seems to be a Dominic Raab. For those not so enlightened in respect to the attitudes of MPs towards gender equality, Swinson is a passionate advocate for both women's interests and equality, while Raab has recently described those who pursue increased equality between the sexes as "sexist". Not for him any positive action to reduce the pay gap, or to encourage greater levels of female participation in certain professions such as politics - that's just sexist. He probably just feels threatened, poor man! Perhaps like Gray and Keys, Raab should be disciplined for spouting his prejudices at work; his attitudes certainly deserve to be made an example of but I'm not living in hope. Strangely, it seems that football has a greater potential to strike a blow for equality than does parliament.

A final thought: while I am appalled by the views of Gray and Keys, it should be noted that - like Gordon Brown in his infamous "bigot" remark - their comments about Massey were made when they thought they were off-air. This doesn't detract from my argument that it's the culture which is the key problem. But surely broadcasting what was believed to be being said in private is illegal? Is there really a difference between covertly gathering material in this way and subversive phone-hacking?

1 comment:

Sarah Matheson said...

I've just read this now, a couple of months after you've written it. It is such an incredibly honest, decent, intelligent and insightful post. You really wouldn't think it was written by an aspiring politician, it's too human and thoughtful. You've obviously got inside experience of football and sport in a way that I haven't and it comes through, but so does your passion for equality and fairness. Well done!

One final thing. Re: Dominic Raab. "He probably just feels threatened, poor man!" Great observation, I'm sure you're dead right.