As feminist issues go, observed the Guardian’s Marina Hyde, the email exchange between Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore and DLA Piper media lawyer Nick West is “non-league feminist irk”, coming in some way below “equal pay, female genital mutilation, access to abortion and rape reporting rates”. Laura Jones said, in an excellent piece on The Offside Rule blog headlined "Why I’m not offended by Scudamore’s sexist emails", that: “In the context of what’s happening in this country it is a mere pimple on the arse of the game.”
Both articles provide a welcome sense of perspective in a debate that has, at times, seemed destined to become another one in which the use of words and whether or not people could be, should be or even have the right to be offended – that word again – threatens to obscure more substantial points. Once the debate centres on linguistic gymnastics, it’s easy for the old ‘PC gone mad, you can’t say anything these days’ brigade to leap in and dismiss the underlying issues.
Sure enough, after Scudamore’s friend and shooting partner (and yes, it’s hard not to hum the theme to Downton Abbey as I type) Bruce Buck from Chelsea FC brought in the club’s PR company to firefight, a slew of articles appeared along those lines.
Martin Samuel railed against “a cabal of the useless, the over-promoted and professionally outraged” who were “in league against” Scudamore, while conceding that “Scudamore was an ass. He needs to be told to stop behaving like an ass”. Matthew Syed wrote that “there is something deeply fraudulent about the idea that Scudamore should resign because of his ‘unacceptable attitude’.” Matt Scott said on Twitter that “everyone deserves a second chance if they are egregious in private among consenting adults”, while also worrying about the effect firing the man who spearheads the megabucks Premier League would have on “UK plc”. And there was plenty more like that.
Now, as it happens, I agree with a lot that’s said in those articles – although use of the phrase “UK plc” makes me grind my teeth. I agree very much with Syed’s point that few, if any, of us could confidently say that if every email, text and Twitter utterance we’d ever sent over the years was examined and then presented in a different context it would not reflect badly on us. And I’m as scornful as Samuel of the high-profile figures who sent private messages of support to Scudamore just days before taking a more critical stance in public.
But the outrage of much of the sports press at people who jump on mere words to attempt to take someone out is rather selective. When the former chief executive of Supporters Direct sent some ill-advisedlysweary emails a few years ago, Samuels’s Daily Mail colleague Charlie Sale said that “for most other CEOs in sport, such loose-lipped talk would be an immediate resignation issue”. Scudamore and his allies seized their chance and pulled all funding to Supporters Direct – despite the immediate resignation of the man in their sights. It took months for the organisation and its 10 staff to reach agreement that funding would continue.
To quote Marina Hyde – who has been crystal clear throughout this whole affair – again, Scudamore’s actions were “petulant, spiteful, imperious”. Hyde talks of hypocrisy in her piece, and it’s a word that may also spring to mind when reflecting on why similarly outraged condemnations did not appear in the press at the time of Supporters Direct’s travails. And in all the sound and fury about invasions of privacy, it’s perhaps worth wondering how the private comments of those leading figures I mentioned earlier got into the public domain.
The phrase “people with an axe to grind” has also been used by a number of commentators to counter criticism of Scudamore. If asking why there is one rule for the person who runs the richest league in the world and can control access to its key figures and another for the chief executive of a fans’ organisation counts as grinding an axe, we’re in deep trouble.
As University of Manchester research fellow Daniel Fitzpatrick argues: “The danger of reducing the debate to familiar tabloid terrain on the boundaries of political correctness is that it neglects the deeper tensions at play.” The issue is about power, responsibility, accountability – about the way an organisation is run. The questions raised by David Conn, always a measured and forensic analyst of the football business, are central. The Premier League loves to present itself as a modern business, in contrast to the clubby blazer brigade more traditionally associated with sport. And yet this case shows it is just another unaccountable, closed elite.
Scudamore’s critics aren’t using the email exchange as a means to settle other scores, they are using it as further evidence of why their long-standing criticisms are valid. Scudamore was judged by a committee composed of people who rely on his patronage, and is responsible to a two-man board consisting of himself and a part-time chairman. Staff at the Premier League havesaid they support the people who pay their wages. And the PA at the centre of the storm, Rani Abraham, has been accused of gaining unauthorised access to the emails. She says : “My job was to sit down at my desk outside his office and log into my system where his emails would automatically come up on screen for me to look after for him”. It’s an explanation plausible to anyone familiar with how executives’ PAs work. But despite the Premier League’s insistence that it has conducted a “rigorous” investigation, Abraham has never been contacted. “No one from either organisation has contacted me directly. All they’ve done is threaten me with legal action,” she says. It all falls far short of modern corporate good practice.
The two writers I began by quoting seem to have little trouble identifying the content of the emails for what they were – sexist and offensive – while recognising that the way people use words is not the main issue. Is it a coincidence those two writers are women? Women in Football, an organisation representing over 1,000 women working in the sport and which has done much of the work in ensuring the issue is not brushed under the carpet, focuses its criticism on organisational good practice.
The willingness to take offence may well be a debilitating feature of the times, not least because it can hinder efforts to make a real difference. In the Scudamore case, as in football, keeping your eye on the ball is key.