There is a lot that’s wrong with football. Even I, as a fan of the sport who buys into most of what it has to offer, cannot deny that there is a very ugly side to it that – entirely understandably – puts many people off. It’s an exclusive club that doesn’t allow new members in lightly.
The isms and the phobias that were regular features through previous eras are the subject of campaigns to change the attitudes of many in the sport, but there’s still the feeling that some are more acceptable than others.
What happens, for example, to a top football pundit who gets caught off-guard saying something racist when he didn’t realise microphones were live? Ron Atkinson resigned after this sort of incident in 2004 and has barely made a media appearance since.
Make that a sexist comment and the goalposts are moved: Andy Gray and Richard Keys were caught out when their microphones picked up disparaging comments about assistant referee Sian Massey and West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady in 2011. A month later, the pair were presenting a daily show on talkSPORT. It implies that sexism is still no more than gentile joshing.
The official Keys and Gray were talking about is Sian Massey, who is probably one of the most consistent assistant referees we have in this country. The sad thing is that she HAS to be, simply because of her gender.
Manchester City is a club that has made great strides in pushing for equality of the sexes. There are schemes in place to encourage fans to watch their new, rebranded Manchester City Women’s FC, they’re running careers events for women who want to be involved in football and their kit launch for the latest season featured stars from the men’s and women’s teams.
Yet when the champions took on Chelsea on 21 September and one of the opposition players needed treatment from the physio (who happens to be a woman), chants of “get your tits out for the lads” were heard from the East Stand.
In a statement, Manchester City said they are “firmly committed to combating all forms of discrimination” and that the club “works hard to ensure that the Etihad Stadium is a safe and welcoming environment for all staff and fans.”
They went on to say: “The Club works year round on proactive programmes to promote equality, diversity and inclusion, and has a number of robust reporting mechanisms and processes should anyone at the stadium encounter discrimination. Any accusation of discriminatory behaviour will be investigated.”
However, I spoke to a fan with experience of both terrace culture and modern all-seater stadiums who had joined in with the chant in the past: “It was a question of those types of chants being contextually acceptable and perceived as normal behaviour in a highly masculine football standing terrace culture,” he says. He added he’d no longer take part in it and would never have done it outside of football.
Sexism in the national game isn’t as rare as you’d think. There are comments along the lines of “it’s a man’s game!” or chants of “she fell over!” when a highly paid, metrosexual male from the opposing team slips. Even a colleague of mine told me he “really hates” that he’d shouted for Chelsea’s physio to “hurry up and get him [the player needing treatment] off the pitch, you slag”.
Perceived feminine behaviours are seen as a weakness that can be exploited. While other forms of discrimination are being tackled, sexism is still seen as low priority. I can’t imagine many women would be happy to be in the middle of a group of men chanting misogynistic nonsense.
The League Managers Association dismissed the texts sent by Malky Macay where he told a player, “I bet you’d like a bounce on her [the player’s agent] falsies,” as “banter”. When Richard Keys gave an interview to BT Sport, he defended his actions as the same. It’s chilling that this “pub culture” of beer, tits and football is still so prominent in the game that objectifying women can be so easily explained away.
Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore sent sexist emails and was exposed by his female PA – and instead of it highlighting a problem that blights the game, it got swept under the carpet. Worse, the PA says she was never interviewed by the Premier League about the incident, despite their claims their investigation was “rigorous” and, on top of that, Scudamore’s apology seemed to blame her for finding the emails as much as it showed regret for his actions.
The women in question, Rani Abraham, was acting in the best interests of the game and she was vilified for being nosey instead. Somewhere, something’s got flipped back to front there.
Not dealing with incidents of sexism allows those in positions of power to set the poorest of examples and it makes it acceptable instead of making it something that needs to be challenged.
They say the first stage of combating a problem is to admit that there is one. It’s time the football community made that admission.