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27 January 2011updated 16 Jan 2012 12:43pm

The Sky Sports sexism row is a watershed moment

The departure of Andy Gray and Richard Keys might mark the point where casual sexism became unaccept

By Steven Baxter

It’s surprising that a couple of football commentators saying something sexist should end up becoming such a big deal. But perhaps it marks something of a watershed – the day that casual sexism was revealed as being so socially unacceptable that even in a man’s world, even on a sports TV station where “Soccerettes” parade in football strips for male admiration, the words of Andy Gray and Richard Keys were deemed to have gone too far.

Why did the row blow up now? It’s tempting, perhaps, to think that there’s some kind of conspiracy at play – the kind of “dark forces” alluded to by Keys in his interview with TalkSport radio yesterday. Tempting, too, to imagine that Gray’s hauling over the coals might not be entirely unadjacent to his decision to pursue legal action against the News of the World over alleged phone-hacking.

But perhaps there is a more simple explanation than rather fanciful ideas about vengeful employers or dark forces – that Keys and Gray stood still while the world around them moved on, and ended up looking seriously out of date, trapped in a matey lads’ mag world while their employers were trying to appeal to a wider demographic than geezers down the boozer braying into a beermat.

The pair might be surprised why the story has become as big as it has, particularly in newspapers that aren’t generally regarded as being bastions of equality themselves. It’s a little jarring to see newspapers that print photos of half-naked women wringing their hands over a sexism row.

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But that’s the delicious hypocrisy of the press – it’s always fair game if it’s happening to someone else. As the Sachsgate row and the fuss over Carol Thatcher’s golliwog remark proved, there’s never a shortage of criticism for broadcasters who are seen to have stepped over the line, even if the papers reporting it aren’t exactly squeaky clean. And the leaked tape meant anyone could hear for themselves and be the judge.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Gray and Keys wouldn’t have been heading for an early bath if they hadn’t said what they’d said about the assistant referee Sian Massey in the first place. No one forced them to be casually sexist while wearing microphones; they were ultimately responsible for their own demise. Keys attempted the “I was being ironic” and “taken out of context” defences in his TalkSport mea culpa, but something about it didn’t really ring true – the “do me a favour, love” line aimed at Karren Brady can’t be easily explained away.

What they said may have been acceptable a few years ago; but times change, and attitudes change, in football as elsewhere. Gray and Keys just hadn’t moved on with modern football, where many more women visit the stadiums and play the game, and were left looking rather outdated. They were caught off-guard, acting in a way that they shouldn’t have been as ambassadors for their brand and top-level employees. They got it wrong, and that was that.

Some are worried that this marks a new victory for the spectral PC Brigade and a clampdown on freedom of expression. It doesn’t, and it’s not evidence that men are the ones who are really the victims of sexism, either. It’s just proof that if you say something stupid, you might not always get away with it, particularly if there’s a microphone around.