A Man’s Game?

When Karren Brady took on the role as Managing Director at Birmingham City, she was only 23 years old. The appointment was ground-breaking, for her sex as much as for her age.

When the club was promoted to the EPL she became not only the youngest serving Managing Director in the top division, but the only woman who’d ever held such a high profile post at a club. A consummate professional, a world class operator, even then, she would have been forgiven for thinking she’d gained acceptance by the footballing world, but she’d have been wrong.

Even now, 10 years after she helped the club make it to the top flight – and having gone to another club since – and 19 years after taking on the Birmingham role, she encounters the same thing time and time again. “Oh you’re a woman … What do you know? What’s a woman doing here?”

For all the advances the game has made in getting away from racism – the Terry scandal notwithstanding – sexism is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of football.

The BBC produced an excellent TV show on the subject in May this year, fronted by Gabby Logan, where Karren Brady and other prominent women in the sport discussed the issue at some length. Their openness and honesty was revealing, but what was more revealing were the women who were not featured, because they were concerned about what might happen to them if they were. They included officials and even some in broadcasting.

Included amongst those who did speak out was the first female journalist to work on football for a tabloid, Vikki Orvice, who says she has twice been the target of sexist abuse, by serving football managers, whilst working in crowded rooms full of fellow reporters. When asked to discuss it further she said on one occasion the abuse was “unrepeatable”.

Logan spoke too to Karen Espelund, the most powerful woman in the game, on UEFA’s Executive Committee, a former player from a time when it wasn’t even legal for women to play. Her elevation to one of the most powerful bodies in the sport should be an indication of how far we’ve moved on … and yet have we?

Even now, women in football are the recipients of sexually explicit remarks, they are patronised and they are targets of gossip and innuendo to a degree which should appal everyone. One the most revealing stories concerned Vicky Kloss, Chief Communications Officer at Man City, who was banned from the tunnel at Notts County because she was a woman just days after the notorious Keys – Gray Sky Sports incident that cost them their jobs. Another of the women interviewed, Jackie Bass, the Club Partnership Manager of the Football League tells of how she had to campaign for changes in the regulations to prevent, amongst other things, Barnsley having a sign in their tunnel which read “No Women Beyond This Point.” Another participant in the documentary was so spooked at being shown telling her tale her story was told by an actress instead.

Logan herself, one of the most high profile women in the game, a commentator since the mid-nineties, has repeatedly been asked by managers how many Premiership footballers she has slept with and Des Lynam sparked fury as recently as August when he said “I have come to the conclusion that while female presenters have done a fine job, the female voice is not so attractive for actual commentating and in some cases became grating.”

Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who had been in the game for years, and were seen as highly credible,  were, of course, fired for making sexist comments about linesman Sian Massey – and fair play to Sky Sports for taking the stand they did.

Their comments were not a one-off either. The YouTube clip of these two sniggering over the Women’s FA Cup Final of 1998 is cringe-worthy, and about as unprofessional a display as you are ever likely to see.

Remarkably, in the aftermath of the Sian Massey incident, these men were even able to find a high profile media defender, journalist and broadcaster Jon Gaunt, who’s Sky News interview on the matter was a staggering example of blind arrogance and blinkered stupidity which was easily the equal of what Keys and Gray had done. Debating him via satellite was FARE’s Piara Powar, who expressed frequent disbelief at Gaunt’s attempts to excuse them, as well as his contention that “football is a man’s game.”

On top of it, of course, is that what sunk Gray and Keys was not so much that one incident but the footage which emerged of other, even more unsavoury, remarks, which, by chance, had been caught on camera and retained for posterity. One can only wonder what goes on off-camera that we don’t get to hear, or see, or know about.

Time, and reflection, has done little to change the outlook of the two men at the centre of last year’s storm, where they claimed women didn’t know the offside rule, and where Keys patronisingly referred to a column Brady had written in a national newspaper with the words, “Do me a favour, love.” In March this year, they were both back at their patronising best, twittering their congratulations to Massey, the target of last year’s rant, after she correctly ruled offside a goal by Man City’s Micah Richards in a match against Swansea.

Some saw it as a weak attempt to rebuild their shattered reputations. Others saw it as something else, as adding insult to injury, as further proof of their backward views.

Despite many people acting as if it’s a recent phenomenon, the first woman to officiate at a Premiership match was Wendy Toms, in 1997. Yet earlier this year, Paul Jewell revealed the ignorance which is still alive and well in the sport when his reaction to a decision from Amy Fearn was to tell the press “I think everyone, to a man, thought it was a penalty. Unfortunately to every man, but not a woman.”

He later denied his comments were sexist, which is either a highly refined version of irony or the plea of a man who honestly doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. The former is worrying, the latter genuinely disgraceful, and a symptom of a wider problem.

This is what women in the sport have long had to deal with, and in profiling the women’s team which is about to carry Scotland’s hopes of reaching a major finals into two play-off matches against Spain I could not help but notice the home tie falls on a weekend where there’s a full SPL calendar and the away leg coincides with Champions League football.

The contempt this betrays shows up the real face of UEFA, no matter who they’ve just put on their Executive Committee. Sepp Blatter is certainly a man with a history of backward ideas, as his 2004 comments, that in order to attract more men to watch the women’s game the players should “wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts… to create a more female aesthetic”, clearly demonstrates.

This kind of ignorance at the top of the house percolates down through the game, and creates the conditions were these backward mind-sets can thrive.

In order for the game to truly evolve, that change must start at the top. When women’s football is given the respect we give to the men’s game, when it is treated as genuinely equal, then perhaps women too will be treated as genuine equals.

There was a story in the documentary about the late Sir Bobby Robson. He was appearing on a panel with Gabby Logan, covering a Manchester United game one night, and a group of fans began to chant “Get your tits out for the lads.” Robson, sitting beside her, immediately reacted. He lifted his top and gave the leering yobs what they’d been asking for; a full-on view of the goodies and a solo rub down.

It might just be the perfect riposte to those who’s view of women in the game is skewed by a dinosaur mentality. They are the biggest tits of all.

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James Forrest

James Forrest is a writer and blogger from Glasgow, and the author of two books, Fragments and Believers, which are available on Amazon.

2 thoughts on “A Man’s Game?

  • 13 October, 2012 at 3:57 am
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    Only wanna tell that this is invaluable , Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  • 10 November, 2012 at 7:48 am
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    Thanks for posting this.. It’s been a pleasure to read 🙂

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