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Sexism In Soccer: Can It Free Itself from the Dark Ages?

2838138416 9cd37005c5 Sexism In Soccer: Can It Free Itself from the Dark Ages?

Photo by Andrii Stashko

It has so often been swept under the carpet and only muttered sparingly away from the spotlight. It was always there but not quite acknowledged as it should have been. Step forward Andy Gray and Richard Keys. Two of the most prominent men in the coverage of football in Britain, two fifty-something’s basking in the glory that their lofty, undeserved position gives them. The way they brazenly spoke with such ease about the role of women in football being second rate compared to men was shocking. But this has truly opened up the locked door in which this attitude has been hidden behind. The reality is cruel and the old, out-dated concepts that have existed for years are still firmly in place. Maybe this will bring to light how prominent it still is? We can now openly accept that sexism is still alive, not as it was many years ago, but still there nevertheless. Football is no different from this and the questions as to whether it can fully emerge from its chauvinistic past have to be answered.

We have strived for the perfect equilibrium where men and women are treated with the same respect and tried our best to deny any form of sexism. Women, though, are still the ‘fairer sex’. This attitude, straight from the old fashioned mindset, is not only kept in place by Neanderthals such as Gray and Keys but also women who play up to the role. Despite there being many women who are extremely passionate about the game, they always tend to get tarred with the women who only watch football to look at good-looking players. That must be one of the most frustrating things for a female football fan, to have their love for the game questioned because of lazy stereotypes. I have seen this first hand myself as a young boy. My late Mum was a huge football fan and is the main reason behind my passion for the game today. She had to deal with these views from men when watching or discussing football, one of these incidents in particular always sticks in my mind.  She took me to the barbers after school in the summer, just as the 2002 World Cup was starting to get into full swing. We sat down and listened to the barber and two other men continually talk about what England need to do to win the World Cup for a good forty five minutes.  Just as the conversation drew to a close, one of the men turned to my Mum and patronisingly joked, “I suppose you can’t wait ‘til it’s all over, can you, love?” Knowing my Mum as I did, I was just waiting in suspense for the reply she would give. “Not at all, I absolutely love it. And if you think dropping Nicky Butt would change anything then you know nothing about football.” I will always remember the look on all three faces. In one sentence she shot down the stereotypes and left them speechless. I look back to that moment with overwhelming pride, but at the time I didn’t quite grasp the profound effect that would have on me. In my eyes it was normal for women to know just as much, if not more, about football than men. That was how I was brought up, hopefully others were too. Maybe we are the ‘new generation’ who will not see women in football as some sort of joke.  So maybe there is hope yet. And Nicky Butt was England’s best player in that tournament.

Youth football is the key to addressing the problem of sexism for the future generations. If children were to learn that girls are the equal of boys on the pitch then they would grow up with a positive attitude that would help and allow the game to grow. As a youth coach myself I came across sexism towards the girls that were playing on the mixed-sex team. Instantly when I mention that you would assume that it was coming from the young boys who, influenced by their parents, have this attitude that boys are better than girls at football. That didn’t happen at all which was such a positive attribute of the youngsters who played for the team. That same positivity and acceptance, however, was not shared by some of the opposing team’s coaches and parents. Every weekend you would hear a comment from the sidelines, “Come on! It’s only a girl!” was often the encouragement used to get the boys playing. This, I reiterate, is coming from parents and coaches. The people who are teaching these youngsters how to behave as well as how to play the game. Those children will now grow up with that attitude, an attitude a million miles away from the way I and many others were brought up with. When you look at it that way it puts it into perspective.  It is deeply ingrained into society and only time, and lots of it, is going to make it better.  Maybe it will eventually fade, but that is going to be a long, hard and very gradual process.

Sky television has to hold responsibility in some way. They have made football what it is today; an overblown, over-publicised giant that is free from the restrictions of normal business. They control what we see and how we see it.  Not only are they at fault for employing misogynistic presenters and pundits but also the way they portray women in sport. It is all well and good getting rid of Gray and Keys for their sexist comments but when you have a ‘Soccerette’ for all the men to leer and cheer at on the morning football show ‘Soccer AM’ the following Saturday, it negates any gesture somewhat. Sky, though, will point out that they have a vast amount of female presenters for their football and sports news shows. These are the same women who will also do photo-shoots for the lads’ mags each month. It doesn’t quite work as a way of moving forward. Why do they have to be glammed up part-time models to present football? I don’t think I have ever seen a woman on the panel that is there for her football knowledge alone and I very much doubt that I will any time soon. It isn’t as if there is a lack of women with the ability to comment intelligently and offer insight on the game.  Why can’t Hope Powell comment on the Premier League? She is the coach of the England women’s national football team, she was the first woman to gain a UEFA Pro Licence and she has played for England at the World Cup.  Surely that is enough ‘qualifications’ to be able to talk about the game on television?  I am certain that she would provide something of much more worth and merit than Andy Gray who it seems has just got showered and changed in a 1970’s dressing room before coming to the studio.

The FA, of course, shoulders the majority of the responsibility when it comes to women’s football and how it is perceived. They have come to rely on women more so than ever with a third of the 2.3 million fans going to watch football in the last five years being women. They seem to have taken note. For all their mistakes over the years, you have to give them credit for the recent effort in promoting the women’s game.  In April, the new elite eight-club league for women will begin. The FA is investing £2 million over the next two years which is shared between the clubs and the actual running costs of the league.  They have also secured a TV deal with sports broadcaster ESPN so the games will be televised each week as well as a highlights show. The FA is also paying the costs of this as the league is unable to command any TV revenue just yet.  This is the most radical change in English women’s football and also the biggest opportunity to finally throw out age-old misconceptions.  The club’s in the league will have salary caps, cheap tickets for fans and remain sustainable, all of which are genuine dreams for Premier League clubs. If the new setup is a success and moves forward with clubs’ being able to command TV revenue then an example will have been set.  All of those dreams will become a reality. The women’s game will be at the forefront of success in England.  Surely then people will start to take notice?

Fighting sexism in football is obviously going to be a long, arduous battle. But when you see that in 1972, The Sunday People newspaper described the women’s national team’s inaugural game against Scotland as “a revolution born out of broken bras and muddy knickers” and “dolly dribblers” you come to realise that the battle, however slow it may be, is being won. With England having an increasingly ‘modern society’ that is able to embrace everyone and everything, you have to hope that the final push for a complete change in football will come soon enough. The sex of a person should not even come into the equation when it’s about the love of the beautiful game. The sooner this is realised then you have to believe that the old fashioned, misogynistic side of football culture will be banished forever.  The development of the women’s game is a perfect opportunity to breed development in attitudes and beliefs. It is no longer a boys’ club – just a club that you support.

Editor’s note: Follow Sam on Twitter at @SamIanHughes.

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22 Responses to Sexism In Soccer: Can It Free Itself from the Dark Ages?

  1. Pakapala says:

    Great article and a serious subject. I live in the US and gets the morning feed of Sky Sports News where they invite a newspaper editor to talk about the best articles of the morning papers. Something that always struck me as odd (even before the Gray/Keys fiasco), is the fact that it is always the male presenter who chat with the guest about the news in the papers. So much so that I chuckled the other day for IWD, they had 2 women presenters, and for the first time I saw a woman presenter doing the newspaper segment with the editor du jour. I always asked myself why is that?

  2. alabamabob says:

    Great read, My wife plays for the little local team we’re both a part of, and while she lacks pace compared to most of the men, game in game out she regularly makes guys on the other team fall over with her dribbling. Her lack of pace means the ball is alwys close to her feet, making for qucik moves and touches away from defenders and her head is always on a swivel looking for a quick pass or cross. But for every female who plays like her there are 5 that worry more about their hair and makeup than the game itself. The same goes for commentators. There are quite a few good ones who know more about it than men, but for every good one there’s 5 or 10 who care more about being the pretty one on the show and know nothing about the game. Female refs? I don’t care, if their from jupiter as long as they call the game properly.

  3. Dave C says:

    Ok I’m gonna have to stick my neck out and disagree with the early consensus formed by the first two posts. I thought this was a pretty pointless article.

    Is there sexism in football? Yes, but no more so than any other environment dominated by one particular gender. In women-only environments, you’ll find plenty of talk that guys would find distasteful, and vice-versa. Now if you wanted to take a deeper approach and question why football is generally a male-dominated environment, then go ahead…but I think it is something more deeply rooted in society as a whole than simply blaming Sky, the FA, or saying “waaah teh menz”.

    I agree that if ever we want to make football a less male-dominated environment, then the work has to begin at the very youngest levels. For the most part, boys at that ageare better than girls on the pitch, simply because boys have a tendency to enjoy things that are a bit rough’n’tumble. Girls, for a million societal reasons, do not share this tendency, and so mostly either avoid playing the game, or (when they are forced to) do so extremely half-heartedly. Also, how many girls are encouraged to kick a ball from the moment they can walk? Again, if you want to change this aspect of life, then it will be a huge societal change, not just a matter of complaining about Sky Sports or whatever. Why are boys brought up to be little soldiers whereas girls are sugar and spice etc etc?

    Also, I’m not sure about the idea that Hope Powell would offer anything insightful as a pundit. She has a UEFA Pro license, good for her…but isn’t that pretty much a standard for male coaches nowadays? And ALL of those male coaches will have coached at a higher level than Powell, and bring a higher level of name/face recognition (which counts for everything in TV).

    I’m curious about the ESPN coverage of women’s football. As I understand this article, the FA is paying ESPN to broadcast the games??

    Also, what are the “age old misconceptions” that will be dispelled by broadcasting women’s games on TV?

    • j says:

      Yes, but no more so than any other environment dominated by one particular gender. In women-only environments, you’ll find plenty of talk that guys would find distasteful, and vice-versa.
      and most of those environments are male-dominated. i don’t have any hard data, but i’m willing to bet that women are made to feel more uncomfortable, more unwanted, more embarrassed, so forth by what men say than vice versa, guided on by what society is okay with.

      Girls, for a million societal reasons / Also, how many girls are encouraged to kick a ball from the moment they can walk?
      here’s the reason for this “pointless article.” obviously a post on epltalk isn’t going to create a huge change, but why not talk about this and why it’s wrong? why not link it to a well-publicized event that happened a short time ago that is relevant as it shows the “million societal reasons?”

      Also, I’m not sure about the idea that Hope Powell would offer anything insightful as a pundit.
      many male pundits, regardless of what coaching license they have or not, are ever so insightful.

      And ALL of those male coaches will have coached at a higher level than Powell, and bring a higher level of name/face recognition (which counts for everything in TV).
      66 appearances for a national team, has coached said national team since 1998, team has made two world cup appearances, both resulting in quarterfinal finishes, was the runner-up in the most recent euro, and just recently qualified top of their group for the upcoming world cup. seems pretty impressive, i bet he knows a lot about football… oh this is a woman? who coaches a women’s team? doesn’t count! not enough name/face recognition! let’s make sure we don’t give her airtime cause then she might get some! that excuse is weak.

      • j says:

        my bad, i implied that powell coached england to two world cup quarterfinals. she was too busy being on the team in 95. she was the coach in 2007.

      • Dave C says:

        obviously a post on epltalk isn’t going to create a huge change, but why not talk about this and why it’s wrong? why not link it to a well-publicized event that happened a short time ago that is relevant as it shows the “million societal reasons?”

        Well I think assuming that Sky Sports, Andy Gray and people like that have any influence over the situation (rather than simply being a symptom of the system) is flawed. You could have the most nicey-nicey, sensitive, gender-balanced broadcasting crew in the world, and football fandom would still be a male dominated environment on the terraces, pubs and barbershops. This is because from the age they can walk, boys are funnelled into physical sports, whereas girls, for the most part, are not.

        Regarding Hope Powell – yes, you’re right that many male pundits don’t offer anything insightful. But I think this is an argument to find better pundits, not simply hire a token female. And Powell would be exactly that – a token. All those international caps and world cup appearances may make her a respected figure in womens football, but in the mens game they don’t mean anything.

  4. Guy says:

    Nice to see a “different” topic for a change, even if I’m not sure about all the conclusions. One thing did jump out at me…

    “…a third of the 2.3 million fans going to watch football in the last five years being women.”

    That would mean if I am watching a match 1 out of every 3 fans I see should be female. Either I’m blind or they’re all off camera in a queue for the WC. I have never seen anything even remotely approaching that statistic for a football match. It sounds more like a rugby stat. Did the FA provide it?

    • Dave C says:

      Yeah I found that bit very hard to believe too. I would be surprised if women make up even 15% of a typical matchday crowd.

  5. forweg says:

    So, epltalk has revealed itself as yet another feminist propaganda outlet. Duly noted.

  6. Keith says:

    Firstly, your mom sounds like she was amazing.

    I don’t know why but I’ve never had a problem with women involved in sports but I just don’t enjoy it as much. I grew up with women in sports. My mom was All-State in Basketball back in the late 70′s/early 80′s and is by far more athletic than my dad. My sister was All-Midwest in Hockey and now is the backup goalie for the #1 Division 3 girls team in the country. And I swam until an injury in HS and I played hockey until I was 14. In both sports I have female teammates throughout. I started swimming at a country club and while we had boys and girls events we swam one after another and we practiced together and more importantly we were a singular team. In junior high because girls are actually faster at this point, all teams in the state of Michigan are combined so I actually had relays where I swam with female teammates and opponents.

    I think because of the complete integration of women in sports, sexism in sports in the US is basically gone with the exception of the assumption that all non-good looking female athletes are gay. I don’t know about Europe but a female athlete either needs to be gorgeous or everyone thinks she’s a lesbian. But when I see women cheering for a sport I never assume it’s because they want to see the handsome athletes. I assume its because they want to see the game AND see the handsome athletes and I have no problem with it (just like men like seeing gorgeous tennis players or cute basketball players).. Except that now in the US it’s cool to be the sporty chick that hangs out with the guys so every girl is trying it AND THAT DRIVES ME BONKERS!

    • Dave C says:

      Ok, I hate to act up the expected stereotype by making a sexist joke, but I couldn’t resist:
      your mom sounds like she was amazing.
      Huh huh, she WAS, huh huh.

    • j says:

      “I think because of the complete integration of women in sports, sexism in sports in the US is basically gone with the exception of the assumption that all non-good looking female athletes are gay.”
      there’s also the double standard, related to what you said, of “hot” athletes getting more attention, which doesn’t carry over to men. how much mainstream media coverage do women’s sports get in relation to men’s? women’s sports leagues are constantly the butt of jokes, because they are women playing sports. how many female athletes can make a living off of their sport compared to men? while there are more opportunities for female athletes in the usa than other countries, it’s nowhere near the same playing field. there’s still a lot of work to be done.

      • Dave C says:

        there’s also the double standard, related to what you said, of “hot” athletes getting more attention, which doesn’t carry over to men
        I’m not sure about that – compare David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

        how many female athletes can make a living off of their sport compared to men? while there are more opportunities for female athletes in the usa than other countries, it’s nowhere near the same playing field. there’s still a lot of work to be done.

        True, but the “work” that needs to be done is on the part of the women. Remember, professional men’s football has been around since the 1880s, but men could only really “make a living from the game” (in the sense of not having to work after they retire from the game) in the 1990s.

        The womens’ game (in many sports, not just football) right now just doesn’t attract enough paying fans to allow people to really make a living from the game. It might take them 100 yrs to make the progress the mens’ game did.

      • tonyspeed says:

        suppose people just don’t want to watch women’s sports? Since when did that become sexism? That’s like saying that if golf isn’t popular we are prejudiced against rich, mostly white men… I don’t get it. It is not a right to have an audience, although it is a right to choose your profession.

        • tonyspeed says:

          Correction. My example was a bit poor. It’s more like saying that if people don’t watch the Championship along with the premier league that we should change our distorted views. There’s always going to be people that only want to watch football at it’s highest level. If you’re going to argue that the women’s leagues are really as good as the premier league or serie A or la liga, then that’s something you will have to prove.

  7. EDub says:

    Good article.

    Whenever there is any incident of `ism’ (sexism, racism, etc.) we often hear how the perpetrators (e.g. Keys/Gray) are dinosaurs, anomalies, not representative, etc. They get fired, and we act like things are back to normal.

    These are topics that need to be discussed even when there isn’t a high profile incident covering the back pages.

  8. R2Dad says:

    Good read. I actually think the UK has a harder time addressing this issue than here in the US. We have title 9, which guarantees female athletics in college–the UK doesn’t really have broad college athletics for women. We’ve got hordes of girls playing soccer from ages 6-18, though not many watch the game. We’re encouraging female referees at the age of 12, giving those who like the game an outlet after their playing days are over. Most importantly, our women’s national team has two World Cups, while our men still play kick and rush and have recently finished no higher than the quarter finals.

  9. tonyspeed says:

    In America, with the exception of the foreign communities, football is mostly a women’s sport. So there is no comparison.

    I for one like women playing the sport. One of my favourite athletes is Marta.

    Playing football WITH girls on the other hand is problematic for me. One I don’t feel it is appropriate to hard-tackle a girl, and then there is always the issue of it being a CONTACT sport.

    • Pakapala says:

      “In America, with the exception of the foreign communities, football is mostly a women’s sport. So there is no comparison.”

      Nope it is not… though the women’s NT was until the 90s more popular than the men’s NT in the US. However young boys play the game as much as young girls do, if not more. Even at the adult level, there’s no comparison, men win hands down.

  10. fieldsofanfieldroad says:

    Thank you for posting this. Sexism in sport is a very important topic, regardless of what some of these commenters who do not experience sexism seem to think.

    Women should be treated equally– feminist propaganda, if I’ve ever heard it. Some people just need to shut up.

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