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.