The Richard Scudamore affair has brought the debate over equality in football to the fore. Unfortunately his being able to keep his job as chief executive is a sign of the pervading attitude that a bit of “casual” sexism is acceptable, both within football and beyond. Scudamore’s defence is that his remarks were made in private e-mails that had to be extensively searched for by an unauthorised party- though the PA concerned claims they appeared in her e-mail inbox. Concerns over gender equality continue to be viewed by certain men as something that, as Jane Martinson has pointed out, is to be promoted in public, but is acceptable to disregard in private. There seems to be a culture of “box ticking” when it comes to women’s football and sexual equality more generally.
It’s with this knowledge of “hidden sexism” in mind that the recent coverage of women’s football on the BBC can be assessed. BBC Two now shows all of the England Women’s Team’s World Cup qualifiers live. This is no doubt a huge step in terms of making the sport accessible to a wider audience, but it’s not that straightforward.
Back on Saturday 5th April, England played Montenegro at 12:55pm. There was an unfortunate clash with an important Premier League tie between Man City and Southampton, but as a supporter of women’s football I was excited that it was getting mainstream coverage, so I looked forward to watching it.
Before the game, I tuned into Football Focus. The programme was broadcast live from Wallsend Boys Club*; a football and social club that has had among others Alan Shearer, Michael Carrick and Steve Bruce on its books as youngsters. All of the video packages of the players training and playing exclusively featured boys, and the young members of the club represented in the audience were also exclusively male. To watch it was to perhaps think that girls’ football didn’t exist. The upcoming World Cup Qualifier was mentioned only once. Host Dan Walker meekly said to camera that the women’s qualifier was live on BBC 2, this was followed by a loud and actioned-packed promotional package advertising a game in Rugby League’s Challenge Cup.
The juxtaposition of the two advertisements and Walker’s emphasis on the latter clearly implied that the physicality of men’s Rugby League was far more entertaining than women’s football. The producers of Football Focus, like Scudamore, ticked the box that campaigners like Maria Miller have created. They mentioned the live match, but arguably undermined its importance immediately after. It appears that England’s most capped player Rachel Yankey’s appearance on the show on International Women’s Day was purely to avoid an outcry.
The game itself wasn’t a thriller. England eventually ran out 9-0 winners (it could have been more) against a well-coached but vastly over-matched Montenegro side. For those harbouring “hidden” sexist views, this may have been exactly what they wanted;an excuse to point to the lack of quality and depth in the women’s game. It is these same people that will be secretly hoping that Helena Costa fails at Clermont Foot, and use it as evidence to support their hidden prejudices against women.
As a non-sexist, feminist, male I’m embarrassed to even repeat the terms that Scudamore used. There is certainly a difference in attitude between generations, but age cannot be an excuse for discriminatory attitudes. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how infrequently or privately such terms are used, figures in positions of authority undermine themselves when they perpetuate prejudices that they have to fight in public. FIFA executive committee member Moya Dodd rightly says that “it’s important for football to take sexism as seriously as it is taking racism”. The conclusion has to be reached that had Scudamore used a number of racial slurs, he would have been immediately sacked, and rightly so. Obviously sexism is seen as a much more acceptable form of discrimination at the Premier League. Through taking no action against Scudamore, the Premier League is letting down female players and supporters.
The BBC’s ambivalence toward the England qualifiers seems to be the result of similar sentiments. Joanna Tilley has commented upon how the organisation has bowed to pressure to televise the women’s game, but have done very little to promote it outside of major tournaments. The fact that the England team may win easily against a small nation shouldn’t matter. The women’s game needs promotion and support if it’s to develop. Other minority sports such as snooker and darts get the full backing of the BBC when they are broadcast. Women’s football, by contrast does not. “Hidden sexism” needs to be tackled if women’s football is to be given a fair chance. An example needed to have been made of Scudamore to make the point that it isn’t OK; sadly the opportunity has been missed.
* The point here is not to criticise Wallsend BC. It’s a fantastic organisation, run by volunteers for the benefit of both boys and girls. Whilst a junior footballer I benefited enormously from playing for similar clubs in my home town of Rugby; namely Admirals and Bilton Ajax. Football Focus contained a number of features demonstrating the excellent work that goes on at Wallsend- and rightfully won praise for this. The programme however failed to acknowledge the fact that girls also play at Wallsend, under the banner of Wallsend Girls Club.