Is there any hope for gender equality in football?

Too often in football, sexist remarks are dismissed as 'banter'. But in truth, the beautiful game needs to face up to the ugly reality of its sexism.

Timothy Smith
23 October 2014

Players during the qualifying round of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, October 31, 2013./Wikimedia

Football is never that far away from a sexist scandal. We had the high profile case of Richard Keys and Andy Gray sexually harassing colleagues and making sexist remarks about a female linesman. This has largely been forgotten as the sexist pair are living it large at TalkSport these days.

There was the objectifying and sexist remarks made by the Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore who said in an email “I had a girlfriend once called double decker… happy for you to play upstairs, but her Dad got angry if you went below.” Premier League clubs got behind Scudamore, who faced no punishment, and Karen Brady, the vice-chair of West Ham United, went as far as to declare him ‘categorically not sexist,’ despite Scudamore describing ‘female irrationality’ and referred to women as ‘gash.’

Most recently Rio Ferdinand responded to a call that Queens Park Rangers needed to get a new centre-back (he has been woefully off form this season) by saying ‘’Get ya mum in, plays the field well son. #sket’’. Sket is a derogatory term used to mock alleged female promiscuity. Naturally the tweet has been deleted (as if this will make us forget). Ferdinand has since been charged by the FA and could be fined and or suspended for his remarks. Whatever the verdict the punishment will be soft and there won’t be much attention paid to the sexism behind Ferdinand’s remarks. Ferdinand is a player and a personality who will be followed by many women on twitter as much as men, even by children. Unfortunately we live in a society were dismissing women based on their perceived levels of sexual promiscuity is widespread and Ferdinand is merely compounding this through his ill-thought out insult.

The Premier League and English press boast a good record on condemning racism and prejudice generally but in reality it’s a myth. The media have given little scrutiny to the comments made by Ferdinand, who is a high profile English player. There was very little backlash against Scudamore who is obviously unfit to be in his position following his comments. His emails even related to colleagues, how can any female colleagues feel comfortable working with him after this incident? How can Scudamore credibly claim to be a keen advocate of gender equality in the game, when he is describing women in such a way?

With such claims a textbook defence has been utilized by the perpetrators. Richard Keys for example famously defended his antics with Gray as ‘banter.’ Malky Mackay made outrageous comments about a female agent and his apology which came via The League Managers Association (LMA) described his actions as ‘friendly banter.’ This is supposed to be an easy get out of jail card for male chauvinists in football. The problem we have is that football has such a short memory, as we can see with Keys and Gray and also with Scudamore, who is carrying on his role relatively unfazed. The normalization of words, such sexist behaviour, and the dismissal of it as just ‘banter’ is the most worrying thing about all of this. At the height of a pseudo-lad culture football really epitomizes wider trends. Men often don’t value women in the work place. Mackay, Scudamore, Grays and Keys clearly did not. They saw them as objects of their ‘office banter’ instead. The fact that they see little wrong with this is part of the problem.

Nobody really cares. Football in this country has created the veneer of gender equality and respect for women in the game. But, in reality this is so far from being the case. On the international stage FIFA president, who is never shy of controversy, regularly refers to women’s looks when describing them, rather than on their work place talent. Rio will get a slap on the wrist. A measly fine of perhaps £45,000 (the same fine he received for referring to Ashley Cole as ‘choc ice’ back in 2012). He probably won’t get a ban and the media will probably claim he’s a good guy just a bit of an idiot, rather than attacking the root causes of such casual sexism. David Cameron remarked that one of his colleagues wouldn’t have been able to survive had they made similar comments to Scudamore. It is a sorry day when football is taking lessons in morality from the Tories (or from any politicians for that matter). As always though, football places itself outside of societal norms and despite growing popularity for a thriving women’s game, football is still very much encapsulated in a lad-y bubble. The dominance of men in the top positions of the English game is further evidence of this. Greg Dykes FA Panel was initially comprised of ten men. This highlights how there is an underlying machoism to mainstream football. As does Rio Ferdinand’s reference to someone’s mother in responding angrily to a tweet.

Football is generally bad at dealing with moral issues but it is particularly bad with matters of gender. The insistence that men like Scudamore are not sexist and the dismissal of sexist remarks as ‘banter’ is part of a wider societal problem though. The Premier League and FA could however do a lot more at combatting it by issuing severe punishments for people such as Mackay, Scudamore (who is shockingly still in a job) and Ferdinand, who should be banned, as he would have been had he made a racist comment.


Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData