Sports  Commentators caught offside

Recent soccer controversy highlights continued sexism in sports culture

When Sian Massey took the sidelines as a lineswoman in an English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and the Wolverhampton Wanderers on January 22, it should have served as an example of how far women have come in the previously male-dominated world of sports. Instead, due to the ignorant and sexist remarks of English network Sky Sports’ commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys, it only emphasized that despite women’s advances, sports are still very much a boys club.

When Massey ruled Liverpool midfielder Raul Meireles’s assist to striker Fernando Torres’s goal onside, Gray and Keys – incorrectly assuming that their microphones were turned off – blasted Massey for the perceived incorrect call. Keys suggested that, “Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.” Gray responded, “Can you believe that?  A female linesman…women don’t know the offside rule… Why is there a female linesman? Somebody’s fucked up big.” Video replay showed that both Meireles and Torres had been very much onside, and that Massey – not Gray and Keys – made the correct call.

Fortunately, the response to their remarks was swift and condemnatory. Sky Sports executive director Piara Powar said of their actions: “It is unacceptable that two of British football’s biggest names are heard espousing views, whether intended for broadcast or not, that undermine and disparage the efforts of women in the game.” Both were immediately suspended from their commentating duties.

Gray’s contract has since been terminated, after a videotape of him sexually harassing fellow Sky Sports personality Charlotte Jackson surfaced last Tuesday, following the incident. Keys has also resigned. Sadly, Massey must now suffer in addition to the insults that have been directed at her. She has been asked to take a break from officiating because – according to Mike Riley, the general manager of Professional Game Match Officials – “[in] any football match the focus should not be on the officials but on the players and the game itself.” What a shame that she has to accept the consequences of others’ inappropriate and offensive behaviour.

As a female fan of the English Premier League, I am pleased that both Keys and Gray have been relieved of their duties. A message must be sent that this kind of overt sexism is not to be tolerated. But am I surprised that these two men felt it was acceptable to discuss amongst themselves (and, unbeknownst to them, millions of Sky Sports viewers) women’s alleged ineptitude when it comes to the basic rules of the game? Unfortunately, no.

To write this off as an isolated incident would do little to address the profound sexual inequalities that persist in sports. Admittedly, there are few today who would be so foolish and ignorant as to suggest that women don’t know the offside rule. Gray and Keys do not represent every soccer fan, pundit or commentator. The almost universal reprobation of their comments by newspaper and television media emphasize that, at least in public, this view is unacceptable.

However, this does not change the fact that professional sports and sports broadcasting are both very much male domains where women are rarely – if at all – present. A recent “Gender in Televised Sports” study by Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky showed that women’s sports receive 1.6 per cent of coverage on American news and highlights shows – the lowest figure ever recorded in the twenty years that this study has been conducted (the highest was 8.7 per cent in 1999, which is still incredibly poor). Additionally, study after study has shown that in the rare examples of women’s sports coverage, women are often sexualized, less respected than their male counterparts, and discussed in terms of their roles as mothers rather than their athletic achievements. Women are seldom included in sports broadcasts in any meaningful way – unless their purpose is to be sexy for what broadcasters might believe to be an all-male audience. Commercials shown during NFL and NHL broadcasts at best don’t show any women at all, and at worst are offensive and demeaning toward women.

On a personal level, I am often told that I “know a lot for a girl.” This is almost a compliment, considering that I am often accused of being a sports fan because I “think that the players are hot,” or that women can’t be good sports fans at all. This is particularly interesting considering that women make up 47.2 per cent of major league soccer fans, 46.5 per cent of MLB fans, 43.2 per cent of NFL fans, 40.8 per cent of fans at NHL games, and 37 per cent of NBA fans.

And, despite the fact that women are playing (and excelling at) sports in unprecedented numbers, there continues to be a pervasive belief that no matter what, women will always be inferior athletes when compared to men. When it is believed that women can’t play sports well enough to take notice, or that women can’t watch sports with the same “skill” as men, how far of a stretch is it to say that women have no place as officials – or worse – that women have no place in the game at all?

Punishing Gray and Keys can only do so much to challenge the sexist attitudes that continue to validate the exclusion of women in sports. When women are fully respected as athletes, commentators, and fans, perhaps remarks such as these will truly be an aberration. Eradicating sexist attitudes in sports requires much more than firing the “bad apples” – the entire culture must be challenged.