So the “story” of sexism in football culture finally “broke.” We have ample footage of Sky Sports commentators Richard Keys and Andy Gray indulging in sexist “banter.” From their recent remarks about Sian Massey, to jokes about “smashing it”, and a video of the two of them breaking out into giggles (on camera) while reporting on the 1998 women’s FA Cup final, we have a veritable archive of evidence demonstrating that sexism animates the way they think, talk and behave.
Anyone who has spent time with football knows full well how sexism and homophobia are seamlessly integrated into sports culture. The banter in which Grey and Keys engaged, a lighthearted exchange of insults to women (or gay men), helps them cement their relationship to each other. It’s the sexist handshake – one of the most banal rituals through which members of the boys club identify themselves to each other. (Hi, are you a sexist? Yes! Great! Let’s get to work!) This sort of thing forces everyone around them to adopt one of three positions: be complicit and go along with it, leave the room (a passive form of complicity), or protest at the risk of losing one’s job and becoming the punch-line of another joke.
As a fan, a player, as a ref or an administrator we are bombarded with statements that are so outrageously sexist they wouldn’t be tolerated in any other sphere. How many times have we heard “nobody really likes women’s football” or “women can’t play in goal”? These are “polite” versions of the Grey and Keys routine leaked by Sky Sports staff. People take the abjection of women’s sports as such a given that the declaration that “women’s football is boring” is totally uncontroversial – though when you stop and think about it, that statement actually does as much to replicate sexist structures of thought and power as the remarks about “smashing it.”
If people think women’s football is boring, it’s because it’s played by amateur athletes who do not have the benefit of the training offered men. It’s because when people watch the rare match broadcast on television, there is hardly anyone in the stands – why go, if you’ve already decided you’ll be bored? In the U.S. most local papers do not publish match times or match results for women’s games (even those played at the highest level). Traditional sports media is so hostile to the women’s game that the US pro league and its fans rely ENTIRELY on new media forms of micro-broadcasting (e.g. Twitter) for information about the season. These are our most reliable sources of information about our teams.
We would be burying our heads in the sand if we didn’t see these egregiously sexist remarks as on a continuum with the sports media’s black-out on covering women’s sports – both are structured by sexist “common sense.”
As has been reported by The Guardian, the Sky incidents were not exceptional, but typical of the work environment at the network. And that working environment is not an exception, but rather a mirror of media representations of sports culture as an all-male universe – played by men, watched by men, managed by men.
Strangely enough, when that story broke I was working on a blog post about the sexist insults I’ve received since I started writing about this sport. The whole topic got me so down, I put the article aside. This Sky Sports debacle pushed me to return to it:
“Do you get rape-y comments too?”
I often ask this question of fellow female sports bloggers. We then swap stories – our experiences with sexist and homophobic vitriol is connected to our commitments to our blogs as spaces to which sports fans can turn when they want or need something less violently sexist than mainstream spaces. We seem more likely to receive comments laced with a rhetoric of sexual violence when readers experience our writing as feminist – and it doesn’t take that much for some to reach that trigger point. Sometimes, just knowing our gender is enough.
When I first started this blog in 2007, I cross-posted a few articles with Soccer Lens. (Warning: I can’t write this without recycling obscene and offensive language.) I admit my first post was a full-on feminist polemic, in which I questioned media dismay at the baldy sexist and abusive behavior of Man U players at what became known as the team’s “Christmas Rape Party” (thank you British Tabloid culture).