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Society, Politics & Law

Who's really offside?

Updated Tuesday, 25th January 2011

Who's really offside in sports? Kath Woodward, Professor of Sociology at The Open University, responds to sexist comments made by two sports presenters about a female assistant referee.

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Burst football Creative commons image Icon By indigo_jones via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license

During game between Liverpool and Wolves, Andy Gray and Richard Keys were playing the game as they know it when they exchanged comments about the competence, or rather claimed incompetence of assistant referee (aka ‘linesman’) and their off-air conversation was leaked to the press.

In spite of the efforts of organisations which combat all forms of prejudice and legislation against discriminatory practice, football remains dominated by a hegemonic masculinity which devalues women and takes for granted the acceptability of sexist discourse and gender discriminatory cultural practices. Referees are used to negative comments but in this case the criticism was framed by a version of masculinity which targets women as inherently incapable of understanding the rules of sport, especially football.

Hostility may be expressed in the language of homophobia, racism, ethnocentrism and sexism, but men are not targeted because they are men, whereas in cases like that of Sian Massey, her competence is called into question, even though she in fact made a good call and clearly is very well aware of the offside rule, just because she is a woman and in football this is par for the course.

Men's control

Heather Rabbatts of Millwall argued on BBC Five Live that, although there was a strong case for more women referees, when they are appointed they can expect the same abuse as the men who do the job. It is not identical though. There is abuse, but in the case of women the abuse takes particular forms, which are expressions of men’s control of the game and the marginalisation, and even the exclusion, of women.

There have been massive culture shifts in sport, in the anti-discriminatory legislation and activism, for example kicking racism off the terraces and out of the ground eg, FARE(Football Against Racism in Europe) and Kick It Out. But gender bias is resolutely entrenched in the culture of a sport that has nonetheless seen massive increases in the number of women participating, as players, as amateurs if not professionals it has to be said, and as referees (as evidenced by the Football Association’s website.

The FA has attempted to distance itself from the remarks made by Gray and Keys and has emphasised the progress made by women and girls in football (interestingly, men in football are not usually allied to boys on the FA website; maybe football sorts out the men from the boys?).  Sky Sports, which has a particularly good reputation for broadcasting women’s sport, also stressed the unacceptability of these comments.

Media coverage and tweets about the incident have embraced discourses of political correctness, rights and inequality as well as reiterating the everyday practices of sexism in sport. The men were not forced to resign, as Ron Atkinson did for his off air racist comments about the Chelsea player Marcel Desailly in 2004.

So the event is still underpinned by the routine acceptance of discrimination against women. It is not superficial; it matters and the FA is fighting a losing battle in its attempts to promote the women’s game and gender equality, if these everyday cultural practices are not addressed.

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