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But when did we ever understand the offside rule?
A funny thing happened last week in the Premier League. Two of SkySports most prominent match commentators, Michael Keys and Andy Gray, made some really retrograde remarks about female official Sian Massey, extending the offensive suggestion that "women don't understand the offside rule" to the entire female population of the world.
Both men, not aware that they were being recorded, immediately became the target of some of the most vitriolic attacks seen in the British media for some time. Admittedly, the tone and content of their self-proclaimed 'private banter' was extremely offensive, and belittled Ms Massey professionally.
But while the nation debated whether the pair should be sacked, I argued, on BBC, that no: if Gray and Keys got picked on/sacked/turned into objects of public ridicule they would become the main issue and we would risk, as a society, shifting attention away from a really serious problem without ever addressing it properly.
As the days passed, Gray was sacked and Keys soon resigned. However, the furore didn't die down. Gray's personal life was splashed across front pages with Victorian accusations of having fathered 'love children'. Then came the 'off the record' footage showing Gray asking a female co-presenter to tuck a microphone in his trousers. Video images of both of them laughing at an all-female match, or Keys drooling suggestively at now infamous presenter Ulrika Jonsson on her first day at work over two decades ago, were aired over and over again. Some dared to defend them, claiming all men talk like that at the pub. Others tried to see it in jest, many shouted about how women often say nasty things about men and invoke the male genitals in order to insult them.
And of course, the conspiracy theorists also found a ready argument for Mr Gray, a £1. 7-million-a-year ex-footballer pundit who has been with Sky for 20 years, showing him as one of the claimants against News International in an ongoing phone-hacking investigation.
Suddenly, we were told unequivocally, first by Sky and then by 'society', that sexism and prejudice have no place in the modern game. In the meantime, a single female football agent was interviewed in a tabloid, her stiletto provocatively piercing the ball in an over-staged photograph which is not like any photograph of a male football agent I've ever seen in a newspaper.
A high-brow current affairs show decided to cover the event five days after it happened, by inviting a pretty female singer to be asked by ageing white men whether or not "men should open the door for women".
The more important point, however, is what did not happen during the loud and emotive condemnation of the two men, as individuals, which ran on and on for close to 10 days. Quietly-voiced anonymously on some on-line forums, now and again, one might stumble upon a line of reasoned introspection, such as "by attacking with such fury we exorcise our own guilt at the expense of real behavioral reform".
Now, there is no doubt that football is a man's game. More importantly, it is a game that allows millions of men to emote and this connection they have with the game is to a very large extent based on the clear notion of 'us' and 'them'. By definition, football is the forum where we can hurl abuse at the 'other'. When it escalates into real-life physical violence, as it so often has and does, we need to step in.
It is also an 'old boy's club'. It is not the same sort of old boy's club as the parliamentary establishment, or banking and high finance, or the law courts. It is about cliques. As such, it has struggled to embrace 'otherness' as part of the team. Black players have come a long way but not black managers. Campaign lobbies such as Kickitout are addressing this as well as gender discrimination - they commissioned a superb video of women reciting the off-side rule in response to KeysGrayGate: (http:// exitlanguages. wordpress. com/2011/01/30/women-do-understandthe-offside-rule ). Asians are still vastly under-represented at the professional levels. So in no way can we argue that sexism is not an issue in football. It reflects the underachievement of the oppressed in society at large;women continue to earn consistently less for doing the same jobs. Only this week an American website (http:// vidaweb. org/the-count-2010 ) pie-charted the number of female writers who contribute or get reviewed in mainstream media;it is shockingly low.
This is an urgent and serious issue. We live in a world in which we know now that injustice, inequality and prejudice breed discontent of the highest order. Of course, we must condemn this and strive to address the imbalance. But in our knee-jerk reaction to hunt down Gray and Keys, we overlooked one small detail. Ms Massey, who worked very hard, demonstrated a good grasp of the off-side rule and put up with ludicrous 'banter' as she went through the rigorous training to become a professional, suddenly found herself splashed on the front cover of newspapers: (http:// www. thesun. co. uk/sol/homepage/news/3369470/Sky-Sports-Andy-Gray-and-Richard-Keys-in-sexism-row-over-lineswoman-Sian-Massey. html)
And Ms Massey has still not been given a game to referee since the incident. She was due to officiate in midweek games, but the FA and the Professional Game Match Officials (PGMO) feel focus should be on the matches, not the officials. So she is unable to carry out her work. According to the Daily Mail, 'refereeing chiefs are at pains to counter claims that Massey has become an unfortunate victim of the controversy that cost Keys and Gray their jobs'. But while media crews are still camping at the assistant referee's door, "PGMO insiders say they are considering Massey's welfare as an individual as well as the integrity of the game in continuing to make difficult calls on her deployment. "
No game this week or next in appointments made up to Feb 8 means Ms Massey will have sat out two-and-a-half weeks. Perhaps someone ought to at least pay her compensation for lost earnings, which I would be willing to bet would probably not have amounted to much anyway.
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