In 1994, a 20-year-old trainee physiotherapist received a letter from Alex
Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United Football Club, declining her
request for a work placement. Ferguson explained his reasoning thus: “Most
of the players felt that football was very much a male sport, and did not
really like the thought of females being involved with the treating of
sports injuries within the training complex.”
Sensing the rumblings of a furore, Manchester United moved quickly to explain
away the letter when it emerged a few years ago. “Times have changed,” the
club said. “It wouldn’t happen again. The football environment is different.”
Exactly how different became starkly apparent in March 2013, during one of
Ferguson’s weekly press conferences. As it ended, the club’s media manager
Karen Shotbolt wished the room a “Happy International Women’s Day”. Quick as
a flash, Ferguson – by now Sir Alex – quipped: “She’s dragged herself out of
the kitchen.” The assembled journalists laughed heartily. Just another day
So for all football’s talk of progress, there was very little that was
surprising in Monday’s announcement that Richard Scudamore, the chief
executive of the Premier League, would not face disciplinary action over
sexist emails he sent to friends.
In the emails, passed to the Sunday Mirror by his former personal assistant,
the father of five joked about keeping a female colleague “off your shaft”
and the “irrationality” of women who have children. Then there was the joke
about a former girlfriend known as “double-decker”, for reasons that more
linguistically adventurous readers will doubtless be able to divine for
The squall of criticism that followed publication of the emails was blown into
a tsunami by the Prime Minister, who declared this week that a member of the
Cabinet who had sent such emails would be put out of a job, quite apart from
the fact that you would be hard pushed to find a member of the Cabinet who
knew how to send an email, let alone a sexist one. Nevertheless, an internal
inquiry established to investigate Scudamore’s conduct found that he had no
case to answer, although the panel magnanimously granted that the emails
“did include some inappropriate remarks”.
Naturally, it would be equally inappropriate to impugn the integrity of the
four men and zero women assembled to assess Scudamore’s sexist comments. The
fact that one, Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, is a friend and occasional
shooting partner of Scudamore is doubtless of piffling consequence.
As, too, is the fact that Scudamore is a very powerful man, holding the
purse-strings to a sporting spectacle broadcast in 212 territories around
the world and worth about £7 billion. For this is an appropriate juncture at
which to examine the bigger question, which is why something as big and as
important as sport is still giving half the population a raw deal.
Those who have watched the likes of Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and
Lizzy Yarnold catapulted to stardom on the back of their exploits for Team
GB may find this surprising. But you do not need to dig very deep to
discover the extent to which inequality is ingrained in our country’s most
The BBC broadcaster John Inverdale got himself into trouble at last year’s
Wimbledon when he posited that Marion Bartoli – who was about to play in the
ladies’ singles final – was “never going to be much of a looker”. Coming
from as irresistible a human specimen as Inverdale, this was harsh criticism
indeed. His prompt apology probably saved his job, and this week the pair
were reunited with smiles as colleagues on ITV’s French Open coverage.
Perhaps this was to be expected, given that not until 2007 did Wimbledon see
fit to pay male and female tennis champions the same prize money. Women were
banned from the pavilion at Lord’s cricket ground until 1999, with a
grudging exception made every few years for one particular lady – you know,
the one on the banknotes. To this day, golf’s Open Championship is played at
courses that do not allow women to be members.
And yet there is a sense that all this is really just scratching at the
veneer. Often, the most pernicious sexism in sport is not the arcane law,
the outdated tradition or the crusty old members’ club. Nor is it to be
found in the outrageous comment, the misogynistic slur or the bawdily
inappropriate joke. It is far subtler than that.
Consider the following question: why do we call it “football”, and not “men’s
football”? Women’s football – and here, of course, the qualifying adjective
is customary – is one of the UK’s leading participation sports, with 1.4
million women and girls playing the game regularly. Yet convention dictates
that “football” refers to the men’s pursuit, with the women’s game regarded
as an adulterated and inevitably inferior isotope of it.
Wherever one turns, one is confronted with the unspoken trope that sport is
very much something in which men participate, and women carry the pom-poms.
Boxing’s “ring girls” – the sparsely clothed women employed to hold up the
card at the start of each round – have been around for decades, but the idea
that women could actually box themselves was not entertained until 1997,
when the British Boxing Board of Control sanctioned its first female bout.
This was evident, too, in the incredulity of Sky Sports’ Richard Keys and Andy
Gray as they discussed the merits of a female linesman, in off-camera
remarks for which they both paid with their jobs. Indeed, you will find that
the media are often willing conspirators in this culture of casual sexism. A
2003 US study of sports photography found that while male athletes are
generally depicted alone, female athletes are far more likely to appear with
husbands, boyfriends or children.
If you send out a subliminal message that sport is something that is
essentially “not for girls”, then don’t be surprised when millions of girls
hang up their trainers as soon as they are old enough to stop doing PE.
Scudamore’s colleagues may protest that he is not a sexist, but consider a
hypothetical situation in which a man sends an email describing women with
children as “irrational”, shortly before closing his laptop and interviewing
a man and a woman for the same job.
Once you examine what lurks beneath the offhand jibe and the casual comment,
you get a good deal closer to discovering why only one in eight women
regularly plays sport. You get some idea of why the Manchester United squad
felt so uncomfortable being treated by a female physio, or why there were
four men and no women on the Premier League’s disciplinary panel. And, dare
we say it, you might get closer to understanding why, according to the
latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, women earn 15 per
cent less than men for the same hour’s work.
Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that all this is less a matter of
right and wrong than of pounds and dollars. Scudamore’s ability to negotiate
multi-billion pound deals on behalf of his members may go some way to
explaining why so many of them have sprung to his defence over the past few
And if economics is the problem, then perhaps it is also the solution. The
Marylebone Cricket Club, which owns Lord’s and oversees the laws of the
game, only relaxed its 212-year ban on allowing women to enter the pavilion
when it was told that it would not be allowed to apply for National Lottery
funding unless it did so. For all the outrage over Scudamore’s comments, it
was only when sponsor Barclays privately expressed concern that the Premier
League was prodded into action.
For at the most basic level, humans act on incentive and deterrent. At the
time, the sacking of Keys and Gray felt like a seismic shift in the way
sport was covered on television, yet in hindsight it appears to have been
the exception, not the rule. Inverdale, after all, kept his job. So did
Ferguson. And so did Scudamore. What was it Albert Einstein said about the
definition of insanity?
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