What a furore – and all because someone of a different gender was carrying a flag and being an assistant referee at a Premiership football match at the weekend. And, it should be noted, doing it very effectively.
For anyone who lives outside the UK, perhaps a little background would be helpful. It doesn’t happen very often that a woman acts as an assistant referee in England’s top flight football League – but it did last Saturday. During Sky Sports’ coverage, two presenters – Andy Gray and Richard Keys – were recorded making comments about the capability of the assistant referee to understand the Offside rule based purely on her gender. Further recordings then came to light with Andy Gray and another reporter discussing her physical appearance, and then a historical (December 2010) video recording of Andy Gray apparently asking a female co-presented to help position his microphone near the front of the top of his trousers. There have been various suspensions, and then yesterday Andy Gray had his contract terminated by Sky Sports, “in response to new evidence of unacceptable and offensive behaviour”.
The suspension was announced late yesterday afternoon. I was interested to see how the Sky channels would report it. At 5 o’clock on Sky News it was one of the lead stories together with the UK’s quarterly economic growth (or lack of), Lord Taylor being found guilty of false accounting and the truly tragic death of 4 children in a house fire in Derbyshire. At 5 o’clock on Sky Sports the lead stories were Blackpool playing Manchester United and Arsenal playing Ipswich Town later in the evening. There was a note in the written updates at the bottom of the screen (amongst many others) mentioning Mr Gray’s contract termination. Markedly different prioritisations.
Andy Gray will be missed as a football summariser as he really is one of – if not the – best on TV. But I don’t have any great sympathy for him – other than not supporting the idea of a ‘warning’ and then sacking him for something that had happened a month before the warning, because he had already had the warning. What he said and did was stupid, wrong, unacceptable and sexist. But I do think he looks like a bit of a scapegoat.
The internet, news programmes and papers are now awash with people talking about whether this indicates that football is (still) sexist, and producing statistics such as to the number of women attending football matches. But I think this misses the point.
The real point is whether Sky Sports is institutionally sexist. Ok, Andy Gray has been dismissed and two other presenters have been suspended and warned. But what about the camera people, the sound recordists, the editors, the producers? Many of them must have seen and heard these exchanges. What did they do about them? If it is nothing, then surely they are as responsible as the reporters – perhaps moreso if in positions of authority. Have any of them been disciplined?
None of these incidents took place ‘on air’ so someone has made them public. I presume, therefore, that someone found them unacceptable yet perhaps felt that they could not address the matter internally? A very good indication of institutional sexism.
And then Sky Sports didn’t see Andy Gray’s dismissal as a very important story – less important than two football matches that had been planned for several weeks. Yet Sky News viewed it on a par with a member of the House of Lords being found guilty of a crime and evidence that the UK’s quarterly economic growth was lower than expected. More evidence of institutional sexism?
Managers have a responsibility to address such behaviour when it happens – it’s sometimes referred to as ‘nipping it in the bud’. On the face of it, it appears that managers at Sky Sports may not have been exercising that responsibility effectively.
If this doesn’t happen, people of affected groups can start to feel marginalised (see my post on Allport’s Scale) and not part of the team. And if it is at a place where recording takes place most of the time, it can be relatively easy to make the evidence available in the public domain. And then the sky’s the limit ….