Sex Discrimination and Football
Ah, that word “banter” again.
Now I’ve got to confess I’ve never played football at any level (Alan Brazil can stop reading now), but now and then by various means we get the odd glimmer of insight into the inner sanctum of the changing room. For anyone who missed it last year, here’s the judgment on John McCormack’s claim for wrongful dismissal against Hamilton Accies. McCormack’s stint as assistant manager to Billy Reid at New Douglas Park had been a brief one, in 2008, and the club brought up a number of issues in the hearing. Here’s an extract, relating to his treatment of Jillian Galloway, a 21 year old physiotherapist just setting out on her career, at a pre-season tournament in Oban.
 Before the final match against Dundee United, Mr McCormack gave a team talk in the dressing room. Both Mr McAvoy and Miss Galloway were present. Mr McCormack told the players “this is like the wee tickly bit before you come”. He then added words to the effect “even Jillian is excited – look how hard her nipples are”. Mr McCormack said that these comments were made in a jovial manner. His aim was to break the tension that the players felt. He regarded his remarks as standard locker room banter, which helped to motivate the players.
 After the final, Miss Galloway was sitting outside the dressing room. She had ascertained that none of the Hamilton players required treatment. Mr McCormack told her that the physiotherapist should be in the dressing room at all times, in case treatment was required. He instructed her to go back inside with him. As they went into the dressing room, Mr McCormack said “get your tackle out lads, Jillian’s coming to see who’s got the biggest tadger”.
The most surprising thing about any of this is that McCormack actually won his case. Though it should be said that the claim was for wrongful rather than unfair dismissal (ie a dismissal that was not handled in accordance with the terms of his contract) and that Hamilton botched it, procedurally. Had they sacked him for the above incident, at the time of it happening and after due investigation and a proper hearing, there’s little doubt that they would have been on solid ground. Unfortunately, they didn’t do that. They let it pass, and sacked him sometime afterwards without any procedural niceties because things weren’t working out. The chance to take a stand against sexual harassment was lost.
This week, of course, saw a much higher profile case of “banter” in the world of football, not from the dressing room but the commentary box, and while many people, even within the game, seem to have appreciated just why the sacking of Gray was entirely proportionate, there have still been plenty who still don’t get it. There remains much point-missing on the difference between comments about a woman’s attractiveness and comments about her professional competence, and a predictable lack of understanding about the nature of any such discussions, and why their seriousness is down to context rather than the simple fact of them having taken place.
Have I ever had similar conversations in the workplace about women in sexual terms? Yes of course. (Though have I ever said anything as crude and unpleasant as “did you smash it?” – no, I honestly don’t think so.) Such conversations are not, in themselves, unacceptable or worthy of disciplinary sanctions. Still less is is any sort of thought crime or a campaign against men. It becomes a disciplinary matter when it clashes with the needs of employers – including, of course, football clubs and TV companies – to create a non-discriminatory working environment for all its staff. Some women making crass comments about men for broadcast on an episode of Loose Women does not discriminate against anyone (unless it’s part of some unusually anti-male vibe that continues behind the scenes); sexually suggestive comments directed at people within a workplace probably does. And in more general terms, that doesn’t mean only those staff who happen to work there at the time, but also any such staff as might potentially do so – it’s all very well saying there aren’t many women around in a particular environment to be offended or discriminated against (or that those who are don’t mind it), but the behaviour might be part of a culture that reaffirms precisely that situation.
In that respect, it doesn’t matter a hoot who happens to overhear something you say, and the excuse that Keys and Gray didn’t intend anything to be broadcast carries no weight whatever. In practice such conversations between individuals do of course take place. But you have to be very very sure of your audience. Many men might believe that the women they have such chatter with might not mind, or might even enjoy the exchanges, and they might at times be right. But generally speaking we’re pretty poor at making that judgement. And however much someone might say, when asked, that they don’t mind, you need to be wary of it, particularly when the person concerned might have any reason to feel a little intimidated. Like if they’re particularly young, if it’s a rather macho environment, and especially if you’re the boss.
I like to think there aren’t actually that many people in the game with quite so little sensitivity to all these issues as John McCormack demonstrated in that Hamilton dressing room. But all the clips we’ve seen of Gray this week suggested he had little grasp of it, and Keys’s desperate non-apology in his radio interview during the week suggested equally little ability to make that judgement, nor even any particular interest in doing so. The comments were made more or less indiscriminately, and in any case when they’re made on camera you’ve entirely lost control of what your audience might be, regardless of whether you think they’ll be broadcast or not, and they went way beyond the bounds of acceptability.
The original comments on Sian Massey and the offside law were of a slightly different nature, but were even more clearly discriminatory. Furthermore, they were nasty and vindictive. Over and above their responsibilities in the workplace, Gray and Keys are public figures whose jobs affect as well as rely on the public reputation of their employers. For that reason too, they were sackable, and I can’t see how either man would have a leg to stand on should they make a claim for unfair dismissal (or constructive dismissal, in Keys’s case). There have been many suggestions that this was all orchestrated, that Sky or someone within them had an agenda to force the two men out. I’ve no idea what truth there is to any such claims, but there is no need to resort to making them to explain the disciplinary action. I’ve about as much sympathy as I had for MPs who argued that they’d been claiming their expenses that way for years so why was it suddenly an issue now?
But just in case there’s any danger of giving Sky too much credit for having done the right thing, Soccer AM was on as usual this morning, and there as every week was your panel of exclusively male fans and there as every week was your lovely Soccerette. Attitudes within the world of football – and its broadcasting – have some way to shift yet on the gender equality front.