That Andy Gray and Richard Keys have been suspended from duty by Sky Sports for this evening’s Premier League match should come as no great surprise. The issue of their off-the-microphone comments regarding several different issues relating to the role of women in football has spiralled out of the control of the broadcaster and hasn’t blown over in the manner in which Sky might have hoped. They had the opportunity to apologise properly for the comments at any point during Sky’s Sunday broadcast yesterday, but this opportunity was not taken. It may, at this point, be worth asking the question of asking why this was not done and what will happen now.
There is no questioning the stupidity of the comments that Gray and Keys made, and the fact that they managed to crowbar another female referee, Wendy Toms, and some disparaging comments about Karren Brady into their conversation would seem to indicate that the appointment of Massey was just one aspect of the matter of the role of women in the game that they, for whatever reason, have an issue with. That such comments still cause some degree of surprise is a reflection upon the extent to which the locker-room mentality of senior football is now kept behind closed doors, but it still exists and the fact that Gray and Keys’ comments on the role of women within the game were made off-microphone and that it is not unreasonable to argue that nether of them would have so much as considered making them on-camera is in itself says something itself about this culture.
The comments concerning Massey were made before the match, but Gray still called an “offside” decision in the build-up to Liverpool’s opening goal incorrectly himself during Sky’s Saturday broadcast. What does it say about the standard of modern football punditry in Britain when said pundits, with the benefit of slow motion action replays and the benefits of repeated viewing, still can’t call a decision correctly when the referee’s assistant called it correctly in the first place? This, perhaps, should be a matter that also gives the management of Sky Sports pause for consideration when considering what to do next. The over-riding matter for discussion, however, needs to remain this gross sexism and whether the continuing employment of Gray and Keys is tenable, considering what they said and the uproar that it has led to. The alternative to a call of incompetence being levelled at them – and there surely couldn’t have been a deliberate attempt on their part to undermine the authority of Sian Massey on account of her gender – doesn’t bear thinking about, but neither explanation covers them in glory.
The options facing Sky now seem to be for them to either rest them for a couple of weeks and give the subject time to blow over, or to sack them for gross misconduct. Considering the extent to which the old boys club still seems to exist within the game, it seems unlikely that the latter will happen. The former may end up being the way that this story plays out but, much as this is the expedient route for Sky to follow (it demonstrates to the world that they have taken action without really admitting any liability for what was said, and, “Why should we?”, they may well ask, considering that the words were not said on-screen) but how many viewers would readily accept a public apology, if one were to ge forthcoming? A public apology wouldn’t be worth anything if it was merely being said because somebody – the show’s producer, the channel’s head, Rupert Murdoch, whoever – was demanding it because they thought that it was what the watching audience wanted to hear and that it would placate what seems to have been very real and very heartfelt anger over the comments.
A far bolder move would be for Sky to offer them to save their jobs by taking part in a round-table discussion on the issue of sexism within football. Broadcasting such a programme would give everyone an opportunity to understand what Gray and Keys said, why they said it and what might actually be done in order to help to clean the game of such attitudes. Sexism, racism and homophobia have no place in football, this much we already know, but the value of campaigns such as the FA’s “Respect” campaign are fundamentally undermined if it becomes common knowledge that people working within the game at a senior level (and broadcasters are at a senior level) still hold such attitudes. This is not a question of conducting a public humiliation of Gray and Keys, but of actually taking steps to address such issues and what might be done to resolve them. To suggest that women are somehow incapable of refereeing football matches is such a bizarre statement to make that it is worthy of a full and proper explanation, for every female referee, player, supporter and Sky Sports subscriber, at the very least.
It has been suggested by some that the comments don’t merit our attention because they weren’t made on-air. This, however, is something of a straw man argument. We have, by hook or by crook, managed to establish the viewpoints of the Gray and Keys on the subject of women in football. They are in a position of responsibility because of the positions that they hold and should be called to account for them. It would perhaps be more pertinent to wonder what the reaction to the comments might have been had they been racist or homophobic. Are the comments made somehow “less bad” because they were aimed at women than they might have been had they been aimed at individuals of a specific ethnic background or sexual persuasion? There will always be those more than happy to disparage any criticism of this sort as “political correctness gone mad”. That these voices can sometimes be very loud doesn’t make them right, though.
These events couldn’t come at a worse time for football on the television, should we be allowed to ringfence such a concept as anything solid. Criticism has grown and grown over the last few months over the quality of punditry on British television and events such as these only add fuel to this fire. Perhaps, though, there is an opportunity with stories such as this for broadcasters to think a little more laterally in terms of who they choose to front their programmes. If the likes of Gray and Keys are relics from a bygone age then they, and all the others of their generation that hold similar opinions, should be swept out. Nobody has a divine right to perpetual employment in any sphere, and if the judgement of Gray and Keys cannot be trusted, there are plenty of others that could take their place. For Sky Sports and British sports broadcasters in a more general sense, there is an opportunity to be grasped here. The question is one of whether any of them have the nerve to seize the nettle or not.
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