Though football invests much time and effort in its boasts about inclusiveness and its omnipotent power for breaking down social barriers and connecting a divided society, it doesn’t take a thorough inspection of the evidence to expose this uncritical self-assessment as, to put it politely, ripe for review. The numbers are as depressing as they are familiar – 4 black managers across 92 league clubs, not a single openly gay footballer in the professional leagues, negligible representation from second and third generation Asian communities – but the day to day consumption of football from media sources can leave one exasperated by a game reluctant to grasp the nettle of social responsibility. Football has the reach and the resources to lead social change from the front but when it comes to prickly choices over greasing the wheels of commerce and entrenching the status quo the authorities appears conspicuously inward-facing. A couple of examples stand out.
The women’s game suffers from an appalling lack of promotion from the Premier League and from Sky, but just as damaging is the way a female presence is used to add garnish to the men’s brand. Crystal Palace celebrated promotion back to the top flight last month by releasing a video of their cheerleading troupe – The Crystals – performing a cover of Selhurst Park terrace favourite Glad All Over: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pI8DRQxGke4
It’s the kind of tat that will have the boys club in a tired defence of innocent fun, but something creeping and nasty is implicit here. It’s not a fashionable argument but the club’s treatment of its female representatives is crass and reeks of misogynistic horseplay. Although perhaps ‘treatment’ is the wrong word. There is no exploitation going on here per se and the clip is bursting with energy and willing, but the real victims here are the image of the club and a young audience being fed a confusing message about gender roles in the professional game.
What message does the game send to its young female fans when the most conspicuous involvement its women have is whipping off their kit for cheap and trashy promos? The lack of female presence in the technical part of the game is galling but just as damaging is the PR campaigns that bring the game into our homes for their lack of gender balance. Where are the female pundits, the commentators (the BBC have been sporadically touting Jacqui Oatly as its token quota filler for too long) and the stadium announcers? Where, in the grand span of things, is the female face of the game?
Or perhaps it is the female voice that is missing. The women’s game is every bit as technical and complex as the men’s but how often this season have we seen a representative of the former invited onto the plush sofas of any of the main broadcasters to offer their analysis of football science? One rebuttal goes that only top players make top pundits, that the men’s game has a thirty or forty year head-start in its development over its counterpart and therefore a higher pace and intensity make it a different animal altogether. Maybe so, but with the embarrassingly low standards set by the industry is it not time to try out a new breed of analysts, perhaps one or two from the less watched but equally skilled incarnation of the game? In terms of the quality of the product, for which rock bottom was hit some years ago now, there is little at stake, but for an impressionable young audience still forming their views on the game and on the world isn’t it about time that football began to present itself as a more balanced institution?
Coverage of the women’s game offers viewers a more settled gender landscape but its impact on the national consciousness is limited due to the slow growth of the game as a spectacle. A new generation of fans will have their thoughts moulded by the media sensations churned out by the Premier League which is where the buck stops as far as presenting the female perspective on the game is concerned. Richard Scudamore and his colleagues in the media and club management have a burdensome responsibility on them but their vast resources and expertise means that they have the broad shoulders to bear it.
Sky did some good work when clearing out in the aftermath of the Richard Keys and Andy Gray fiasco but it surely represents a bare minimum as far as re-branding the game from a male-dominated to a more democratic piece of television is concerned. Coverage has benefited from the removal of two of the more odious faces of chauvinistic buffoonery but a chance to show the nation that women in football are there not just to be protected but to be given a platform for expression was lost, and little about the make-up of on-screen talent has altered in the half-decade since.
But then Sky and the Premier League aren’t known for their willingness stand up for any principal that can’t be counted on a balance sheet and a wealth of resources has so often in the past failed to pave a clear path in the direction of progress. There are those that will say that football has no business in the promotion of social betterment, that the game should be enjoyed for its intrinsic charm and an alliance of sport and social politics will always be wild and difficult to tame. But our national game is one of our most influential tools for defining and measuring social policy, and to exclude the cause of gender democracy from it carries a high price. Crystal Palace have already cast their ballot over how best to give the modern game a female edge. We must hope that the Crystals will be little more than a dying ember of televised football’s chauvinistic past.