By Shane Thomas
Wolves against Liverpool on a Saturday lunchtime. Unless you're a fan of those two sides, it's pretty mundane fare. So much so, I decided to head up to Central London rather than stay in to watch it. But before leaving my home, commentator Rob Hawthorne made mention that one of the assistant referees for the match was a woman. I sighed, rolled my eyes & turned the television off.
The following day however, revealed that there was plenty more said about official Sian Massey in the Sky Sports commentary box. While Hawthorne's comment was objective if unnecessary, pundit Andy Gray and presenter Richard Keys ventured their opinion of a woman running the line in a Premier League match. The audio of what they said while they thought their microphones were turned off can be found here - http://bit.ly/hlMk2g
Not that Massey needed to, but what justified her selection even more was that she had to make a tricky offside call against Raul Meirelles in the first-half, which at first glance looked onside, but replays were shown to vindicate Massey's decision. In the interests of full disclosure here, upon first hearing Gray's and Keys's comments, I was seething, and was initially going to write a blog post full of vitriol and bile towards the pair of them. But in the interest of a fair hearing, let's deconstruct the specific quotes that have caused such furore:
Keys: (referring to Massey) "Somebody better get down there & explain offside to her"
So Mr Keys, why is that? She's been appointed as the assistant referee, in which a sizeable part of her duties involves determining whether a player is offside or not. By suggesting that she needs the law of offside explaining to her would not only mean that she is woefully underqualified for her position but would put the potential integrity of the match at risk. Would it not be in the broadcaster's remit to point this out? The fact that no member of the Sky Sports commentary team did this during their coverage of the Wolves/Liverpool game constitues incompetence on their part.
Gray: "Can you believe that. A female linesman. Women don't know the offside rule"
Well that's news to me. To make such a closed statement, I can only surmise that Mr Gray has done extensive research on comparing the knowledge of the offside law on both of the male and female population of the world. How he has managed to combine this research with his job as a pundit on Sky beggars belief. After all, it couldn't have been based solely on a lazy and offensive stereotype about women not having the mental capability to understand the concept of offside when any person with half a brain cell knows that it's people who don't like football in general that find offside difficult to grasp, no matter what their gender.
Keys: "I can guarantee you there will be a big one (decision) today"
Indeed there was. As I stated earlier, Liverpool were disallowed a goal after Massey flagged Raul Meirelles offside. Sky's own TV replays showed that Massey had made the right call. What a prescient claim this turned out to be from Keys. Maybe he's in the wrong profession. With predicting skills like that he could make a fortune. Well... more than he makes with Sky at least.
Keys: (sighing wearily) The game's gone mad. Did you hear charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism? Do me a favour, love.”
Ok, I can't do this passive-agressive sarcasm schtick any longer. This whole episode raises two major points. While it would be ridiculous to expect every person working in football broadcasting to be of a pleasant dispostion, television channels have laid a precedent for offensive comments in the past. In 2004 Rodney Marsh was fired from his position at Sky after making an ill-advised play-on-words regarding the tsunami that had just hit Sri Lanka. And most famously, Ron Atkinson lost his job at ITV after making a racist slur against then Chelsea captain, Marcel Desailly. Like Keys & Gray, 'Big Ron' also was unaware that he was miked up whilst letting his verbal guard down.
So it seems that the line had been drawn. Bigotry or mocking in the light of human tragedy is expressly forbidden. There has been an annoying amount of guff spouted about the proficiency (or lack of it) of Keys and Gray's professional merits. This is irrelevant. Whether you think highly of them as presenters and pundits or not, the issue at hand is their disparagingly sexist comments, not their thoughts on Darren Bent joining Aston Villa. After all, I personally have little regard for Karren Brady, but then I also have little regard for her bosses at West Ham. What Keys said about her was disrespectful and dismissive.
Whether you are an avid watcher of Sky Sports or hate everything about them, the indisputable fact is that they are a major player in the British game, and what action the network take from here will have genuine resonance. During their coverage of yesterday's game between Blackburn and West Brom, it was business as usual, with the tactic obviously being to bury heads in the sand and hope that all would be forgotten. Well, guess what, we haven't forgotten a thing. The public outcry has meant that Sky have been unable to sweep this under the carpet. With their hand forced they have announced that Keys & Gray had been suspended from their position presenting the 'Monday Night Football' match between Chelsea & Bolton.
Regardless of their professional competence, Keys and Gray have been laid bare as a couple of bigoted troglodytes. The fact that their prejudice is aimed at women rather than say, black people, should make no difference to how they are perceived from this moment on. Sport often holds up a mirror to society and despite the suspension, what Sky do from here is very significant. If they were not to take a firm line, it means that they do view prejudice against women as acceptable. And that's something that should not be viewed as acceptable by anyone.
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