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Is sexism still rife in football?

By Alistair Magowan

Sian Massey
Sian Massey, 25, is one of three top-level female officials in England

The off-air criticism of assistant referee Sian Massey by Sky Sports presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray has made it hard not to sense a touch of deja vu.

Four years ago, the-then Luton Town boss Mike Newell was fined £6,500 by the Football Association for a similar transgression.

He claimed that Amy Rayner's role as an assistant referee during one of his team's matches was "tokenism for the politically-correct idiots" after she did not award a penalty for his side.

Newell apologised and was eventually sacked by the club for another outspoken incident.

However, the latest outburst - where Keys and Gray claimed Massey needed to learn the offside rule - has reignited the debate on whether sexism is rife in football.

Additionally, the high-profile pair also mocked West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady's claims in a newspaper column that the issue is still prevalent.

"See charming Karren Brady this morning complaining about sexism?" Keys said to his colleague. "Yeah. Do me a favour, love."

That off-the-cuff statement probably answers the question almost immediately, and it has been backed up by a further recording that has led to Gray being sacked from his Sky role.

But reaction to the comments, which has been mostly negative towards Keys and Gray, coupled with evidence from the game, suggest that steady progress is being made.

Hard facts, on the other hand, show that women's opportunities in some areas of men's football are still limited.

The incident which sparked the furore is a case in point.

As many footballers and referees' officials have since concluded, Massey was an assistant referee on merit alone at Saturday's Premier League game between Wolves and Liverpool.

The 25-year-old has come through the ranks as a fully qualified referee and has been an assistant in the Premier League already, running the line for the Sunderland versus Blackpool game on 28 December.

More embarrassingly for Keys and Gray, who made the comments before the match and were temporarily suspended from their duties, Massey proved her ability in front of a TV audience by getting a marginal offside decision absolutely correct.

Raul Meireles was put through for Liverpool's opening goal in the 3-0 victory and although the midfielder looked offside, when the decision was reviewed Massey was vindicated.

Yet even though she has been an official at Football League level for two years, Massey, Rayner (now Fearne) and Sasa Ihringova are the only three women who officiate in professional football in England. There are 853 women referees in England overall.

Then there is the picture at boardroom level.

Although women hold senior positions in nearly all of the Premier League's 20 clubs, only five have female directors.

And Brady, who is one of them, says that Keys and Gray's comments are reflective of the glass ceiling still present in football, an issue also apparent in business where just 12.5% of FTSE 100 directors are women.

Andy Gray and Richard Keys
Keys and Gray were talking off-air in the build-up to Wolves v Liverpool

"What really upsets me is the fact that only females in our industry are judged by their gender and that is categorically wrong," she told BBC Radio 5 live.

"When I left Birmingham City, 75% of senior managers were women. West Ham brought in three women. Football still has this old fashioned out-of-date view of what a woman's role is in the industry."

Of course, there is yet to be a female manager in the men's game, although England women's team boss Hope Powell has said she would consider a position if asked.

But with the women's game on the up, and a new Super League to begin this summer, there are other indications that women are gaining more acceptance in a range of areas.

Professional players have been quick to defend Massey with England captain Rio Ferdinand calling it "prehistoric" to think otherwise, and Derby captain Robbie Savage saying Massey was "exceptionally good" in the games he had played in where she was an official.

"It's irrelevant, the gender of an assistant," Savage added. "It's about getting the decisions right and Massey got it spot on - a great decision."

This mood also reflects a growing trend in those going to watch football.

Research shows that 19% of attendees in the 2008/09 Premier League season were women, and of those who have started going to games in the last five years 33% were female.

Premier League officials believe the increased safety of football grounds have encouraged this.

More women at football matches has also had a knock-on effect on those attending games from black and ethnic minorities.

In broadcasting, too, there are now many prominent figures including the BBC's Gabby Logan, Juliette Ferrington, Eleanor Oldroyd and Jacqui Oatley, ESPN's Rebecca Lowe and Kelly Cates, and Sky Sports' Clare Tomlinson as well as Georgie Thompson.

And at the top tables in football administration, such as the Football Association, Premier League and the Football League there are women in senior roles.

Reece sure can smother

"Football bodies have worked very hard to eradicate all forms of discrimination from the game and it was obviously very disappointing [to hear the comments]," the FA's head of National Game strategy Kelly Simmons said.

"The game in unrecognisable from when I played it 20 years ago and there are women involved in all areas, so it has really moved on.

"Sian Massey did a tremendous job and gave the big decision correctly, but more and more women are coming into the game."

The obvious conclusion to draw from Keys and Gray's comments is that sexism in football has not diminished significantly since Newell's comments in 2007.

But their remarks were made against a backdrop of shifting public opinion which has made two very experienced sports broadcasters appear badly out of touch.

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see also
Sky discipline pair over comments
24 Jan 11 |  Football
Wolves 0-3 Liverpool
22 Jan 11 |  Premier League
Newell fined over sexist outburst
13 Feb 07 |  Luton

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Yahoo! UK and Ireland Andy Gray 'Very Sorry' Over Sexism Row - 1 hr ago
FanHouse UK Richard Keys Comes Out Fighting and Blames "Dark Forces" For His Woes - 1 hr ago
Zoo Today Female Footy Officials - Yay or Nay? - 1 hr ago
London Evening Standard Richard Keys 'deeply sorry' over sexist remarks but blames 'dark forces' at Sky - 1 hr ago
Marie Claire UK Is sexism rife in 2011? - 13 hrs ago