Media spotlight exposes football’s continued ignorance

This week Michael Ball was unceremoniously dismissed and fined £6,000 by his employers Leicester City Football Club for posting homophobic comments on Twitter. Just a couple of week’s before that Paul Jewell made unsavory and somewhat sexist comments about female official Amy Fearn, after watching his team’s defeat against Birmingham City. The first month of the New Year has barely come to a close and already we have two more examples of how out of touch many of those within the game are against a changing world. Worst still, each indiscretion is captured and painfully exposed by a relentless, 24-7 news hungry media.

Over the past twenty years, football has benefitted more than any other sport from the growth of the media and the dot com revolution. The English Premier League in particular has been transformed by the vast sums of money invested in it, predominately by media giants BSkyB, whose own rise has been almost unprecedented. However, this has, literally, come at a price and it is one that threatens to tarnish the image of the game in this country and completely isolate it from its ever changing customer-base. As British society has learned to become a more tolerant one, in many ways English football is still trapped in the same world that it has been in for decades, albeit that today there is a different force that spins it. At the playing end of the game, where the nitty-gritty takes place, the game is still dominated by players, coaches and managers that are inducted into the same macho culture that surrounds the dressing room, which is supposedly so vital in terms of harnessing a ‘good team spirit’. Whilst it may well help to serve that purpose, it has also succeeded in perpetuating the sort of bigoted behaviour by those connected with the game, which has been so mercilessly highlighted in recent weeks and months. So is this the fault of the media or the fault of football?

Attitudinally, the modern English footballer is fundamentally no different to his predecessors that have worn the same shirt for the past 50 years or so. Essentially, footballers are what it says on the tin and not a great deal more than that. When they enter the game, they also enter a world that places them in a docile bubble that is far removed from the rapidly changing real world. In their world chauvinism and intolerance are accepted and often expected in order to survive. When many footballers hang up their boots and go into coaching and management that world doesn’t change. If anything, it gets worse as they are then responsible for manipulating a set of individuals in order to foster a team spirit in the only way they know how, which is the way they themselves were introduced to. Within it there may be room for those from differing races, ethnicities and cultures, but a true understanding of diversity is not always high on the agenda. There would also appear to be very limited room for black managers and coaches as evidenced by the fact there are presently only two black managers in the professional game in this country. In their world, the game is a man’s game and there is little room for women to mix with the men on the field of play. Such behaviour and attitudes are replicated on the terraces where songs are bellowed across grounds around the country exacerbating homophobia, racism and sexism. In this sense, very little has changed over the past 50 years.

What has undoubtedly changed is the scope for capturing and exposing this on the part of the media and the press. As a result, the world of football continues to stumble from one high profile faux pas to another.

Jewell’s comments were reminiscent of similar comments made by former Luton Town manager, Mike Newell who directed an equally disrespectful sexist tirade at Amy Rayner in a post match interview back in 2006. More recently, Andy Gray and Richard Keys were removed from their ‘jobs for life’ spearheading Sky Sports football coverage for alleged systematic sexism behind the scenes in the Sky studios. This came to light after Gray was initially caught on camera making off the air comments about match official Sian Massey to his colleague, Sky Sports reporter Andy Burton.

In the days prior to the introduction of the Premier League and the TV rights deal that really catapulted SkySports to the summit of British sports broadcasting, the media’s interest in English football was largely confined to match coverage, either live or via highlights. BBC’s Football Focus was one of the few opportunities for viewers to get a behind the scenes insight into life off the pitch. However, this was largely a watered-down version of the true football environment and the public were more reliant on the press to occasionally expose football’s solecisms, normally following an over-exuberant night out.

However the Premier League brand and the unlimited riches it brings has created a new celebrity culture that few footballers appear to be adequately equipped to deal with. Throw into the mix a few modern social networking tools, and all of a sudden the modern footballer is even more vulnerable than ever, as Michael Ball can no doubt testify.

Having concluded that Luis Suarez was guilty of using racist language towards Patrice Evra, the FA now has a decision to make about the current England captain. Even if he is found not guilty at the conclusion of his forthcoming court case, surely there will be sufficient mud stuck to him to doubt his credentials to be captain of the national team. Whatever it was that that John Terry said to Anton Ferninand, and in whatever context he said it, he could not have imagined that his actions would have been so candidly caught on camera and would appear on YouTube within minutes of the final whistle of his match against QPR. The same could be said of Sepp Blatter, although as the occupant of the most important job in the most popular sport in the world, he should have known better. Quite how he manages to cling onto power in the face of a catalogue of similarly embarrassing imprecisions, only serves to provide those that regard his organisation as corrupt, with greater ammunition. 

Those within the game that seek to vilify the modern media are often all too grateful for it to provide them with a lucrative career once they hang up their boots or trenchcoats. But just as the media giveth, the media can taketh away and in going so can leave reputations irretrievably damaged. Ron Atkinson is a classic case in point.

Alan Hansen will rightly escape the same fate as Atkinson, but his recent choice of words when describing black footballers as ‘coloured’ was to many a throwback to the era that he played in.

That the media provides a platform for football people to share their views and acquire a regular source of income is commendable. But with it comes a greater sense of responsibility to be careful not to offend the mainstream audience that tune in to them, and this of course is a perilous tightrope. Football people are not politicians and will rarely be aware of the politically correct protocols that surround TV broadcasting. Alan Pardew also found this to his cost when he somewhat innocuously used a commonly used ‘football term’ to describe a player’s defensive frailties, during a half-time broadcast. Unfortunately his choice of phrase was ‘he got raped’, which to a watching audience was at best inappropriate and to many totally outrageous.

Over recent years football’s intolerance has spread far and wide. Whether it be its reaction to serious medical conditions such as depression, or the incandescent outrage that greeted John Fashanu’s declaration that he was gay, the game seems to repeatedly struggle to align itself to the real world. That said, Leicester City should be applauded for their decisive action against Michael Ball and their willingness to break the mould. It’s just a pity that more clubs are not as keen to follow their lead.

Once upon a time, the media was seen as the ultimate tool for bringing the game closer to those that have an interest in it. But the media has now become a highly competitive industry that is reliant on news and cutting edge technology to provide it, in equal measure. Football’s failure to recognise this and change tact threatens to do exactly the opposite to what was intended many years ago. The more football behaves irresponsibly, the more the common people will be turned off and once it does, the great bubble the modern footballer lives in will inevitably burst.

Wayne Wiggins @Wayne_Wiggin

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