I FULLY EXPECT to be labelled ‘anti-banter’ for this. To be honest, I couldn’t care less. Some people choose sport as their main method of escapism. Some watch, some play, some do both. I gave up the football-playing ghost quite a while back but to say I immerse myself in football culture would be an understatement.
Traditional notions of my beloved beautiful game have come a long way even since I first became drawn to it in the mid-1990s. Some changes have most definitely been for the worse, bearing in mind the decline of the game here in Ireland, how wages have spiralled out of control at the top and how many clubs seem to think they can use their fanbase as an endless source of income through price hikes.
Other changes have been for the better. Football has effectively shown racism the red card, to the point where 99% of the time, it is no longer tolerated – by officials and fans alike. Inclusivity in sport, especially in one that claims to be the most popular and most accessible on the planet, is important.
Aligned with how we as a global village have, broadly, become more tolerant and inclusive over the past century, campaigns such as Show Racism the Red Card in recent times have kept the spotlight on racism in football with most clubs worth their stripes buying into the overall message. There are still isolated incidents in the terraces and even in the studio (here’s looking at you, Ron Atkinson) and the campaign will need to continue in tandem. However, professional football has certainly improved and become more tolerant as a result. I worry that many clubs see this as being enough in terms of inclusivity at their grounds.
We need to have a conversation about where we draw the line
Sexism has to be next and tolerance has to prevail. To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no bone to pick with fans chanting and slagging off other teams and their players the vast majority of the time. We do, however, need to have a conversation about where we draw the line. To a large extent I pride myself on the clubs I support in both Ireland and England but sexism and other forms of intolerance are rife in the game and I genuinely believe that it’s getting worse.
Last summer, I stood in the East Stand in Tallaght Stadium to watch Shamrock Rovers take on Limerick. It was a game that left a sour taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t due to a poor performance from the Super Hoops. There was a female official. This has become a reasonably common thing at LOI level and obviously recently in England (as highlighted by the Andy Gray incident which led to his and Richard Keys’ dismissal from Sky, and the subsequent ‘It was just banter’ meme). It was also a game that I had managed to convince two people to come along to, their first ever experience of LOI football, one of whom was female.
Any hint of a dubious decision or awarding of a throw in a certain way was met with a vile outpouring from not-insignificant patches of the East Stand. It varied from ‘dyke and lesbian’ to much worse. It was sexism, no two ways about it, and it has no place in the game. It has no place at any ground. I can’t even justify it as pseudo-banter. It was downright abusive, albeit ignorance-fuelled rather being borne out of a genuine hatred.
It completely took away from the experience that I so often enjoy and I was actually embarrassed sitting beside my female friend who will surely think twice before coming back again. Grown men stood holding their young daughters’ hands engaging in this, reinforcing to the female official that a woman’s place is by the kitchen sink, not officiating at a football match. While I don’t doubt that the problem is there at other grounds around the country and around the world, I felt like it was my duty as a proud Rovers supporter to air my views to the club. Lo and behold, my email must have been promptly dismissed as I received no reply.
Unfortunately for the beautiful game, it often highlights the worst elements of ‘lad culture’
Fast forward to 2015, a time of year that every Premier League fan revels in. Social media is littered with pages all about the ‘banter’, designed to appeal to the ‘lad’ in us all. There are actually few things that I enjoy more than a football-filled Saturday, watching the results coming in with an accumulator in my hand. The subsequent clips and images of entertaining moments from the day’s games that flood my timeline are all a part of it but they have become increasingly hit and miss. When they hit, it can be comedy gold. My love for that beachball that scored against Liverpool that day will never die. I could watch Gerrard’s slip a million times over. When they miss, though, they often miss badly.
Unfortunately for the beautiful game, it often highlights the worst elements of ‘lad culture’ and I think it’s time to reflect on that, as well as ‘lad culture’ as a whole. The straw that broke the camel’s back (and ultimately led to this rant) for me was Robert Huth’s decision to indulge in a game of ‘Cock or No Cock’ on Twitter. I shouldn’t need to elaborate on how it works but the Football Association of England are now said to be investigating it. Cue an army of people springing to his defence, citing free speech and claiming that this is just banter. I doubt very much that football fans in trans communities see it that way. Huth has since apologised for any offence caused.
This is but one example. Rio Ferdinand was fined £25,000 in 2014 for a gender-related tweet. In fairness to the FA, they’re responding to these cases but they will simply continue to happen if the conversation isn’t had. There is very much still a view that football is purely for cisgender males (anyone remember the Yorkie ad?).
Sexism and homophobia, in particular, are as big issues for the game in 2015 as racism was (and still is in some parts of the world) for years. Football and lad culture don’t have to go hand in hand. We can still have our inter-club rivalries and we absolutely should tear strips out of each other if our colours win the bragging rights, as football fans. We can’t however, stop the buck at racism and think that’s enough.
Glenn Fitzpatrick is a regular campaigner and huge advocate of equality, as well as being a huge football fan.