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Vicki Sparks Controversy

Posted by James Simms on June 21, 2018

In recent days, there has been an apparent controversy related to the inclusion of a female commentator on the BBC Sport commentary team for The FIFA World Cup. Now, I would ask you to read that opening statement again:

“In recent days, there has been an apparent controversy related to the inclusion of a female commentator on the BBC Sport team for The FIFA World Cup.”

What do you notice about this sentence? Look at it again. In what contexts is and isn't gender relevant? Let’s take the explicit mention of gender:

“In recent days there has been an apparent controversy related to the inclusion of a female commentator…”

In this part of the sentence, gender is denoted as relevant enough to mention. A commentator is categorised as a female commentator rather than, say, experienced or inexperienced, white or Asian, tall or short. Why? Why is the shape of the commentator’s genitalia relevant to her job? The commentator may be brilliant at her job or terrible. She may be flying on one day and not on the next. But why does this relate to gender?

Take the second part of the sentence:

“… for The FIFA World Cup.”

Notice that gender is not deemed relevant when we talk about THE Fifa World Cup. How do we describe the women’s version? We refer to it as “The Fifa Women’s World Cup.” So, we have THE version of football, the actual, the real one, and the WOMEN’S version. 

Clearly, we are dealing with deeply held, stereotypical views of groups of people. Stereotypes are awkward ideas. All readers will know that, given equivalent experiences, opportunities and esteem, men and women will perform equally well as commentators across a population but, what readers also need to consider is that all stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. There are reasons why female commentators may not develop the same level of experience and skill as men. There are reasons why, at first listen, a female voice over a men’s football match sounds a little odd. In other words, this stereotype exists because of structural phenomena that are real. So, let’s explore these honestly:

1. Football as a concept is structured on male physiology. The very idea of football (as well as rugby, cricket, basketball etc…) was built around the physical parameters of the male body. As football developed within the melting pot of 19th-century public schools and with OxBridge graduates spreading the new codified form far and wide, it was the fitness of strength, power, and speed that were emphasised by the intrinsic nature and format of the game and, importantly, the impact of the male hormone testosterone which increases speed, power and strength. Now consider for a second that the concept of “football” had developed in a predominantly female environment. What would the game emphasise? If the game emphasised flexibility, pain tolerance and hyper endurance which gender do we believe would dominate the sport today? Which commentators would you expect would be the most “in the know” on the game?

2. Football has traditionally had limited access routes for female participants within the fields of performance, management and coaching, administration and media. The sport has had periods in its existence when it has explicitly banned female participation. Women are under-represented at every level of the game, including the Women’s game (except for performance), and female participation has been entirely absent in significant areas of the sport such as officiating, coaching (in the men’s game) and leading administrative teams at organisations such as the FA and the Premier League. In the media, gradual changes have been made but they have been frequently tokenistic and, in the latest example, heavily criticised. I recall an assistant referee playing as a lineswoman (my autocorrect is desperate to make that word linesman… the irony!!) in a Premier League men’s match in recent years and being absolutely castigated by the head coach of one team because he thought she had made a mistake and cost his side the game. What factor relating to the official do you imagine the coach made reference to? That’s right, he stated “Women cannot be trusted to do such an important job.” Now, clearly this man is bigoted. Clearly he has perceived a mistake (she was actually correct in her decision) and laid the blame of that mistake at the official’s gender. Clearly this man thinks in an unbalanced and sexist way or at least he did at that particular moment (let’s hope he has changed since… people can change!), but this man is not alone. In many ways, his outburst, similar to John Terry’s idiotic tweet of yesterday, are not the main issue.

The main issue are the structural disadvantages that women face and men do not in this specific environment. I have listed below structural disadvantages that I believe women typically face that men do not face in contributing to football:

A lack of role models in the game at all levels and, therefore, a perceived glass ceiling to access. This leads to a significant decrease in specific esteem for the average individual.

A self-fulfilling prophecy that means women themselves will subconsciously avoid these environments due to a lack of esteem or an unwillingness to be “the one”. 

A lack of women on appointing bodies for coaching roles, administrative jobs and media companies. Whilst I am very aware that there are specific laws preventing gender-based profiling, it is human nature that selections are made in the light of the “expected model”. It may be worth reflecting on why anti-discrimination laws are necessary at all. 

Direct discrimination by certain bodies towards the appointment of women to positions of influence. Now, this point is hard to prove but I will simply offer you one idea in an attempt to do so: How many female coaches, officials and commentators are currently working in men’s football?

So, what do we do to address this perverse situation? I offer the following to you:

1. Challenge your own thinking and recognise the views that you, often subconsciously, hold. I was brought up in the North of England in the 1980s at a time when gender politics was in its infancy and sport, in its entirety, was male-dominated. That has influenced me and I cannot avoid that. No one can. But I can be aware of it and challenge my own ideas.

2. Accept that people can change. Sexism is, in my opinion, a potentially temporary state. One of the issues we have with bigotry (sexism, racism, ageism etc…) is that we tend to view it as permanent and that, if an individual makes a sexist comment, they are sexist forever. But look around you: don’t you see that people can change? I like to think about it like this: the sexism that I am truly concerned about is systemic and structural and, when I hear or read these bigoted comments, I try to see them as cracks in the structures of our society that allow this sexist ideology to spill out through the words or actions of an individual.

3. Accept that today we have “theoretical equality”. This is an important point. Theoretically, today women have exactly the same opportunities as men to transcend to any role. This is very good news. Opportunity is protected in law for all protected characteristics. However, the issue arises in that opportunity can never be separated from provision and esteem and, as we have seen above, these certainly are NOT equal. 

4. Accept that esteem is the driver of behaviour. Whilst I never wish to minimise the importance of opportunity and provision, I believe esteem is the key factor that drives behaviour in relation to gender-role stereotypes. Esteem is subtle, hidden but all pervasive. In my own experiences, there are many locations that I feel inclined to avoid. I feel uncomfortable at a dance class and will avoid it. I feel uncomfortable in a “gentlemen’s club” and will avoid them at all costs. Why do I avoid them? It’s because I don't recognise myself in that environment and fear humiliation and embarrassment. How do women feel in relation to the men’s football environment? As a man, I can’t be sure what the answer is, but I assume it is a similar sentiment. Add to that that women, as we have clearly seen, know they will be judged on the basis of their gender in that environment, and I can fully understand why avoidance is the most typical behaviour.

In conclusion, we should all feel very comfortable in judging Vicki Sparks’s level of expression, intonation, eagerness and fluency as we can judge any commentator but it is absolutely unacceptable to suggest that any performance issues are related to her biological gender. We should also accept that football is an institutionally sexist environment and support, unwaveringly, the female pioneers who are capable of overcoming the esteem challenge to set the bar high for those who will inevitably follow.  

Good luck, Vicki. We’re right behind you.