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Olympic scale foul: sexism in football

United Kingdom

Britain's Casey Stoney being interviewed in Cardiff. Photo: joncandy under a CC licence.

On Saturday afternoon I sat down to watch Britain’s women’s team thrash Cameroon 3-0 at football. It was a great match;  not only was the quality of play outstanding, there was a noticeable and much welcomed lack of the diving and amateur dramatics often seen in the men’s game.

I enjoyed it so much I wanted to share my appreciation on Twitter and so joined hundreds praising Casey Stoney, Jill Scott and their teammates in qualifying for the quarter finals with still one game to go. Not everyone in the Twittersphere was quite as complimentary.

The top tweet on the subject, retweeted 56 times when I came across it, read, ‘The women’s football Olympians have a kitchen as a changing room.’ Scrolling down I discovered numerous misogynist remarks such as:
‘Children’s football is better than women’s’
‘I’m allowed to say this because I am a girl, women’s football is terrible. I hate it with a passion’
‘Cameroon’s women’s football team is full of some of the ugliest women in the world...’
‘Watching the Olympic women’s football, waiting for someone to score and take their top off...’

Had these people been watching the same game? It was clear that women’s football has become an easy and seemingly acceptable target for both men and women. What was also clear was that, unlike in other sports, the majority of sexist comments about football did not focus on looks or sex. Compare the tweets during the volleyball for example: 
‘If I had to pick something in the Olympics to do, it would probably be one or two of the women’s volleyball teams.’

Why weren’t tweeters commenting that women’s volleyball, badminton or tennis are ‘pathetic’ ‘appalling’ or ‘so funny’? The most obvious explanation is that in Britain we have become socialized to see football as a male sport and so insulting women who ‘attempt’ to play it is fair game. When women start to do well at it, we become simultaneously defensive and offensive.

Volleyball on the other hand isn’t given much attention as a sport, so the women who play it are subjected to the same judgment as any other female – are they good looking enough to be given this air time?

The media have a social responsibility to start giving women’s football as much coverage as men’s. It is the same sport, with the same exciting twists and turns and brilliantly talented players. According to Stylist’s Fair Game campaign, only five per cent of sports media coverage features women.

Men’s football is arguably the most popular sport internationally and in recent years we have seen some players transformed into global superstars. The media make gods out of some of the male team members, with top professionals now as good as getting away with on pitch aggression, violence and racism.

The mainstream media has ensured that the only acceptable place women have in football is hanging off the arm of the Rooneys and Beckhams of the world. Women are only of significance if they are a WAG, or a mistress. If they are top players themselves no one is interested.

Satirical mockumentary Twenty Twelve, which follows a team of people responsible for running the London Olympics, summed it up perfectly when the characters tried to tackle the unpopularity of the women’s game, by planning an advertising campaign that had nothing to do with football.

Currently, women’s sport receives only 0.5 per cent of the total sponsorship income into the sector, whereas men get 62.1 per cent. If this is how they are being treated by the industry, it isn’t really surprising they are considered second-class players by the public.

So let’s commit to kicking sexism out of football, first, by looking within at our own prejudices and second, by targeting the industries that create and fuel them.

Sign the Fair Game petition for equality in sport here.

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