Ruling sexism offside

James Turley argues that those wishing to rid the world of the sexist idiocy of Andy Gray and Richard Keyes must set their sights higher

It has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Rupert Murdoch's media empire these last few weeks. While the occasional Murdoch nemesis, Tommy Sheridan, has been sent down for perjury, the News of the World phone-hacking scandal has threatened ever higher echelons of the Murdoch press operation, forcing erstwhile NotW editor Andy Coulson from his job as David Cameron's chief spin doctor. Now a different kind of furore has sprung up at Sky TV: to gleeful crowing from other sections of the media, Andy Gray and Richard Keys - the two men who have fronted Sky Sports' football coverage since the channel's inception - have found themselves out of their jobs, after they were unknowingly recorded making moronically sexist comments about a female assistant referee, Sian Massey (pictured). In the opinion of these two esteemed football experts, it seems, Massey was a "bit of a looker" - but, thanks to a brace of X chromosomes, could not possibly grasp the intricacies of the offside rule. Gray was first to go - he was sacked when it emerged he had previously suggested, in an equally commendable display of witty repartee, that colleague Charlotte Jackson tuck a microphone down his trousers. Keys resigned a few days later, as the scandal refused to die down.

It is difficult to defend Gray and Keys for their gaffes - being as they are not simply sexist, but, really, from the absolute bottom rung of artless boorishness. They are supposed to be professional football pundits, whose words are worth listening to; instead they come across as a pair of unreconstructed pain in the necks. They have been defended, however; indeed the whole affair has triggered off another round of hand-wringing about the 'dark side' of football culture, and the fine line between 'banter' and harassment.

It should be noted that, however tasteless, implying oh-so-originally that women cannot understand the offside rule is not exactly on a level in terms of sheer brazen offensiveness as the infamous previous occasion on which Ron Atkinson was unknowingly broadcast calling Marcel Desailly "a fucking thick, lazy nigger" on certain Middle Eastern TV stations. Given the total unacceptability of racist abuse in British official culture, it was very difficult to imagine Atkinson's career surviving that particularly remark - somewhat ironic, given that he had been something of a trailblazer in his managerial career in fielding black players.

There has been some debate, therefore, on the matter of Keys' and Gray's inability to avoid the same fate. Some have darkly suggested that Sky were keen to get rid of Gray on the basis that he launched one of many civil actions against the News of the World over the phone-hacking affair. It is certainly a pretty bizarre bit of hypocrisy on the part of Sky to find, all of a sudden, a hard-line feminist streak. The same people who bankroll it, after all, bankroll the country's oldest page three feature in the Sun; the latter's general tone apes exactly the sort of unreconstructed laddishness which has seen the two pundits come to grief. It is also the tone of much of Sky's more light-hearted football programming.

That said, the phone-hacking connection is probably wishful thinking on the part of Murdoch's competitors in the press - at the very least, it does not account for Keys' subsequent departure. Instead, the selective political correctness of the Murdoch empire has to be put in the context of a broader objective hypocrisy at work in society in general. The state equally likes to project an image of liberal opposition to racism, sexism and other bigotries - yet reinforces them through immigration controls and various kinds of support for religious organisations respectively.

So it is for the media - while organs like the Sun and the Daily Mail can amount to daily papers for the British National Party, an ersatz liberal sheen is created by various utterly shallow tick-box policing of a given media organisation's public image. Kelvin McKenzie can contribute unabashedly racist and misogynist bilge to the Sun on a regular basis, provided that someone is punished for the same crimes as proof positive that Murdoch takes his tolerant self-image seriously. Step forward Gray and Keys, careers sacrificed for a ruthless media tyrant's public image. It does not even matter, at the end of the day, that nobody takes it seriously - in the hands of big capital and the state, the epic struggles of oppressed groups are replaced by empty gestures.

In this case, it is no great loss. There are plenty of aspiring pundits to replace Gray and Keys, who hardly embody timeless broadcasting genius. There is another context to all this, however, which is the question of football culture in general. There is no point trying to deny it - football remains, as a whole, defiantly and unashamedly male. At the top, Fifa's idiot-in-chief, Sepp Blatter, once courted controversy by seriously suggesting female footballers wear tighter shorts and skimpier shirts to attract fans. (At least Gray did not actually expect Charlotte Jackson to clip his microphone onto his underpants.)

At the base, meanwhile, mass football support is particularly given to machismo and casual offensiveness. Abuse, of a kind which makes the bargain-basement lechery of an Andy Gray look positively tame, is shouted from every terrace in the land on every match day. Periodically it surfaces in the news - Manchester United fans' contention that Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is a paedophile, or spurned Spurs fans' eminently unrepeatable rewrite of Lord of the dance for the benefit of Sol Campbell, both sparked wider outrage.

The official spokespeople of the beautiful game do not quite know what to do with this phenomenon. It is both a spontaneous act of popular creativity which deepens football die-hards' connection to the game, and frequently a manifestation of exactly the wrong image. Top-flight football is sold to the world as a whole as an art form, in order to attract bigger-spending middle and ruling class support. Old Trafford is rather grandiloquently referred to as the Theatre of Dreams. The football money-men evidently do not want 'Sit down, you paedophile' in the script.

As such, the last few decades have seen various official campaigns sold in liberal right-on terms - most prominently, Let's Kick Racism Out of Football - that in practice serve to justify the increased state harassment of fans on terraces, and tighter central control of football culture in general. Far from scoring important victories for oppressed groups, these initiatives are ultimately cynical exercises in control by people who want the sport purged of all its remaining reserves of mass initiative. It should be noted that Murdoch's empire is deeply implicated in these shifts within football, providing a far glitzier media operation to the football establishment and bringing an enormous amount of capital into the game through lucrative rights deals and so forth.

Casual racism and sexism, of course, is hardly something worth defending in itself. The point is, rather, that it is wholly illusory to imagine that these things can be banished from football - or indeed, anything else - by police actions. Terrace race-baiting and Sky studio sexism are equally inevitable in a society which is still organised on broadly patriarchal lines and riddled with unresolved racial tensions.

Phenomena generated by objective contradictions in the system cannot be legislated out of existence. A serious cultural shift in football as a whole, conversely, could challenge the more bigoted expressions of its fans and pundits, and at particular clubs - most famously, the Hamburg-based cult club, FC St Pauli - this is already happening; at its ground, a racist taunt is likely to land the culprit in hospital. We should heartily look forward to any such development - at the very least, it would make the obscene terrace chants funnier. For it to work, however, it has to be the initiative of the fans themselves rather than the impositions of capital and the state; not least because, in practice, it would have to be linked to political struggle in broader society against the fundamental bases of oppression. Handing genuine control of the game over to its fans and players, of course, would also be an important precondition, equally unpalatable to the powers that be: Fifa, the English FA and Sky Sports alike sit atop the game, crushing the initiative out of it.

Those who applaud the fate of Gray and Keys should consider exactly who it is, in this case, acting as judge, jury and executioner. At the end of the day, football - Sky Sports football coverage, even - is not any the less riddled by sexist machismo for the departure of two boorish pundits. Their artless quips should not be considered a sackable offence; those who wish to rid the world of such idiocy should set their sights higher than this, and consider what really needs to change in society for it to become truly unacceptable.