Ladies? Girls? The language needs to change…

Date published: Monday 10th April 2017 3:18

You might think that being manager of an awful Sunderland side was problem enough for David Moyes. So quite why he chose to make his life even more difficult is initially hard to fathom, when he was recorded saying to reporter Vicki Sparks, after she asked him a question he didn’t want to answer: “Getting a wee bit naughty at the end there, so just watch yourself. You might get a…you still might get a slap even though you’re a woman…careful the next time you come in.”

As many have subsequently said, it was crass, sexist, more than a little creepy and a totally unacceptable way for anyone to behave. To make matters worse, even when trying to make amends, Moyes said, without irony, “it is something which is out of character. I’ve apologised to the girl…”, thus immediately proving just how much it wasn’t.

Referring to Sparks, not by her name, or even as a woman, but as “the girl” might be his most disparaging comment of all. This wasn’t a heat-of-the-moment slip of the tongue; they are indicative of a deep-rooted attitude towards women which is far from unique to him.

He’d had plenty of time to cohere his words at this press conference, but he defaulted to “the girl” twice, even though he must have known the words he chose would be scrutinised. If you’ve threatened to slap a woman, why would you call her “the girl” in order to prove what a good guy you really are? In no other walk of society would that have been said at a press conference after such an incident. Everyone else would have more self-awareness, even if you were the world’s biggest misogynist. You’d have gone into training to make sure you didn’t give anyone any more ammunition. So we have to assume neither he, nor anyone else around him, saw what might be wrong with using “the girl” to describe Vicki Sparks in this context. This is the weird, blinkered, old fashioned out-of-touch culture of football. For a man of just 53, it’s quite extraordinary.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, The Guardian reported that ‘two journalists claimed publicly on Tuesday that Moyes had made similar disparaging remarks to or about women journalists but the incidents were never publicised at the time’.

This doesn’t seem unlikely. It would be odd, and unlucky, in a blameless feminist life, to have only committed one horrible sexist faux pas and for that to be filmed, in the same way claiming you got caught the one and only time you shoplifted tests credulity.

In the same piece, they quoted a senior sports journalist saying: “These organisations are so scared of upsetting clubs and being banned – and she was a freelancer, she couldn’t afford to be banned – I think they probably decided to keep it quiet but then somebody’s obviously leaked it to the Star. It’s extraordinary and sad that it took somebody to leak it.”

But this is how the powerful and moneyed bully the less powerful and poorer. Similarly, other women working in the same sector have to be careful what they say publicly about this issue. Because by and large, it is men who have the power and the money to bestow. So the fear you’ll be branded a “troublemaker” or “one of those” by people who you need to keep sweet for your living, often leads to silence and an appearance of acquiescence to the abuse. Which in turn allows perpetrators to depict those who do complain as a hysterical PC minority.

A statement from Women in Football said it right: ‘We are deeply disappointed and concerned by the threatening language used by Sunderland manager David Moyes. We are calling on the FA to help educate football managers against this type of behaviour. No one should be made to feel threatened in the workplace for simply doing their job.’

And those who work at the frontline of domestic abuse recognise all too well the “watch yourself…” threat, especially the in-advance laying-off of the blame, so as to assign the guilt for the act of violence to the woman, rather than the man. Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “The ingrained sexism at the heart of Mr Moyes’ remark represents something much darker; it is a cornerstone of a culture that condones violence against women…we urge the FA to act swiftly and take this opportunity to send out a clear and strong message to the footballing community – fans, clubs and players – that there is no place for sexism and misogyny in modern football.”

Welcome to the modern world, David.

The roots of football’s sexism go back a long way. The FA banned women’s football in 1921 for 50 years on various spurious, ridiculous and pathetic grounds, but really did it because it was too popular and the primacy of men must never be in doubt. So they banned it – thus robbing generations of female football culture, from which it is only now making a serious recovery.

But so many root elements are still sexist. is it necessary to call a women’s team ‘Ladies’ as many still do? No. Do we refer to the men as Gentlemen? No, we don’t. So why use that word for women’s football? Ladies and Gentlemen are terms that belong in the Victorian era. ‘Women’ is a fact, ‘ladies’ is a judgement.

But Moyes, again in defensive mode, kept his foot firmly in a sexist bucket, as he tried to argue his behaviour wouldn’t put women off being involved in football.

“I tried to make sure we had Everton Ladies. At Manchester United, I was very keen on them having one. My daughter played for Preston until she was 19. I actually think to ask about ladies football and myself, you’re asking the wrong person.”

Ladies, ladies. It’s always ladies. The comment about his daughter is just bizarre.

Calling a team of women ‘Ladies’ sounds like they’re all playing in crinolines and having an attack of the vapours. But then calling it the Women’s Premier League when it’s not called the Men’s Premier League is just more football sexism. It shows the default as being so male it doesn’t even need stating. If you’re going to define by gender, you must do so for each gender, not just for one. Why wouldn’t you, if you wanted to be accurate, fair and equal?

I realise talking about these issues angers and annoys some people, who feel it’s PC nit-picking by self-aggrandising, professionally outraged nazi-liberals. They probably feel the real victim was Moyes because the most patriarchal also loves to paint itself as under the feminazi jackboot.

My granny certainly hated anyone calling themselves a feminist. She thought it meant bossy and self-righteous and man-hating, which was particularly ironic because she was all of those things and then some. The ‘f’ word stills seems to provoke a viscerally negative response in some, but it’s just about fairness, respect and equality, that’s all, and the words and expressions we use make up the warp and weft of the type of society we create; that’s why they’re so important in this and every other issue.

Power shifts are always resisted by those whose power is being diminished. But that’s nonetheless how progress has to be made towards a more fair, equal and safe society. We’ve all been brought up in a patriarchal society, riddled with sexism from top to bottom, since the dawn of time. It’s in all of us, but unless we try to identify it and root it out, things won’t improve for any of us.

Throwing bananas at black players was once thought a lot of fun by some, and by the way, those who protested against it were often disparaged as over-reacting miseries who couldn’t take a joke. Yeah, well, that doesn’t seem so funny now, does it?

When it comes to gender and football, long-overdue change is hopefully on its way, and the one good thing about the Moyes incident has been to show just how very badly it is needed.

John Nicholson


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