By Emma-Louise Boynton
s England manager Gareth Southgate wrote in his open letter to the nation before Euro 2020, the team that stepped onto the pitch on Sunday evening is “a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves. Our players,” he said, “are role models.”
From Marcus Rashford spear-heading the campaign to extend free meals to children during school holidays, to Raheem Sterling starting a charity foundation aimed at helping disadvantaged young people, including providing university scholarships and work placements, to the whole team taking the knee before each game in solidarity against racism – this was a team as impressive on as off the pitch.
Yet while the England players themselves may represent some of the best aspects of our society, the broader culture that surrounds the sport continues to compound the very worst of it, as the fallout following Sunday’s defeat attests.
The onslaught of online racist abuse against some of the team’s players, the scenes of violence that broke out across the country, the warnings from frontline services that they were, as they always are when England play, expecting a spike in cases of domestic abuse following the match, all served as a sharp reminder of the darker side of the culture that surrounds this country’s cherished sport. One of racism, misogyny and sexism.
Writer Rhea Cartwright has explored the topic of racism in football for The Stack here, so it is the misogyny and sexism around that game that I want now to highlight. Because however alluring the fun of football fandom may be, however euphoric are the highs when England get as far as they did in the Euro 2020 Final (and however grim the lows are when we lose), it is vital that we remember the subliminally high cost associated with the game.
Endemic to the laddish football culture that plays such a prominent role in our national identity is a deeply ingrained sexism and a casual routinisation of violence and misogyny that needs to be tackled.
“At a certain point, someone says something like ‘Manchester is brilliant, because it's full of beer, tits and fanny’, and you’re just sort of stunned into silence.”
Football fans and domestic abuse
In 2018, during the last World Cup, the UK's National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) ran a nation-wide campaign featuring an image of a woman bleeding from her nose, the blood forming a Saint George’s Cross. The accompanying headline read ‘If England gets beaten, so will she”.
The campaign was designed to draw attention to sobering statistics the organisation released that same year, which showed that when England plays, domestic violence increases by 26%, jumping to 38% when the team loses.
A more recent study, published earlier this year by the London School of Economics, drew on more detailed and expansive data as it explored the link between football fandom and domestic abuse.
After analysing 10 years’ worth of crime data from the second largest police force in England (West Midlands Police), the study found a 47% increase in the number of reported alcohol-related domestic abuse cases on days when the England team wins in national tournaments, and an 18% increase on days after an England match.
Domestic abuse is a reality women the world over face all year round – in England and Wales alone, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner, according to domestic abuse charity Refuge. While football does not directly cause this violence per se, as the report concludes, it nonetheless perpetuates the sort of behaviour that does.
It’s just banter!
A major part of the problem is the aforementioned laddish culture that surrounds football, in which casual sexism proliferates and in which misogynistic attitudes are not just tolerated but seemingly ingrained.
Take for example a survey carried out by Women in Football (a network dedicated to championing female talent in the football industry). It found that two thirds (66%) of women have experienced gender discrimination in the footballing workplace, with 34% of respondents having witnessed discrimination but only 12% of incidents having been reported.
Critically, It also found that when problems were reported they were “brushed under the carpet” with the misused term ‘banter’ the most common form of discrimination” experienced by some 52% of respondents.
This sort of systematised sexism extends beyond women working in football to supporters too. On FA Cup final day In May this year, a group of female football supporters launched a campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #HerGameToo with a video showcasing the abuse they had received from other football supporters.
Comments ranged from “you know nothing about football, you’re a woman” to more explicit and sexist messages. Within 48 hours the video had over a million views.
In an interview shortly after the campaign launched, the group’s founder, Caz May, explained: “I was noticing sexist abuse towards female fans, pundits, referees, players, journalists and others on my timeline daily – it was becoming too much. I wanted to make a change.
“Domestic abuse is a reality women the world over face all year round – in England and Wales alone, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner”
“Many women have had the classic ‘get back to the kitchen’ line thrown their way when trying to have a well-reasoned debate on a game of football. We have had men use derogatory, misogynistic terms in response to a football opinion.
“Sometimes it will even go as personal as to attack our body image and, more specifically, our female body parts. It's condescending, unwelcoming and hurtful.”
It is this sort of commentary that serves to remind women that this is a space in which they are not welcome, notes Al Greenwood, Sports Team drummer and the founder of In Motion: Women’s Sport Collective, a new initiative designed to expand access to women’s sport.
“The culture of ‘banter’ in football that casually normalises misogyny – and racism and homophobia too – becomes enabled by the fact it’s so difficult to vocalise your objection to it, to challenge it,” she tells me over the phone.
“But in normalising such attitudes and behaviours, it reifies the fact that that space is for certain individuals, and not others. It’s inherently exclusionary.”
When tolerance breeds violence
Growing up, Greenwood was the only girl on her first school’s football team and the only girl being taken to Man United games alongside her dad and brother.
“My experience was really fun,” she says. “It feels somewhat troubling to admit that now but being in that environment, where everyone’s pissed, and having a laugh… It’s a lot of fun to be involved. And you get kind of whipped into this frenzy – everyone is singing United songs and you feel like you're part of the gang.
“But then at a certain point, someone says something like ‘Manchester is brilliant, because it's full of beer, tits and fanny’, and you’re just sort of stunned into silence. Clearly, the appropriate thing to do in that instance is to turn around and say, ‘you can't say that!’. But in those moments, I’ve found myself feeling quite disempowered to act.”
This matters because the normalisation and tolerance of the sexist behaviour described by Greenwood and May, of the cat-calling, locker-room-banter variety, can serve to excuse and even support more serious behaviour patterns at the other sharper end of the scale, including rape and violence.
If this sounds far-fetched, just look at the recent murder of Sarah Everard. Mere days ago, during the trial of the man who recently pleaded guilty to her murder, Wayne Couzens, it was revealed that Couzens’s ex-colleagues had nick-named him ‘The Rapist’ because he made some female officers feel uncomfortable; that he was suspected of flashing twice within a few hours at a McDonald’s, in Kent, just days before killing Everard, but it was not investigated and that he was linked to an indecent exposure in Kent in 2015, but it was similarly not investigated.
Might events have unfolded differently had these less extreme displays of Couzens’s predatory nature not been systematically ignored and overlooked?
We cannot know for sure, but we must recognise how dangerous it is for a culture of tolerance to exist around male violence and intimidation. And we must stamp such a culture out where we see it.
A culture of impunity within football
To this end, football clubs should be leading by example and showing fans and the wider sporting community that certain behaviours are just not acceptable. And yet, this is not happening. Just a few months ago, Women’s Aid felt compelled to remove Bristol City from its Football United Against Domestic Violence campaign materials, following the club’s decision to sign the convicted domestic abuse perpetrator, Danny Simpson, for the remainder of the 20/21 season.
Convicted of assault in 2015 after police found him throttling his former partner at his home the previous year, Simpson has now completed his sentence (300 hours of community service, of which he served 145).
But what message does this send to the wider football world, that you can violently assault your partner and then return to elite football just a few years later? Moreover, the club’s silence on Simpson’s inconvenient past served to reinforce the impression that a culture of impunity exists within football, particularly when it comes to violence against women.
It is a message that police conduct on Sunday night appeared to reiterate. Why, many questioned on social media, did the Met Police take such a seemingly soft approach to the largely male football hooligans who ran riot following the match (pictures showed fans climbing atop of buses, throwing glasses and chairs in Leicester Square and erupting into violence in Trafalgar Square) in sharp contrast to the largely female, peaceful attendees at Sarah Everard’s vigil just a few months ago?
Comparing images from these two events is a visceral reminder of the extent to which violence and intimidation is an accepted fact of football. Fans, it would seem, get a free pass.
On Monday morning, the FA released a statement rightfully condemning “all forms of discrimination” and registering its “horrror” at the “online racism that has been aimed at some of our England players on social media.”
Where is their statement condemning the violence against women which, as we’ve known for decades, will have followed the match too?
We’re still waiting.
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We need to call out the laddish behaviour among football fans that normalises sexist ‘banter’ and perpetuates a culture where violence against women becomes more acceptable.
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