Sunday, November 12, 2006

As noted in my previous piece here, the little bubble of smug liberalism in which I live my life has recently been pierced by the realisation of just how little the sexual politics of many involved in the football industry has moved on in the last few decades. The notion that the presence of women in the game is detrimental and should be resisted was implicit in the manner of treatment dished out to the WAGs by critics of the top players. Helpfully, Luton Town’s manager Mike Newell has now made the attitude explicit by lambasting assistant referee (this is where my insistence on sticking to the term ‘linesman’ falls down) Amy Rayner’s performance in yesterday’s 3-2 home defeat at the hands of QPR.

‘She shouldn’t be here,’ Newell said after Rayner deemed that a challenge on Eyal Berkovic was not worthy of a penalty. ‘I know that sounds sexist but I am sexist.’ It’s hard to know what to write when someone says something like that. Any commentary I could offer seems somewhat redundant. ‘This is Championship football,’ he continued. ‘This is not park football, so what are women doing here? It is tokenism for the politically-correct idiots.’

Newell’s suggestion that Rayner was only awarded her position in order to include female officials in the game would be worthy of suspicion regardless of how he couched it. It might have been reasonable comment had he stated that he was sure there were women who were capable of officiating at a professional football match, but that Rayner was not one of them (although it would still be a subjective judgement depending on how well one believed she had done her job, since opinion on a referee's performance is never unanimous). But no, Newell believes it’s entirely fair to come out and use the words ‘I am sexist’ as qualification for judging how a woman has done her job. This is surely reason to dismiss his opinion immediately.

What does Newell believe women lack that makes them unsuited to assistant refereeing? All you need is an understanding of the game’s rules, decent eyesight, sufficient physical fitness to run up and down the line for ninety minutes, at least one functioning arm to raise the flag with, and the ability to make decisions quickly. I have seen women demonstrate all of those attributes. Certainly my girlfriend often makes better decisions than I do. And yes, the Berkovic decision was probably a penalty, but I can see the room for doubt there – he went down pretty easily, the contact seemed minor and the keeper was looking odds-on to get the ball, so Berkovic probably decided to play for the penalty. It’s a long way from the worst refereeing decision I’ve seen this season – and it’s not as if the profession is renowned for ruthless accuracy. According to Newell, Rayner made a poor decision because she’s a woman. Assuming this to be the case (as I say, the quality of a refereeing performance is always a matter for debate), what excuse do all the other officials have?

Snooker has recently adopted female referees, and the game is generally very excited about this development. This is partly because the standard snooker refereeing garb gives a lady the aspect of someone Gertrude Stein might have tried to chat up in the 1920s, and this has a certain appeal. But the integration has also been easier because the sedate pace and gentlemanly atmosphere of snooker creates less pressure on referees and hence post-match criticism of them is rare, whereas in football the slating of the referee is background noise. Newell is just another manager lashing out after a defeat, picking up on anything he can find that vindicates his team – and letting some pretty unpleasant opinions seep out in the process. Cast your mind back to when the first black referees entered the game and ask yourself whether anyone would get away with saying ‘I know it sounds racist but I am racist.’

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