IT SHOULD COME as no surprise that the Sunderland manager, in the last full month of the season, is at risk of losing his job. Anchored to the bottom of the table, the long-heralded relegation of the club at last seems inevitable, and David Moyes is unable to stop it. Their relegation should be met with indifference. Sunderland have failed to inspire or entertain for several years now, have been mired in the fight for safety for the last four seasons, and have haemorrhaged the few decent players they’ve had. In fact, so profound is this apathy towards their plight that it is a sexist threat that has put Moyes’ job in danger, rather than the inspid performances he has overseen.
It’s telling that Vicki Sparks didn’t speak out when she was told she ‘might get a slap’ next time she asked Moyes such a difficult question. Over her career she has probably had to deal with belittlement and ostracism on a regular basis, and has likely developed a thick skin as a result. Women are seriously underrepresented in sports journalism, and football – even with the growing stature of the women’s game – has never been receptive to this incursion into a typically masculine, big-bollocked, BO and beer bellies territory. The few female faces we do see in the sport are overshadowed by men.
Let’s be honest, David Moyes is probably a sexist. In fact, I suspect that most of the British managers at the highest level of English football are. They tend to come from generations in which sexism and intolerance was not just acceptable, but de rigeur. It wasn’t that long ago that players like Graeme Le Saux were characterised as effeminate simply for reading The Guardian, so to expect progressive views to emanate from managers who cut their teeth in this and earlier eras is to ask too much.
In football, players and managers are held to an idiosyncratic ethical standard.
Should he be sacked? Wouldn’t this kind of language normally warrant – at the very least – disciplinary action of some kind? In any other industry, it would be considered beyond the pale. But in football, players and managers are held to an idiosyncratic ethical standard, in which transferring to a rival club is treated more harshly than sexist or homophobic abuse. Supporters’ loyalty to their players allows them to defend the indefensible: think back to Liverpool’s fawning response to Luis Suárez biting Patrice Evra in 2011. Moyes’ sexist banter is therefore well within football’s bounds of respectability.
We all know that football has a serious problem with tolerance and diversity. Despite the best efforts of the game’s governing bodies, racism is still commonplace, women are still ostracised, and gay people are so shunned by the sport that they are complete non-entities. Campaigns to limit homophobic, sexist and racist abuse are now ubiquitous at every ground, at every level, and the press is getting increasingly desperate for a top player to come out of the closet and become a kind of gay poster boy. Football, however, is slow to change.
It’s clear that the best way to put a stop to this inherent intolerance is to normalise the presence of women and gay people within the game, but that takes time. Meanwhile, a strong response to behaviour such as Moyes’s may do little more than alienate core supporters who may fear that even their surviving corner of (toxic) masculinity is being taken over by ‘political correctness.’ I wouldn’t complain if he were given the boot for this incident, but it speaks more to a problem within the game than with Moyes alone. Ultimately, if he can survive months of dire performances at the foot of the Premier League table, he will survive the apparently much less serious crime of sexism.