You’ve got to be joking Ms. Ref!

Last month a mighty hoo-ha rocked the English football scene when sexist remarks by seasoned SkySports commentators, Andy Gray and Richard Keys, recorded off-air, were leaked to the press.

Their derogatory comments before a Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool were aimed, among other female officials, at Sian Massey, a 25-year old lineswoman who was one of the officials on the day. They questioned Massey’s grasp of the off-side rule and Keys predicted that she was going to make a big error during the game.

In the end, of course, Massey didn’t make any mistakes. Quite the opposite, in fact: she was lauded for getting one particularly tricky offside decision spot-on correct. Gray and Keys were the ones who made the error – they’ve both been fired.

Here’s a short video clip of the incident and more:

Whinging and whining complaints about women officiating at professional men’s football matches are nothing new, of course. Managers Gordan Strachan (Coventry City, 1999) and Mike Newell (Luton Town, 2006) couldn’t stand the thought of seeing a woman waving an assistant’s flag, let alone blowing a ref’s whistle (no double entendre intended).

And last year, regular BBC pundit and former player Perry Groves shared the following pearls of wisdom with the readers of The Sunnewspaper:

“…let’s face it, women have periods and we all know how hormones affect them. Would women refs be banned during their ‘time of the month’ because they might be more emotional, depressed or aggressive?”

Huh!? More emotional, depressed and aggressive than your average repressed, fowl-mouthed and thuggish male football professional?

Quite clearly sexism remains rampant in football among players, fans and commentators alike. Many men simply find it impossible to imagine that a woman could possibly be capable of enjoying the game, let alone have any understanding of the rules whatsoever.

Get a hold on yourself guys! It turns out that there are plenty of women who’ve been watching, playing and enjoying football for as long as you have, who can talk the talk and who – St. Pelé forbid – have even mastered the dark arts of the offside rule!

West Ham United executive Karren Brady, who also came in for some gratuitous haranguing from Gray and Keys, is right when she says “what really upsets me is the fact that only females in our industry are judged by their gender”. To suggest that a woman can’t be as good – or, on occasion, as atrocious – a referee or assistant referee as a man is irrational, ignorant and just plain stupid.

Luckily not every man in the football world is a medieval throw-back. The South African Football Association made a strong statement against discrimination against female match officials after the Gray/Keys debacle and announced that they are taking steps to recruit more women referees. Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand also came out in support, tweeting “What’s wrong with a woman being an official in a football game? I’m cool with it”.

None of this is to say that there is no fun to be had at the expense of women football refs. In a non-sexist way, of course. There’ll be lame jokes, like the one about how instead of extra time after 90 minutes there will now be five minutes of foreplay at the start of the game. There’ll be rude chants with the ever-popular “The referee’s a wanker” being replaced by “The referee’s a pea-flicker”. And there will be a growing sense of understanding and tolerance between the sexes, like the female German ref in this video who can see the funny side when a player accidentally touches her on her, erm… studio!

What do you think about female referees? Not just in football - what about rugby and cricket and other sports as well?

(Andrew Luyt, Health24, February 2011) 

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