As the UK’s unofficial national sport and with the season running for nine months a year it often seems like it’s impossible to escape from football. It’s the default conversation topic from the office to the barbershop; the latest Premier League happenings round off television news broadcasts and large portions of our newspapers are dedicated to reporting and discussing every minute detail of ‘the beautiful game’. This cultural supremacy has been demonstrated by the recent retirement of Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United for the last 26 years. Treated in a similar manner to the death of a member of the royal family it was the top story on the BBC website and splashed across the frontpage of all the next day’s newspapers. Even Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, felt the need to comment, gushing that Sir Alex was the “greatest living Briton”.
However, considering football’s importance to many people and society more broadly, progressives have remarkably little to say about it. Certainly there is ongoing concern about the ever increasing capitalist nature of the game but what is almost completely lacking is an honest discussion or critique of the ideology of the game – in particular football’s relationship with men and masculinity. As Mariah Burton Nelson notes in her 1994 book The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, “We need to take sports seriously – not the scores or the statistics, but the process. Not to focus on who wins, but on who’s losing.”
As Men’s Studies scholars have noted about sport generally, the hierarchical and highly competitive world of football is one of the key sites for the construction and reproduction of masculinity today. Through playing and watching the game boys learn what it means to be a man – which values and behaviour are manly and which are unmanly. “Be tough”, “be strong”, “play to win”, “get stuck in”, “don’t be intimidated”, “don’t cry”, “don’t wimp out” – all are common encouragements and admonishments to young footballers. And when they return home to watch Match of the Day they hear commentators praising their idols for “dominating” their opponents and “controlling” the game. Those players that play through great pain are heralded as heroes and those, like Roy Keane, who intimidate and revel in the violence and hyper-aggression are feted by fans and awarded with trophies. “I'd waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you cunt. And don't ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries”, wrote Keane in his autobiography about his premeditated revenge take down of Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Haaland in 2001, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career. “My attitude was, fuck him. What goes around comes around. He got his just rewards. He fucked me over and my attitude is an eye for an eye." A subsequent investigation led to Keane being banned for five matches and fined £150,000, although sceptical readers may wonder how long a prison sentence Keane would have received had the incident occurred outside of a football stadium. Three years later Keane was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
While Roy Keane was Manchester United’s enforcer on the pitch, Sir Alex ran the club like a dictatorship. “Fergie’s rule was absolute”, notes Channel 4’s John Anderson. “Loyalty was a quality to be demanded and repaid in equally unswerving fashion, and his word was law.” Pundits marvelled and chuckled at his ability to discipline his players and play macho psychological mind games with his opponents. On several occasions he has been banned and fined for using abusive language to match officials. In a widely reported dressing room incident he kicked a boot in anger that hit David Beckham in the face, requiring stitches. Never mind that this bullying management style would get him immediately sacked from every other workplace in the UK – Sir Alex, we have been told repeatedly in the last week, is the greatest manager ever to have graced the English game. His “achievements demand not just respect, they deserve to be studied and learned from”, argued Robinson. Tony Blair’s own enforcer Alastair Campbell may look up to Ferguson, but what has any of this got to do with those working for democracy, justice and equality except to serve as a guide about how not to behave?
As these representative examples show (I could easily have cited countless others) the type of masculinity constructed and reinforced in the footballing world shows football to be an important, highly conservative influence on contemporary gender relations, largely working to reproduce existing inequalities in society.
And nowhere is football’s resistance to contemporary gender norms more obvious than when talking about the total absence of openly gay players in the professional game. The first openly gay footballer was trailblazer Justin Fashanu – also the first one million pound Black player. "A bloody poof!" was how his manager at Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough, described him. Justin’s own brother disowned him when he came out in 1990. “He has come out publicly and stated his sexual preferences, so now he will have to suffer the consequences. I wouldn’t like to play or get changed in the vicinity of him”, said John Fashunu. John went on to present the hit TV show Gladiators. Justin killed himself in 1998.
While sports scholars like Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland argue homophobia among football fans has significantly decreased since those dark days the lived experience on the ground gives less cause for hope. In January 2012, Robbie Rogers left Leeds United by "mutual consent". A month later he announced he was gay. In a statement Rogers said that remaining in football after declaring that you were gay was "impossible".
Football is also stuck in the stone age when it comes to women. This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider sports scholars have long explained that professional, organised sport as we know it emerged in the late 19th century in response to a number of challenges to men’s traditional power, not least the rising consciousness and power of women in society. As Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, notes:
Sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminization’ of society, while also providing dramatic symbolic ‘proof’ of the natural superiority of men over women.
More than a century later and “the locker room” continues to be “the last preserve of the all male world”, according to Michael Kimmel, Professor of Sociology at State University of New York.
Football’s endemic sexism hit the headlines in 2011 when the Premier League’s top commentating team, Sky Sports’s Andy Gray and Richard Keys, were caught making disparaging and sexist comments about a female linesman and to a female colleague in the studio. In another incident Keys, off air and talking about Jamie Redknapp’s former partner, lewdly comments “Would you smash it [have sex with her]?... You could have gone round there any night and found Redknapp hanging out the back of it”. Gray and Keys were dismissed by Sky Sports, but it’s important to note their behaviour only became an issue when a (presumably disgruntled) colleague leaked the footage to the media.
What should be clear from all these examples is that the type of masculinity promoted reproduced in the footballing world is not an aberrant masculinity which can be dismissed as the way other men – criminal and psychopathic men, perhaps – act. Rather, it encapsulates many of the values and behaviours that make up mainstream, perhaps even the dominant, form of masculinity today.
The problem, as Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley cogently argued in 2011, is that these “widespread masculine traits and behaviours are dangerous and costly both to individuals and society.” According to Government figures, in 2009-10 men were the perpetrators in 91% of all violent incidents in England and Wales: 81% for domestic violence, 86% for assault, 94% for wounding, 96% for mugging, 98% for robbery. 2009 Ministry of Justice figures show men were responsible for 98% of sexual offences, 92% of drug offences and 89% of criminal damage. 99% of child sex offenders are male. On the road men commit 87% of all traffic offences, 81% of speeding offences, 97% of dangerous driving offences and 94% of motoring offences causing death or bodily harm.
To summarise, the sport that so many of us support financially and emotionally, and the players we idiolise and cheer on, promote a highly conservative version of masculinity that is damaging, sometimes deadly, to women, children and society more generally. Where, then, are the progressive and feminist voices raised in protest and anger at the gender politics of football? Where is UK Feminista? Where is the Fawcett Society? Where are the critiques in the Guardian’s women’s pages? And where, most importantly, are the men who say they are feminists who want more equality between men and women? As chef and Norwich City fan Delia Smith once shouted: “Where are you? Where are you? Let’s be having you! Come on!"
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003 published by Peace News Press. firstname.lastname@example.org and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.
 Mariah Burton Nelson, The stronger women get, the more men love football. Sexism and the American culture of sports (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), p. 8.
 For example Michael Messner, ‘Boyhood, organized sports, and the construction of masculinities’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, January 1990, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp-416-44.
 Michael Messner, Out of play. Critical essays on gender and sport (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2007), p. 92-3.