Sexism scandal stirs debate on women in soccer

Dinosaurs. Stone-age. Prehistoric.

Those were just some of the choice words applied to two of Britain's leading soccer TV personalities after they were caught making sexist remarks that cost them their jobs and stirred a national debate on the status of women in what has long been a male-dominated game.

Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who have been the faces of Premier League soccer on Sky Sports for two decades, became front-page news fodder for their off-air derogatory comments about a female match official and a team executive and sexually suggestive remarks about other women.

Gray was fired Tuesday and Keys resigned Wednesday in a media scandal that shed light on the prejudice that still haunts some levels of soccer in the country that prides itself as the home of the game — even though women are making great strides in the English game.

While their defenders claimed the two men had engaged in the type of "banter" that goes on in dressing rooms and pubs across the country, Gray and Keys have been mostly vilified as symbols of an "old boys" culture still stuck in the 20th century.

"Even in the context of football's male-dominated environment there was something shocking and actually rather sad about two middle-aged men expressing such seething bitterness towards women," columnist Oliver Holt wrote in the Daily Mirror. "The two men looked more like blokes who had just stumbled out of a cave than the presenters of a 21st century sports show."

Both men issued public apologies Wednesday, though they seemed as intent on defending themselves as offering contrition.

In a rambling appearance on a sports talk radio station, Keys claimed "dark forces" were behind the leaking of the footage that led to his downfall, said he was taken aback by the "frenzy that has blown up" and opined that "football is full of sportsmen who enjoy a bit of lads' mag humor."

"How not to apologize" — that's how a headline in Thursday's Guardian described Keys' mea culpa.

Gray released a written statement that sought to downplay his comments by saying they "were made off-air to work colleagues and were, of course, never intended to be broadcast."

Gray and Keys thought their microphones were switched off when they took aim at 25-year-old lineswoman Sian Massey before last Saturday's match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool. They questioned whether she knew the offside rule — playing off a common stereotype in Britain about women and soccer.

Keys ventured the game had "gone mad" by allowing a woman to run the line and said he could "guarantee" that Massey would make a big mistake. In fact, Massey made a key offside call in the game that turned out to be perfectly correct.

Gray also used an expletive in referring to Wendy Toms, the first woman to officiate in the Premier League, and called her "hopeless."

Keys fired a shot at West Ham executive Karren Brady, who had complained about sexual discrimination in the soccer media. "Yeah. Do me a favor, love," Keys said.

The audio recording of the comments, leaked to a Sunday newspaper, set off a storm of critical coverage and commentary — though one red-top tabloid coupled its moral indignation with a front-page photo of Massey dancing at a party in a short skirt and flimsy top next to the headline "Get 'em Off."

Sky Sports — part of the BSkyB family controlled by the Murdoch media empire — took Gray and Keys off the air on Monday, but after that came more revelations that took the furor to a new level.

First was leaked video footage of Gray and reporter Andy Burton discussing Massey's looks. Then came footage of Gray making a lewd comment to Sky Sports colleague Charlotte Jackson in the studio — tugging at his trousers, he gestures to a microphone and says, "Charlotte, can you tuck this down here for me, love?"

That proved the last straw for Gray: He was fired for "unacceptable and offensive behavior."

Later, another video emerged in which Keys makes sexual references to a former girlfriend of fellow Sky commentator Jamie Redknapp.

It all marked a rapid-fire fall from grace for the double act who were central to the revolution in TV soccer coverage in England since the start of the Premier League in 1992. Keys was the smooth anchorman, while Gray — a former Scotland and Everton star with a thick Glaswegian brogue — offered outspoken views and used digital technology to break down the games.

Press coverage of their demise elicited comments from unidentified co-workers who portrayed the two men as smug and arrogant and living in their own bubble. There was speculation the leaked footage came from someone inside Sky.

The scandal comes at a time when female referees are becoming more common.

According to the Football Association, there are 853 female match officials in England — up from 600 since 2008. Female referee registrations are up 12 percent on last year to the highest level ever recorded, the FA said.

The uproar over the Sky commentators' criticism of Massey has ramped up interest among prospective female officials.

"County associations have been telling me that they've been inundated by women wanting to get into refereeing," said Kelly Simmons, the FA's head of National Games, an initiative that oversees investment in grass-roots soccer.

According to world governing body FIFA, there are 251 women's referees and 334 women's assistants worldwide — up from 237 and 301 in 2008. In Europe, there are 104 women referees and 123 female assistants.

Among the groundbreakers was Cristina Cini, who has worked as an assistant referee in Italy's Serie A since 2003.

Still, a recent study commissioned by European governing body UEFA found that the game is "institutionally" racist and sexist and run by a self-perpetuating "old boys' club."

There are no women on the executive committees of FIFA or UEFA or the board of the FA. In England, there are few regular female soccer journalists and only one regular play-by-play match announcer, Jacqui Oatley of the BBC.

Massey, meanwhile, has unwittingly become an overnight media sensation. She was withdrawn as a lineswoman for a fourth-tier league match Tuesday night to let the storm die down, but she's due to return to officiating on Saturday at a non-league game between Corby Town and Eastwood Town.

"I don't mind whether it's a man, woman or even an elephant refereeing a game of mine," Corby manager Graham Drury said. "As long as they do it properly."