JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 28.1.11
IT’S WEDNESDAY NIGHT ON THE LATE train back to Edinburgh rom Glasgow; and the non-football-goers among the passengers are bracing themselves for a noisy ride. The match between Hearts and Celtic at Parkhead finished more than an hour ago, but the fans are still making their way back to Queen Street station; not only the Hearts supporters travelling back to Edinburgh, but a few Celtic supporters too, radiant in green and white after a 4-0 victory.
In my part of the train, the mood is deafening but cheerful. “We’re from the Capital, you’re from a s****hole,” sing the Hearts fans merrily, to the tune of La Donna e Mobile. Two Celtic-supporting Irishmen nearby join in the banter. “Can you heart the Hearts sing? We can’t hear a f***ing thing,” they bawl happily. The language is obscene, to the point where some might want to press charges for a breach of the peace; but the ordinary Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry, or competition between teams, seems pretty harmless.
After a while, though, a touch of sectarianism raises its head, as the Hearts fans mock alleged Celtic “conspiracy theories” about a sectarian bias in the upper echelons of Scottish football. And then finally, there is the homophobia, as the fans sing ever more lustily: not “who ate all the pies?” but “who s****ed all the boys?”, in a few antomical sideswipes at the Celtic manager and his youth team.
Now as match nights go, this was not a rough one on Scotrail; the fans were happy, and not physically threatening. What their musical repertoire showed, though, was just how closely the behaviour of men around the game of football is often bound up with various forms of tribalism and hate-speak. Part of the fun of following a team involves forming up into a gang of men, and bonding more closely by mocking and deriding the enemy. And in the heat of battle, fans tend to use any old stereotype that comes to hand: race, religion, geography, poverty, sexuality, and even – in one memorable Wednesday night chorus – ginger hair.
This is the world that shaped men like Andy Gray and Richard Key, the two commentators caught out on an open microphone this week making rabidly sexist comments about the ability of a woman match official; and if they have learned to curb their tongues in public, then it’s perhaps not so surprising that when they are off mike, they revert to type, and start to abuse everyone whom they do not see as part of their own tribe. What they said about lineswoman Sian Massey was bigoted, ugly and untrue; but they are almost as likely to have said the same, under the circumstances, about a linesman who happened to be Italian, or Indian, or from some other country not their own. Men and women who love football often do so precisely because they enjoy a bit of noisy tribal abuse, within reason; and apologists for the uglier aspects of football often try, with a small grain of truth, to explain it all away as a “bit of fun”, or as a safety valve which allows boys and boy-men to let off steam, and to briefly express their more primitive selves.
As the row over Gray and Key shows, though, this whole nexus of speech and behaviour around football poses serious problems for a society which has been through such a rapid transition from a mid-20th-century world of institutionalised sexism and racism, to one where such ideas are now officially beyond the pale. Freedom of speech remains a powerful imperative; and it seems to me strange that Sky Television was able summarily to “sack” Andy Gray on the grounds of a private conversation held off-microphone, without even so much as a written warning. As a general principle, no one should be deprived of work, and possibly of their entire livelihood, without proper procedures being followed.
In the larger scheme of things, though, it seems to me high time for our entire culture to get over its Jeremy Clarkson phase, and to stop hinting – either explicitly, or through a series of nods and winks – that after this period of so-called “political correctness gone mad”, we will somehow revert to a sensible old world where women, black people and homosexuals know their place, and middle-aged white men can insult them at will. It is possible to argue, of course, that Sky Television has damaged the good cause of female equality, by making bar-room martyrs of a pair of middle-aged dimwits whose off-mike banter was as unfunny as it was old-fashioned.
Whether libertarian radicals like it or not, though, there is a huge gulf in moral authority and significance between the freedom of speech of those who criticise the mighty, and speak truth to power; and the petty, lie-based bullying of those who lash out at relatively powerless minorities. Football in the UK has already gone a long way towards kicking racism out of its stadiums, just as football in Scotland has begun the long process of trying to root out violent sectarianism; and across the UK, some brave players are beginning to confront homophobic attitudes among players and fans. The game, in other words, is no longer “only an excuse”, a refuge for lazy-minded men who find the modern world too complex, and too demanding.
And it certainly no longer offers an excuse for the kind of sexism expressed by Gray and Keys. If I had been their boss, I would have put them on a stern warning to keep their private sentiments private, and let them carry on. But come the end of their contracts, I would have been looking for new voices in my commentary team: not “politically correct” voices, frightened of giving offence, but broadcasters sophisticated enough to know which century they are living in; and able to express that contemporary reality in every detail of their language, and in every nuance of their response to what is still, on its day, the most beautiful of beautiful games.