“David Moyes confident job is safe despite threatening to slap female reporter.” The headlines on football’s most recent sexism row rather miss the point. Was the Sunderland manager really menacing a BBC interviewer? Of course not. He thought he was being smart, asserting his authority over an uppity journalist and putting her in her place.
“It was getting a wee bit naughty at the end there so just watch yourself,” he told Vicki Sparks, when their interview was over. “You still might get a slap, even though you’re a woman. Careful the next time you come in.” Both parties were laughing during the exchange; Sparks herself made no complaint, and was reported to be “keen to move on”.
Of course she was. For a sports lover, getting a job in the pressbox is such a big life win that you’re loath to rock the boat, especially if you’re a woman. Our careers are built on contacts and relationships, and the ability to get on with anyone and everyone is key. That’s a lesson I learned early, in my early 20s, when I wasn’t just an innocent about work but about life in general. A senior sports journalist I’d approached for work experience offered to give me some career advice over dinner, then tried to kiss me in his car. The fact that he was old enough to be my grandfather meant I never saw it coming.
But the pressbox is a small place, and I had to work alongside this guy, and when I tried to keep my distance, he asked me, in front of others, whether he’d done anything to offend me. I had a choice – I either began my career as the girl who made a fuss about something that might have been a misunderstanding, or sucked it up and stayed quiet.
A senior sports journalist I’d approached for work experience offered to give me some career advice over dinner, then tried to kiss me in his car. The fact that he was old enough to be my grandfather meant I never saw it coming
I didn’t make a fuss. Not that time, nor the time I was invited to my first black-tie awards dinner and my neighbour, a respected sportswriter who I had never met before, leaned over to whisper to my cleavage, “you’re a very pretty girl, aren’t you?” Nor when I started receiving professions of love from a senior editor, written on postcards and sent to my work address. It upset me, but my male colleagues couldn’t quite see why. It was so ridiculous, they said, that I should just ignore it.
In the nearly two decades since then, I’ve seen the number of women watching and engaging with sport increase exponentially. But the number of women writing about sport has barely changed. Elsewhere in the media they are certainly more visible – women presenting the sports news on Sky Sports and the BBC, women commentating on Olympic events and asking pitchside questions at the rugby.
But in the pressbox, women remain a tiny minority. A study in 2013 showed that female bylines in the sports pages ran at an average of 1.8%. Last year, of the 500 applications to last year’s Sports Journalism Awards, around 20 were from women. It can’t be because we’ve all got babies at home who need breastfeeding during kick-off. It’s also not because our male colleagues are sexist, sticking out their legs as we walk in the door, hoping to trip us up. Most of the men I’ve worked alongside in recent years are better feminists than I am.
But sport does like to wrap itself in a self-congratulating glow, a sense that it’s both as old as time and the most important thing on earth right now. It plays by its own rules, which is part of the reason it has fostered the corruption, bullying, cheating and greed that runs through its halls like spillage from the Augean stables.
I’ve seen the number of women watching and engaging with sport increase exponentially. But the number of women writing about sport has barely changed
And so, we believe, women who want to cover sport just need to toughen up. It’s a masculine, competitive place, and if you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to be prepared to get dirty. Sport’s ruthless nature extends off the field – that’s why the mixed zone, where athletes emerge for a few precious seconds of post-match interviews, is a place of shouted questions and sharpened elbows. Many’s the time I’ve been lost in a crush of large, sweating male bodies, wondering whether my Dictaphone will pick up any quotes, and my dignity will ever recover.
For a long time, I thought that being in a female minority was a privilege I should never overlook. The fact that my peers were all male made me feel unique, a special achiever. It got me noticed, too. Of course, not all of that attention was positive. I once turned up to interview a famous cricketer, and when his team-mates told him a woman was here to talk to him, he emerged from the dressing room in nothing but a towel.
Perhaps, if I’d had more female friends in the business, I’d have had the confidence to tell him to get dressed before I’d speak to him. Perhaps an atmosphere where women’s behaviour was as valid as men’s would have prevented it ever happening. Perhaps, if there were more women covering sport, it wouldn’t be male sportswriters calling out David Moyes on his sexist behaviour.
Emma John is the author of Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket (Bloomsbury) and has been a sportswriter for the Guardian and the Observer for 10 years. Following On is out now, and published in paperback on April 20.