The world works in peculiar ways sometimes. When I first considered writing this article in August 2020, it has been announced that three long-serving pundits and familiar football faces – Phil Thompson, Charlie Nicholas and Matt Le Tissier – were being sacked from Soccer Saturday. No further comments had been made at this stage, and most definitely no word about who would be taking their places. Yet, almost minutes later, as she was most likely going about her day and minding her own business, Alex Scott was trending on Twitter.
Fast forward a few months and as I sit here beginning to plan the article you’re now reading, the pundit was once again trending. This time for merely doing her job. I could easily write an essay alone about how seeing these tweets as a football fan makes me feel. Still, I’ll leave it to a helpful Twitter user who managed to encapsulate my thoughts in 235 characters. “It’s really insightful to see that Alex Scott, a great pundit, is trending on Twitter minutes after the news from Soccer Saturday because certain people can’t bring themselves to accept that a woman knows more about football than them.”
Since then, former professional footballer and journalist Karen Carney received a torrent of abuse online after suggesting the pandemic helped Leeds United to promotion. The club shared the clip alongside a sarcastic comment, surely aware it was encouraging abuse and sexist comments. Some went as far as to issue death threats.
“They are literally paid to have an opinion. And that’s cool – and you don’t have to agree with their opinion or like their opinion, but the whole point of living in a civil society is that we all have opinions. What’s not cool is the horrible, misogynistic, and vile abuse that went Karen’s way in the hours after her comments. That is not an example of a tolerant society, and if we saw anything in 2020, surely it’s the fact that sending people abuse on social media isn’t victimless. It hurts people,” said fellow pundit Jake Humphrey in the days after the incident.
Karen Carney was hurt, and since decided to leave Twitter. However, while this story made the headlines, it, unfortunately, isn’t an isolated case. A report by Women in Football’s sexism abuse survey reported a staggering 285% rise in attacks online between the 2017-18 season, and it is likely even higher now. Rather than tackling the root of the problem, players and other women working in football are expected to undergo social media training to learn how to deal with the abuse they receive.
According to a survey by Women in Football, a staggering two-thirds of women working in football have experienced gender discrimination – and only 12% of these incidents were reported. So, while women’s football continues to grow exponentially across Europe and the world, it is essential to note that this shift has not translated to more women working IN football.
Which begs the question, why do successful women in football still make people so uncomfortable? Is the idea of a woman offering an opinion on the sport so terrible that some feel compelled to send death threats online? The more women take their deserved place in the fast lane and give young girls at home something to aspire to, the more frequent the abuse becomes. As most sport’s fans and players work towards creating an inclusive game where no one is left behind, the voices of the minority who disagree only seem to grow louder.
Whether these trolls recognise their motive or not, research suggests that as the traditional stereotype of what it means to be a football fan is changing, “traditional notions of whiteness and masculinity continue to pervade throughout football fandom.” In other words, some take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers, assuming responsibility to decide who does or does not have access to the community. They feel a sense of ownership over the game, and spread hate to keep those out who they deem don’t belong.
But rest assured, real change will come. These voices will start to dissipate, and one day will be a distant memory. For this to happen, though, male allies need to get on board. They must begin to value women in football and understand their importance to the game. Associations must start to open doors to more women working in the sport and positions of influence – and we must all continue to speak out about injustice whenever we see it.
Alex Scott may be able to take it, to an extent. Many people cannot, and will choose against working in an industry which outright rejects them. We can’t let that happen. After all, it’s about time we were all welcome in the fast lane.