No place for sexism on TV

JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:28 PM ET

It may not always be true that those the gods wish to destroy are first made mad. In sports broadcasting in England this last week we have seen that an exaggerated sense of your own importance will do the trick just as well.

Right up until last weekend Andy Gray and Richard Keys were the lords of all they surveyed ó which, for the best part of 20 years, had been Premier League soccer. Increasingly, they rejoiced in the rewards and the prestige of being, respectively, the top soccer analyst and presenter of Sky Sports, the branch of the Rupert Murdoch empire which has generated both a huge place in the TV market and flooded the English game with tightly contracted wealth.

Gray, who was a superbly courageous striker for Aston Villa, Everton and Scotland in his playing days, and Keys, a former breakfast show TV anchor man, apparently found it increasingly difficult to conceal their contempt for sports journalists operating further down the food chain.

Happily, they answered to the nicknames 1A and 1B ó a reference to their seats at the front of the plane.

Once on a foreign assignment Gray was required to borrow the hotel room of a sports writer while changing clothes for the camera. He was so amused by the cramped accommodation it became a staple of his banter with the guys further back in the plane or the bus.

Yet all good things have a tendency to come to an end and for Gray and Keys this happened a week yesterday on a wintery morning in Wolverhampton as they prepared to cover the match with Liverpool. The pair were off air but not unrecorded when they expressed their outrage over the fact that one of the linesmen in the game would in fact be a lineswoman, 25-year-old physical education teacher Sian Massey. Maybe someone should go down and explain to her the offside law, it was suggested ó and also that football had gone mad.

That might have been that if the tape of their conversation had not been sent to a Sunday newspaper. Within a week, both Keys and Gray were history as far as Sky sports were concerned. Keys called Massey to apologize, but it didnít get him very far and on Wednesday he gave a rambling radio interview in which he talked about the envy of colleagues and Ďdark forcesí within his own organization.

Most observers realized immediately that Gray and Keys were in deep trouble. Six years ago Ron Atkinson, a bluff, highly popular former soccer coach, a kind of Don Cherry of the round ball, was instantly advised by his ITV chiefs to quit when he committed to what he thought was a dead microphone a racial slur on Marcel Desailly, a much decorated French defender who was then playing for Chelsea.

Gray and Keys were not without their defenders, however. Some thought it was absurd that they should be fired for sexism by an organization which also owns the Sun newspaper, which each day parades naked-breasted Ďglamourí models on its Page 3. It was also pointed out that Gray had recently decided to sue the Sunís sister paper The News of the World for phone hacking ó and intrude into a huge on-going controversy which recently provoked the resignation of prime minister David Cameronís top media aide, a former editor of the paper.

By this weekend, though, Sky was looking for its new faces of soccer.

Was it not true, went the last line of defence, that Gray and Keys were guilty of nothing more serious than the kind of menís talk regularly a in the local bar or pub? Maybe, maybe not, but the world of course has changed somewhat in the matter of what you can say and what you can do when you have an audience of millions.

What seemed most relevant though was the ability of Gray and Keys to negotiate some of the deep issues of professional sport ó like greed and institutionalized cheating and wholesale abdication of professional responsibility ó if they found it impossible to grasp the concept of a woman match official who, ironically enough, performed with admirable efficiency and insight, indeed in a way that would surely have been envied by many of her male colleagues.

If there had been any lingering doubt about the outcome of the controversy, though, it was removed when footage of some other indiscretions swiftly became available. One showed Gray making a lewd joke at the expense of a young female presenter. Another had Keys quizzing his colleague, the former Liverpool and England star Jamie Redknapp, on the sexual content of an old relationship.

This was game over for 1A and 1B. It probably wasnít anything to do with the gods, just the overweening belief that they could say and do pretty much anything they liked without it being used against them. They didnít seem to realize that the sweet smell of success can often have the most disabling effect.

- James Lawton writes for the Independent in the U.K.


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