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James Lawton: Sneering, sexist commentators deserve more than a yellow card


'The prejudice displayed by Andy Gray and Richard Keys about assistant referee Sian Massey casts grave doubts on their future credibility as commentators the next time football is beset by a moral crisis'

'The prejudice displayed by Andy Gray and Richard Keys about assistant referee Sian Massey casts grave doubts on their future credibility as commentators the next time football is beset by a moral crisis'

'The prejudice displayed by Andy Gray and Richard Keys about assistant referee Sian Massey casts grave doubts on their future credibility as commentators the next time football is beset by a moral crisis'

You didn't need any particular skin colour to believe that Ron Atkinson -- despite a fine record of encouraging and celebrating emerging young black stars like Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham -- had made a pyre for his broadcasting career when, beside a microphone he thought was dead, he uttered a racist comment on the work ethic of Marcel Desailly.

Nor do you have to be a woman to be sickened by the sexist remarks of Sky's leading football broadcasters Richard Keys and Andy Gray and the so far wholly inadequate response of their employers.

The truth is that you don't have to be a lot of things to say that not only was the prejudice expressed by Keys and Gray shocking, it also cast grave doubts about their future credibility whenever football is besieged by something we might describe as a moral crisis.

Or at least an issue that demands the ability to separate right from wrong, bar-room rhetoric from an item generally known as conscience or, put another way, have the operating facilities of a thinking adult.

You don't have to adore, love or respect women for all those qualities that you suspect may be inherently superior to those generally possessed by the male gender.

You don't have to have at your fingertips the stupendous list of female achievement in precisely how many areas formerly dominated by men.

What it takes is some understanding that sneering comments about the ridiculousness of having a plainly fit, alert and intelligent young woman running a touchline, in full understanding of when a player is onside or not, casts grave doubt about the ability of the authors to make any judgment call more taxing than getting out on the right side of the bed in the morning.

We know that Sky has reason to believe it owns football -- in so many respects, of course, they do -- and we are also aware this has led to an appalling proprietary approach, which includes so much brand-pushing that the concept of objectivity sailed out of the studio window many moons ago and only occasionally reappears when a maverick like Graeme Souness or Ruud Gullit wanders into the studio unaware that his prime purpose is to support the product.

George Graham, when manager of Leeds United, once declared himself in this category quite hilariously when he was asked to provide some insights into the tactical intrigue of a fascinating match in which his team had been involved. Graham dead-panned: "It was possibly the worst game I've ever seen."

Not that there is anything remotely funny about the attack by Keys and Gray on the splendid, 25-year-old lineswoman Sian Massey, who officiated without noticeable error, and strikingly well in the crucial decision not to wave Raul Meireles offside when he set up Liverpool's first goal at Wolves last Saturday.

Atkinson paid the price for a remark that he has no doubt agonised over for the best part of six years. ITV chief Brian Barwick, later chairman of the FA, advised him instantly that he should resign on the spot and he lost his column with 'The Guardian'.

So far Sky has not been nearly so proactive. Initially, it issued a statement of admonishment, with the rider that the remarks had not been on air, and then, no doubt under a gathering storm of protest, announced that Keys and Gray would be stood down for last night's Bolton v Chelsea game.

A cooling-off period, perhaps, but unfortunately, and as in the Atkinson case, no amount of time is likely to take the heat out of such a crass performance.

The fact that it didn't go out on air is surely beside the point. Keys and Gray have no doubt become extremely polished performers, in their blokey way, down all the years, but how many man-hours of rehearsal will it now take to dissipate the impression they created with the off-air derision they applied to Ms Massey's first appearance on a Sky screen?

These are men who, after all, are paid large salaries to present and dissect the game. Gray is provided with all kinds of gadgetry to further his image as a supreme analyst of the game he played with great distinction. The extent to which he has now undermined himself, along with Keys, was perhaps nowhere captured better than in the reaction of Kenny Dalglish's daughter, Kelly Cates, who said: "Just been reading something called the offside law; too much for my tiny brain. It must be clogged by nail polish fumes."

Keys and Gray are supposed to be the voices of football, not the creators of bitter derision.

Atkinson's career died when he put his name to a racial stereotype and there was no talk then of a cooling-off period, a time for him to reflect on what he had said, even though like Keys and Gray he had not intended it for public consumption, and then perhaps make his case that it was out of keeping with values he had displayed in his football career and in his life.

Big Ron didn't have his wrist slapped. He wasn't stood down for a night. He was history.

For some that was harsh. Perhaps a similar interpretation would greet such action in the current case, but it is idle to draw a distinction between the two offences. Both were about expressions of a total lack of respect, for black footballers in one instance and at least half the population in another.

But then isn't everyone permitted at least one mistake? A lot depends on the degree of it. One thing is certain, if Ron Atkinson was consigned to history Richard Keys and Andy Gray cannot complain if they have to spend rather longer than one night on the cusp of it.

Sky should not have to be told this was no yellow-card offence and a one-match suspension simply will not do. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent