Thursday 12 December 2019

Red card for sport dinosaurs

Martin O'Neill and Jose Mourinho are no fools - but they do share a strangely hard-to-shake mentality in the spirit of football's 1970s locker-room

Court: Former Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro won her case over unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination this week.
Court: Former Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro won her case over unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination this week.
Martin O'Neill

Joe O'Shea

Donald Trump may rage at this age of 'political correctness', targeting the feminazis and liberal wimps who will not allow men to be men.

But it must cheer The Donald (soon to grace us with his presence in Ireland) that there is still some corner of a sports field (and putting green) that is forever macho, at least one part of modern society where male millionaires can make jokes about "queers" or call a woman doctor and subordinate "child of a whore". And expect to get away with it.

Professional football and sport in general is one of the last natural habitats of what were once called male chauvinist pigs, the brash, blunt, locker-room boors who stopped paying attention to societal conventions sometime around their first schoolboy success in 1974.

So Martin O'Neill can go onto a stage in Cork and make a joke about "queers". And then issue the kind of non-apology apology, the "If I made inappropriate comments...", carefully-worded statement, that only further enrages everybody on Twitter.

O'Neill, to be fair, did add that he realised he had crossed some kind of line "almost the minute I had said it". But it was telling that the Ireland manager was comfortable enough with the language and sentiment to make the joke in front of a big crowd at the official Euros 2016 send-off in the Cork Opera House.

His defenders immediately pointed out that O'Neill has a "quirky" sense of humour, which appears to be similar to the one deployed by your one uncle who people tend not to sit next to at weddings. He is much-loved as a manager and a figure in the game, he is in his mid-sixties and maybe we need to lighten up already and give him a pass on joking about "queers".

But this is not the first time O'Neill's "quirky" sense of humour has gotten him into trouble. Back in March, he was asked at a press conference about letting the wives and girlfriends of Irish players visit their base in France and offered an observation - "I think it depends on how good-looking the girls are, really," said the former Aston Villa and Celtic boss. "If they're really attractive, they're very, very welcome. The uglier ones, I'm afraid not."

This joke about what many in the media refer to as WAGs - wives and girlfriends of football stars - drew a couple of laughs from the assembled press corps, one or two nervous chuckles.

It came in the same week that tennis became involved in a sexism row, after the boss of the famous Indian Wells tournament stadium, Raymond Moore, said female players should "get down on their knees and thank God" for the stars of the men's game.

Moore was forced to mount his dinosaur and ride out of town shortly afterwards, a rare example of a powerful sports figure having to face consequences for a blatantly offensive remark.

Just last month, the Muirfield golf course in Scotland was banned from hosting the Open Championship after club members voted against lifting the ban on women members. Muirfield is one of the few remaining golf clubs in Britain and the US which has a ban on women members.

And despite losing the right to host the Open, it seems the minority of members who voted against entering the 21st century (the vote needed to pass by a two-thirds majority) are happy to keep their clubhouse a purely male environment.

It was a reminder - just the latest - that some sports remain immune from the rapidly changing norms in our wider society.

In the UK this week, former Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro was in court to claim unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination against her former club (and its ex-manager, Jose Mourinho).

One of Carneiro's most damaging allegations was that Mourinho (53) had called her "filha da puta" (daughter of a whore). Chelsea were said to be ready to claim it was actually "filho de puta" (son of a whore), which the club was prepared to argue was a much less offensive term, commonly heard on the training pitch.

And as Sky Sports News reported, to back this up, the club had lined up an expert with one of the most interesting job titles in academia, a "specialist in Portuguese swearing from Oxford University".

Carneiro had also claimed Mourinho had been deeply disrespectful to her, at one stage publicly telling her she should go and work with the Chelsea ladies team.

Just one day into what promised to be a highly embarrassing case for Chelsea FC (highly entertaining for everybody else), the club settled with the former doctor for an undisclosed sum (which was then reported widely to be in the region of €6.3m).

Carneiro may now be vindicated and significantly better off. But while Chelsea FC issued a grovelling apology, Jose Mourinho strode out of the London court blithely refusing to utter one word of atonement.

Chelsea FC were left to make the pay-out and issue the apology, while Mourinho is already onto his next big job, on a reported €19m a year at Manchester United.

The Portuguese super-manager is regarded as one of the most intelligent (if uncontrollable) figures in the modern game, well-travelled, clever and urbane.

Martin O'Neill is also widely admired as a thinker, a star pupil of St Columb's College in Derry, he had been one year into a law degree at Queen's University Belfast when he decided to take his chance in professional football.

O'Neill has taken public stands against sectarianism and lent his voice to campaigns aimed at kicking racism out of football. He has shown himself to be a thoughtful, progressive man on important issues.

Some might say that at 64 years of age, he can be excused a little light sexism and using disparaging terms about the LGBT community, he is, after all "from that generation".

But like Mourinho, O'Neill has spent years at the top of the world's most high-profile sport, as a manager and pundit, travelling widely and gaining huge experience with and in the media.

Neither man fits the locker room chauvinist or golf club bore stereotype. But both have been shown this week to have indulged in language or behaviour which is fast becoming unacceptable in most other areas of modern life.

Jokes about "queers" and ugly women may still be heard in any pub you walk into on a Friday night, or in any locker room in the country after a game on a Saturday afternoon.

But even the guys who still make those jokes would think twice about using that kind of language in mixed company - or saying it out loud in their canteen in work.

Why should professional sports figures - who get enough media training and experience to know better - get to play by different rules?

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