Soccer Fails Its Donald Sterling Moment

What Women Really Think
May 21 2014 5:22 PM

Soccer Fails Its Donald Sterling Moment

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Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore gets a pass.

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Last month, TMZ obtained an audiotape of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in conversation with his young female helpmate, V. Stiviano. He complained about her posing for photographs with black people, instructed her to stop bringing them to his games, and said that she was degrading her own worth as a woman by fraternizing with them. Within a week, current and former NBA players condemned Sterling. Clippers advertisers fled. The team changed its website to a plain black background with a message of solidarity between players, and against Sterling. NBA commissioner Adam Silver conducted a prompt investigation of the tape, then fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from the NBA for life. At a press conference, Silver said he would do everything in his power to force Sterling to sell his team. The other NBA owners will vote on the issue next month.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

A similar sports drama played out this week, with just a few details shifted. This time, the exposed bigot was Richard Scudamore, CEO of the Premier League, England’s top professional men’s soccer organization. (Twenty teams, including Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United are shareholders.) His targets were women. In private emails between friends and colleagues—leaked to the Sunday Mirror by a former female assistant, who says she was forced to read the emails in the course of monitoring his exchanges to set appointments for him—Scudamore wrote that “female irrationality increases exponentially depending on how many members join your family. That should keep you within the Chinese government’s one child per family enforcement rules. Very clever those Chinese.” When a broadcasting lawyer who works with the league wrote that he had “spent all day” dealing with Premier League planning and projects director Peta Bistany by fending her “off my graphite shaft,” Scudamore agreed that Bistany, whom the pair had nicknamed “Edna,” was “terribly relentless” and advised: “Must keep her off your shaft … graphite, sausage meat or flimsy sponge.” In another exchange, Scudamore forwarded an email from another soccer executive, endorsing this joke: “Once upon a time a Prince asked a ­beautiful Princess, ‘Will you marry me?’ The ­Princess said, ‘No!’ And the Prince lived happily ever after and rode motorcycles and banged skinny big titted broads.”

The similarities between Scudamore’s and Sterling’s situations end there. In the wake of the leak, Scudamore apologized for his remarks. A Premier League committee declined to even verbally reprimand its CEO. The committee reported that it consulted with women in the league, polled its soccer clubs, and determined that “in the light of a previously unblemished record over 15 years of service to the Premier League, the clubs resolved unanimously that no further disciplinary action is required or justified.” The committee added: “Responses from many women in employment at the Premier League, and extensive consultations with others, establish that there is no climate of disrespect of women in the workplace.” A call to privacy failed to protect Sterling, but in Scudamore’s case, the league insisted that the “emails were private communications between friends of long standing,” and not a public matter. The league’s central sponsor, Barclays, expressed “deep disappointment” with Scudamore’s comments, but did not close its purse strings. Bistany herself told the Telegraph that the incident “has been completely overblown.”

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And yet, the Premier League committee’s claim that “there is no climate of disrespect of women in the workplace” is belied by the content of Scudamore’s emails. He joined a male colleague in trashing a female colleague with sexist comments on his work email; this constitutes “the workplace.” Also illustrating soccer’s bias against women is a recent report by the organization Women in Football, which surveyed 661 women working in professional soccer—including administrators, players, referees, and doctors—and found that 26.4 percent felt they were overlooked at work because of their gender, 66.4 percent had witnessed gender discrimination in the workplace, and 27.6 percent feel that their organization treats women differently than men. One respondent told Women in Football she was not hired because the employer “wanted to keep a male feel”; another was slapped on the butt on her first day on the job; another said women “can't report it every time someone says something derogatory as it's so common place.” One anonymous comment was particularly prescient: “A lot of comments are said tongue in cheek or naively with no ill meaning, so it's difficult to act on. The damage is not as much from the comments, it's the effects that are a result of an underlying attitude which really puts up barriers to women.”

Even the investigation itself is evidence of sexism in soccer. The committee that considered whether and how to reprimand Scudamore was all-male and headed up by Scudamore’s friend, a man Scudamore himself recommended for the position. Rani Abraham, the assistant who exposed Scudamore’s emails, wrote in the Guardian that she was never contacted in the course of the league’s investigation. (She left the Premier League after a few months on the job.)we If it had spoken to her, the committee would know that she felt “humiliated and belittled” by Scudamore’s comments. The industry’s response has been even more disheartening than the initial slight: “Their tone has been, ‘What's wrong with her, it's a sexist joke, get over it,’ ” Abraham wrote.

Why have pro basketball and pro soccer dealt with bigotry in their ranks so markedly differently? Differences in bureaucratic structures play a part: While the NBA is set up to hold owners to account when a situation like Sterling’s hits, the Football Association—the governing body of the sport in England—says it doesn’t have the authority to discipline Scudamore. (Women in Football has called for an independent review of the sport’s organizational structure in the wake of the scandal.) And British journalist Laurie Penny has said that casual bigotry gets more of a pass in the U.K. than it does stateside.

But this is also a calculation of money and power. In Sterling’s case, his overtly racist comments gave new voice to a long history of allegations of racist discrimination aired in civil suits brought by Sterling’s former tenants in his rental properties, as well as his former Clippers coach Elgin Baylor. The comments also resonated with uncomfortable truths about the racial dynamics of professional basketball. As my colleague Josh Levin wrote, “A white plutocrat like Los Angeles Clippers owner/Hall-of-Fame-caliber bigot Donald Sterling doesn’t just own a basketball team. He owns the black players who suit up for that team, too. For the men who control the NBA, great basketball players are another kind of expensive toy—superyachts that can dunk.” To Scudamore, women also constitute toys. They’re just not particularly valuable ones. The NBA’s commercial success is built on the effort and star power of black players—if Silver hadn’t sufficiently condemned Sterling, players across the league were prepared to boycott—but in soccer, women are expendable. Scudamore, who has dramatically increased profits in his time as CEO, is widely hailed as the guy who makes everybody rich. Get rid of Sterling, and the NBA ensures that the Clippers can remain a successful franchise; punish Scudamore, and the league’s financial future is in flux. 

Some prominent women—including Heather Rabbatts, the chair of the Inclusion Advisory Board for the Football Association—have pushed for greater punishment for Scudamore, but there are not many prominent women in soccer. As the New York Times’ Juliet Macur wrote, asking Peta Bistany how she feels about sexism in the league “amounts to asking someone if she likes her boss—with the boss standing right there.” Her public opinion does not necessarily represent her private opinion, and it certainly doesn’t represent the feelings of all the other women who work in soccer (or have been rejected in favor of men). The discrimination against women in the sport operates in two ways: Men can make sexist comments and slap women’s butts, and there just aren’t enough women to fight it.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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