Amelia Elson investigates misogyny within football culture in response to allegations against Mason Greenwood.
Content warning: Sexual assault
The recent allegations towards Mason Greenwood of domestic abuse and assault of his ex-girlfriend Harriet Robson have received widespread outrage. In light of recent allegations in the last year – Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy being charged with four counts of rape and one count of sexual assault and former Manchester United mid-fielder Ryan Giggs being charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend – it is clear that urgent questions surrounding misogyny within football are emerging.
These clearly aren’t isolated incidents: Frank Ribery, Karim Benzema, Neymar and household names Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Maradona, to name a few, are some of the many footballers to have been charged with cases of rape, assault and sexual misconduct in the past, showing that the treatment of and attitudes towards women from the internal realm of football and footballers is rife with misogyny and violence. While it would be ridiculous to isolate this violence towards women only to football players, it does appear that there is a dark and misogynistic side to the realm of football both within the players and the fans, that cannot be ignored.
To me, there are two issues here that need to be addressed. One, the internal issue of the treatment of women by footballers and fans, and two, the external attitudes towards and treatment of female footballers themselves.
The dark side of a football game is no secret. Among the excitement of England reaching the semi-final of the Euros last year, it was hard for women to ignore the stakes. According to a study published in 2014 exploring the relationship between football and domestic violence crime, researchers found a 38% increase in domestic violence cases against women when England lost and a 26% increase when England drew or won. Even last year I remember my Instagram flooded with mostly women expressing their concern over this phenomenon. We all remember the harrowing “If England gets beaten, so will she” posters. While I would love to give a solid scientific answer for this occurrence, it is of course nuanced and has many factors. But, it is undeniable that there is a direct link between football and increases in gender-based violence that, while difficult to isolate and address considering the culture of alcoholism, hooliganism, homophobia and racism so often associated with football fans, exposes a deep-seated problem that can only be explained by misogyny and sexist attitudes towards women that seem to be rooted in women’s unequal status in society. While it is absolutely not my intention to scorn or vilify football fans anywhere in this article (the vast majority have a genuine love and respect for the players and the game and are capable of expressing their elation or sorrow without violence) it is obvious that there is a link between football and misogyny.
Now, onto point two. It is no surprise to anyone that football has a reputation of being a ‘boys game’, something many women feel excluded from, probably for its charming lad culture and boisterous fans, not to mention the systemic issue of reinforced gender stereotypes in childhood: girls like pink and boys like blue, girls like makeup and boys like football, etcetera, etcetera. Even if this isn’t the case – and with the emergence of more contemporary attitudes towards women in sports and initiatives such as ‘This Girl Can’ this is slowly being tackled – there is still the issue of internalised misogyny. In a study led by Durham University in 2016, on the attitudes of men towards women’s football, researchers found that 68% of the respondents “suggested women should not participate in sport at all, or, if they did, would be better suited to more “feminine” pursuits such as athletics, rather than football”. A further 8% seemed to support gender equality agendas but still thought women’s sports were inferior.
Even if a woman does become an elite footballer, a difficult feat already if we consider the societal pressure to undertake more ‘feminine’ and domestic hobbies, the underfunding of girl’s football teams at grassroots and even elite level, and the homophobia some female footballers receive (stereotypes such as gay or “butch”), we still encounter vast internal problems. The gender pay gap is starkly problematic in women’s football. A 2017 FifPro survey of women footballers revealed that 88% of UK Women’s Super League players earn less than £18,000 per year and that 58% have considered quitting for financial reasons. We can explain this as lack of funding or investment or sponsors, sure, but there is an argument that if a team is playing the same game at the equivalent level, the only thing that changes is that ‘Women’ is placed in front of it. And suddenly people aren’t interested.
If we look at the treatment female footballers endure, putting aside the undermining of their talent and achievements they experience, there have been several cases of sexual misconduct and inappropriate relationships between coaches and players. In 2021, the head coach of the North Carolina Courage football team, Paul Riley, was sacked following allegations of sexual misconduct. He had coached women’s teams since 2006. In the UK, England manager Mark Sampson was sacked in 2017 for ‘inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour’ with female players. Looking beyond the issue of consent and the mistreatment of women, there is a power imbalance here with dangerous outcomes that simply do not exist in male football teams. Even female footballers that beat the odds, become elite athletes and play in the Leagues still experience sexism from within the system.
Despite all this, things are being done to combat misogyny within football. In 2018, FIFA initiated a ‘Women’s Football Strategy’, aiming for the growth of women’s football. They seek to double the number of female players to 60 million by 2026. On the 1st of February 2022, just days ago, the National Women’s Soccer League in America signed a deal that ‘raises the minimum salary by 60% to $35,000 with 4% annual increases, and it includes increased levels of free housing, transportation, 401(k) matching contributions, health insurance and other benefits.’ Last February, Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes made a powerful statement by turning down a role coaching AFC Wimbledon, a role that would have made her the first female coach of a professional men’s team. Chelsea women’s team have just completed a domestic treble by winning the League, League Cup, and F.A. Cup and also reached the final of the champions league, cementing their place as one of the top teams in the world. In contrast, AFC Wimbledon are fighting relegation in League One (the third division of men’s football). She said the expectation to move roles, just because it was a men’s team, was “insulting” and maintains that she is currently coaching a team that will go down in history.
Additionally, a feminist campaign, @levelup_uk are demanding that a zero-tolerance policy on gender-based violence within football be enforced. In the US, the Major Baseball League has a suspension policy for players. Any player suspected of domestic abuse, sexual violence or child abuse is suspended without pay. The Premier League and Football Association in the UK have no such measures in place.
Football should be a more inclusive sport. Female footballers should be recognised and respected as equal to their male counterparts and paid the same. Attitudes that women’s sports are inferior to men are dated and sexist (the US women’s team are currently consistently outperforming the men’s team yet are paid less and the prize money allotted to their League is significantly lower). Women should be protected both within the sport and outside of it, and it should be a safe space for us too. It is time for an end to the misogyny in football. Accusations of gender-based violence by elite footballers can no longer be swept under the rug and they cannot be allowed to continue to play and represent the country at the expense of the women they harm. They cannot continue to be revered as role models, supported by brand deals and protected by their status.
Mason Greenwood has quite rightly lost a lot. Alongside being investigated by the police and being suspended by his club, he has lost sponsorships, status and many high-profile footballers have unfollowed him on social media. Manchester United has even offered fans the opportunity to exchange their Greenwood football shirts for another player’s shirt, free of charge. However, Harriet Robson has been victim-blamed and accused of lying by fans. The outright misogyny to accuse a woman of trying to destroy a man’s reputation when she steps forward is outrageous and so harmful to other victims. While change within football is happening evidenced in how Greenwood’s case is being taken extremely seriously, there still exists a deep misogyny within football culture. It is time to protect the women, not the players. Internally, more opportunities for women in football must be opened up. It is frankly boring and insulting to still view women’s sports as inferior to men’s and spreads the patriarchal message that women are inferior to men.
Currently, Mason Greenwood is still being paid his £75,000 a week salary, despite being under investigation by the police. You can sign Level Up Uk’s petition here: https://linktr.ee/LevelUpAction.