Equal treatment doesn’t always lead to equal outcomes

As a Leeds United fan, I was horrified to see a tweet by the club contributing to the online abuse directed at football pundit Karen Carney.

Carney had expressed the oft-repeated view that Leeds might not be able to keep going with their fast-paced game throughout the whole season.

She went on to opine that, in the previous season, the Covid-lockdown break had insulated the team from burnout by allowing them time to recharge their batteries and come back to the last ten games full of renewed vigour: “I actually think they got promoted because of Covid in terms of it giving them a bit of respite. I don’t know if they’d have got up if they didn’t have that break,” she said, with ex-Leeds striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink nodding along beside her.

It doesn’t matter if she was correct or not – the truth is that we don’t know about this season yet because it hasn’t finished, and we don’t know how last season might have played out without the Covid break because it’s a hypothetical argument.

The issue is not that, the issue (at least for this post) is how do we encourage gender diversity and equality in a sport that it overwhelmingly dominated by men … and therefore is treating a female pundit the same as a male pundit the right thing to do?

More specifically, knowing that football plus Twitter equals the worst kind of tribalism mixed with the vilest of abuse, should Leeds United have added their official authority to the mix by tweeting a response?

“Promoted because of Covid” 🙂
Won the league by 10 points👋
Hi @primevideosport

Leeds United tweet (in response to Karen Carney’s comments) – the tweet included a video clip of Carney repeating the comments

You don’t need to be a top clairvoyant to predict the moronic sexist abuse that followed Leeds’s intervention, nor that the media would gleefully blow it way out of proportion, piously arguing through tears of outrage that Leeds United had “singled out” Carney, and “targeted” her for “daring to express an opinion”! It was all sensationalist nonsense of course (the club have challenged the opinions of various pundits throughout the season), but the first casualty of a media frenzy is the truth, and any attempt at a nuanced and insightful argument as to how we should treat women breaking into a male-dominated sport is lost.

The objective of most newspapers is to put an audience in front of their advertisers, not to put truth in front of their readers, and clicks (i.e. money) are more consistently generated by exaggerated outrage than level-headed reason. Therefore, screaming about SYSTEMIC SEXISM and NAUGHTY LEEDS UNITED is always going to be the narrative ahead of talking about some true things and discussing how equal treatment does not always lead to equal outcomes.

It’s a poor do when you have to go to YouTube to get a sensible take on it.

Anyway, all this could have been avoided had Leeds developed the thick skin that Megan Rapinoe urged, and just ignored it – but is that the right thing to do? Should football clubs rise above it all and keep their Twitter feed tight and factual?

Shame. Shame. Shame. Thicken up that skin y’all. Also, don’t come for @karenjcarney she’s a National treasure 🤩

Megan Rapinoe (US soccer player) in response to Leeds United’s tweet

Given the toxic terrain of social media, and much of the media’s objective to turn up the dial on any and every controversy, irrespective of the facts and the damage they may do, then perhaps the pragmatic response is yes, official club accounts should steer clear of online minefields.

This isn’t to say that they cannot challenge pundits they disagree with, but rather that they should recognise that official accounts carry official authority: what they say has an impact on their followers, and how they say it sets the tone of what is acceptable. Add to this the unwritten law that states what can be misinterpreted, will be misinterpreted, and so any attempt at cheeky sarcastic banter will be misconstrued to fit whatever narrative the observer chooses.

So … should Leeds have treated Karen Carney differently than her male counterparts?

The official answer is yes because tweeting about Gabby Agbonlahor or Paul Merson or whoever has a different outcome in the real world.

The playing field is not level.

It is like fining someone £100 for parking in the wrong place. This could be a devastating blow for a poor family with every last penny accounted for, but a minor inconvenience for a wealthier person with cash to spare: same treatment, different outcome.

So it is probably correct to say we should acknowledge reality and be more careful when challenging female pundits on Twitter, given how new they are to a game rife with sexism.

However, I find this unconvincing, and I think there is another way to look at this.

So yes, first and foremost, clubs should box clever with their Twitter accounts and recognise reality, but also TV companies should give pundits more support.

There is an enormous amount of football on television at the moment, and fans are very knowledgeable on their teams, often more so than the pundits who have to cover multiple games and teams, so give them more help! Punditry needs to move with the times and give us more value than just repeating half-baked tropes that we’ve heard a million times before, and pundits need more support to help them deal with the exposure that comes with the job.

This isn’t to excuse the abuse, but let’s acknowledge that the standard of insight offered by many expert pundits is often paper thin – ironically Karen Carney is usually one of the better ones – and none of us enjoy being on the business end of abusive tweets.

Second, instead of focussing on one club – as if sexism were peculiar to Leeds United – why not target the people causing the problem: the abusers? Why not block them (being blocked by their club would send a clear message), report them to Twitter, have their accounts suspended and make it clear that their abuse is unacceptable?

Third, stop focussing on the club for doing something that – without the abuse – would have been perfectly acceptable.

The problem is that blaming Leeds United for daring to challenge Carney has meant that the narrative has morphed into the idea that you cannot challenge the views of female pundits without being called a sexist, and so unintentionally reinforcing the sexist idea that women pundits are less able to cope with the hurly-burly of football.

So where do we go from here?

I think we have a great opportunity to grab a victory from the jaws of this pig’s ear and use this unpleasant situation to talk about what we can do to make the game welcoming to women by openly discussing the challenges and abuse they face.

Why not have Karen Carney and Andrea Radrizzani (the owner of Leeds United) talk publicly about this, demonstrating their mutual respect, despite disagreeing on the role of the Covid shutdown in Leeds United’s promotion.

We have some experience of this from the workplace.

Creating diversity at work is never as simple as just treating everyone the same, but nor is it achieved by avoiding the issue and wrapping people in cotton wool.

Diversity is achieved through empathetic leadership, intelligent open discussion and supporting individuals so that they can thrive in the workplace.

This is an opportunity to make progress, if we can have those open discussions, provide Karen Carney and other pundits with better support, stop scapegoating the easy targets and instead come down hard on the abusers, then we might just take some steps forward.

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