A couple of weeks back there was a Twitter storm surrounding the tweets of one Leon Knight, marginally successful football player who came up through the ranks at Chelsea F.C., who decided to publicly verbally assault Jamie O’Hara and his wife Danielle O’Hara (née Lloyd) about her alleged colourful past. Knight went into great detail in listing the sexual encounters Danielle Lloyd had had before she met Jamie O’Hara and in the process demonstrated himself to be a misogynist of the most vulgar variety. To Knight, Danielle O’Hara was tainted goods, she had been ‘used’ by other men, and for that reason she was game for exposure as unclean and unworthy. Simultaneously, Jamie O’Hara was game for ridicule and exposure, for having been ‘hoe trapped’ in marrying a woman who had been the ‘bike’ of other men in the world of professional football.
Unfortunately, Leon Knight has merely become the particularly crass poster boy for a culture that is endemic in football. The words he uses and the attitude he displays are not peculiar to him, even if he happens to be the one who caught the public eye with his particularly cold-hearted pursuit of a happily married couple. He is simply the latest to give public voice to a reality embedded in football changing rooms the length and breadth of the country – misogyny rules, and a particularly aggressive variety at that.
Often this is given the whiff of justification through shoulder-shrugging explanations of the reality young men in these positions often face. For proponents of this approach, young women often throw themselves into such situations willingly and then regret what happens afterwards. This was the general thrust of Stan Collymore’s position in The Verdict – this regret, the implication seemed to be, was at the root of a false cry of rape. That the responsibility might be equally that of the male is a foreign concept – if she was asking for it, or at the very least willing, then whatever the context or circumstance the responsibility is solely hers.
Now it must be acknowledged, uncomfortable as it is, that this logic might not be solely one way. As Louis Saha recently claimed, the position of women in the eyes of footballers appears to coincide with the assumption, sometimes even the reality, that certain women seek the company of footballers solely for their fame and fortune. For this reason, in the eyes of some the woman becomes fair game for that which the footballer assumes she is trying to do to him – if she would use him for her own selfish ends, then he can certainly use her for his. That some might pursue this approach is a matter for debate – that it poisons the way in which women more generally are viewed is beyond doubt. This has a corrosive effect on stable relationships, since the paranoia of the footballer merely increases and re-affirms itself each time an encounter comes to an end. The spiral leads to an ingrained misogyny, if not aimed at all women then certainly at the majority who move in the kind of circles which footballers most readily come across, an attitude summed up in Leon Knight’s appalling phrase ‘beat and delete’. It is this which leads some to think women deserve what they get – and show little compunction nor regret in giving them precisely what they get.
Such an attitude was most clearly on display in the recent case with Ched Evans. The lady willingly consented to have sex with Evans’s team-mate Clayton McDonald, they claimed, and then consented to a complete stranger brought into the room (who had been called solely for the purpose), it was suggested, whilst a bunch of lecherous goons attempted to film the encounter through the bedroom window. The jury decided against Ched Evans, much to the chagrin of he and his many supporters. That a young nineteen year old lady, alone and almost unconscious with drink, could be in any sort of condition to give consent, or that they as a group of men should even treat her in such an undignified way whatever the circumstance, did not cross the minds of those who immediately attacked the lady as ‘money-grabbing little tramp’ following the verdict.
Yet what occurred in that hotel room is hardly uncommon. Indeed, it is pretty much the norm, something that modern technology has made a good deal easier to document and share. One need hardly produce here the extensive list of sordid stories that have leaked just over the last few years, stories ranging from sexual assault, to underage sex, to leaked sordid videos, to prostitution, to public sex, to (familial) adultery and betrayal. A Google search will furnish you with dozens of examples – these were simply the unlucky ones that attracted wider public knowledge. Anybody who has spent more than five minutes in football will have a plethora of other stories to tell, enough to fill the gossip columns for years. From the inside, such events eventually become unremarkable, so common are they.
Yet this merely fuels the very thing that causes the unhappiness. If an endless series of meaningless encounters lead footballers into a spiral of paranoia, instability and lack of confidence (as Louis Saha claims), then constantly pursuing the same path is unlikely to solve things. As Alex Ferguson once said in an interview, when reflecting on the growing maturity of Wayne Rooney, he likes it when his players settle down – it makes a man of them. Or in his own words, ‘Seriously though, marriage helps footballers, I’ve always thought that. I’m an advocate of that. It helps players settle down, I really think that. You know where are they are and it’s good for the stability of a footballer.”
If this is true, then all too often clubs really are failing in their duty of care in refusing to counter the kind of culture which agitates against such a view. When a sixteen year old walks through the door, he is expected to indulge in and endorse the culture described above as a central part of being one of the lads – it is an initiation ceremony as much as a necessary means of social protection. It helps increase social standing and reaffirms masculinity, something being forever silently weighed in the testosterone drenched confines of the dressing room. In this atmosphere, I knew one lad who remained a virgin until he was 17 – the taunting he received was merciless, and the lengths others went to reverse this state of being was simply perverse. When combined with the constant Leon Knight-esque weighing up of any lady who proved more than a short-term encounter, the attitude toward women more generally soon showed itself to be noxious and yet all too often irresistible
Of course, there is an extent to which none of this is surprising. It has probably always happened and probably always will, wherever a collection of highly athletic and socially adored young individuals get together in groups. Indeed, if the scurrilous tales emanating from the Olympic village have any truth to them then clearly this is not a culture confined to football. Yet this culture, in my admittedly limited experience, is never countered from within the confines that serve as its ultimate protection and allow it to flourish. Such behaviour is seen as a way of earning one’s stripes, and it is not at all uncommon for the stories (and any documentary evidence) to fling back and forth between management and playing staff. Indeed, clubs will sometimes go yet further – being careful what I say, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard of jilted ladies walking pregnant into a training ground whilst a young star has the ‘problem sorted’ by the club and agent. You think the Manchester United ‘piece of meat’ party was a one-off – not a bit of it. Alex Ferguson may have put his foot down, but similar things happen and have happened at clubs up and down the country.
Corrosive as it is, the myth has been allowed to prosper that this is what being a real man is all about, a myth increasingly finding its voice within wider society and popular culture. Yet this is also where it leads – to a place where women really are pieces of meat, where some come to think that being treated like a piece of meat is a worthwhile gamble, and others think treating people like a piece of meat is not only acceptable but thoroughly justified.
At which point, people might say ‘well, what is the answer?’ To which my response can only be, unhelpfully, ‘I don’t know.’ All I know is the culture is destructive, both to the people engaged in it and the wider society that houses the repercussions of it. And that in a culture where many of our greatest role models tend to be footballers, it is lamentable that football culture should embody to such an extreme degree one of the ugliest aspects of human prejudice.
*Disclaimer: I have not been in nor experienced the world of professional football for ten years. My commentary is based on the experiences I had then, combined with the stories I hear now. Things might well have changed, either for better or worse.