I don’t think Souness was being misogynistic – but trying to define what it is to be ‘a man’ on the pitch creates stifling environment for male footballers

The Liverpool legend and long-time Sky Sports pundit reckons it’s “a man’s game all of a sudden now” again after watching “men at it, blow for blow” and touchline bust-ups at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but male players don’t need to be aggressive to be competitive, writes our columnist Laura Lawrence.

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I find the context around what pundit Graeme Souness meant by “it’s a man’s game” fascinating. His remarks following the ill-tempered 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham at the weekend continue to dominate the headlines after he issued a clarification on Sky Sports Twitter account last night.

It’s like the scene from Donnie Brasco where Johnny Depp — another man who trends for the wrong reasons on social media — explains to his colleagues the many uses of the Italian American phrase “forget about it”.

Each emphasis has its own distinct usage and meaning. Saying the same phrase can mean different things depending on how you say it. “It’s a man’s game” has different connotations. Does that mean it isn’t a woman’s game? It can be interpreted as that. Many thought Souness was being sexist, including current and former Lionesses Bethany England and Eniola Aluko.

Personally, I don’t think Souness was intending to be misogynistic at the time. I can’t vouch for his beliefs and judgements at other times, but I’d maybe have chosen my words more carefully in front of a distinguished female England international. Think of the football environment Souness was raised in. Lord only knows what was said and absorbed in those dressing rooms.

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On TalkSport, he expanded on his comments by saying, “Our game has always been unique, more meaty, more in your face, more intense and we’ve got away from that.” He continued to describe what he meant, “Where men were playing men and they got about themselves at times. They were falling out with each other.”

What he’s advocating for is aggression not just passion. What he means by ‘man’s game’ really does hang on the interpretation of what he thinks a man should be and do.

I think Souness’ rationale was referring to the traditional male convention. What men are supposed to be and are told they should to live up to: aggressive, forceful, in charge, squaring up, defending your honour. Some may also describe that as toxic masculinity, but I wouldn’t want to be called a snowflake for bringing in ‘woke’ language.

Words matter and it’s not about being part of the permanently offended brigade. Souness has absolute belief in what he meant by the phrase and to him, it was in a sporting context: how a man should act on the pitch.

And therein lies the inconsistency. Souness made a video for his former club, Rangers, telling their fans to behave and be ambassadors because of potentially antagonistic and disruptive behaviour.

But he then applauds the Chelsea and Spurs players, and their managers, for similar behaviour on the pitch.

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I’m not suggesting that Antonio Conte would have thrown a bar stool at Thomas Tuchel but their actions were more than the delightful term ‘handbags’. While fans may not emulate what they see on the pitch, aggy matches do intensify bad behaviour outside the ground. We’ve all been to niggly matches that have spilled out onto the concourses and beyond. Chelsea and Spurs fans don’t need an additional excuse to despise each other.

In 2019, on Sky Sports, Souness said: “Football has not created an environment where anyone would feel comfortable and confident about saying, ‘Look, I am gay.’” He’s right in this context. Football hasn’t created an environment where male footballers can come out because of men like himself trying to define what a man in football should be like on the pitch.

Men don’t have to be aggressive to be competitive. We shouldn’t forget about it.

Follow Laura Lawrence on Twitter @YICETOR

1 Comment on I don’t think Souness was being misogynistic – but trying to define what it is to be ‘a man’ on the pitch creates stifling environment for male footballers

  1. A really interesting read Laura. My only really disagreement is with the idea that gay men cannot be in the mold of ‘a real man’. That seems to suggest that all footballers who are gay need to suddenly start listening to Celine Dion and enjoying cabaret, which I would suggest is not true. As an aside, how would you, as a woman involved in the game feel if we just accepted that the 2 games are inherently different, not hugely, but in some ways, and that that is OK. Therefore referring to the men’s game or the women’s game wouldn’t need to offend anyone?

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