Thursday, December 27, 2007

Red Card: Afterthoughts on Manchester United's "Rape Party"

Before Christmas, the media here in England was whipping itself up into a froth over what has become known as Manchester United's "Rape Party" - a private-ish holiday bash for which players paid a planner to "harvest" cute girls from the city's shops, sidewalks, and bars. WAGS were left at home as the guys went from a strip club (where they could never have behaved as they would later on), to a bar, to a hotel (pictured here) they'd rented out for the night (see standard tabloid story by The Mirror here). Newspapers here recited tales of players groping and molesting their guests, and settled on their favorite story - of a woman who was "roasted" by six players, who left her with the compliment that she was "a great shag." The night took a predictable turn when a rape was reported to the police - and here, of course, the story gets murky: a 26 year old model reported having been raped by a 19 year old player (who was "quizzed" by police and released). The truthfulness of her complaint is now, again predictably, in dispute. Rumors abound that her boyfriend had been thrown out of the party, and was the person who phoned the police. The scandal has died down: Man U won its games following this event, seems in form as a team, and that's that. Few seemed genuinely bothered by the fact that money which flows to the team from fans is being used to fund the worst impulses of a bunch of spoiled assholes who can't imagine bonding with each other unless it is via and through the body of some woman they've "used" together.

Sir Alex Furgeson has said very little - word is he's banned parties, but the party line is that it's a "club matter".


Americans will recognize the harmony between this event and the party thrown by Duke University Lacrosse players last year and the ensuing fiasco as the local authorities and university used this event to exorcise themselves of past demons. The call to the cops was in that instance placed by a stripper who had been hired to perform. The charges from that case were eventually dismissed - but not before her complaint surfaced the obscene racism and sexism of the culture of that team and that campus. At the very least, those young men managed to transform bad judgement (in throwing a wild party and hiring strippers, etc.) into an intensely abusive and creepy display of entitlement. This story looks only slightly less complex, but even more offensive. Duke, as far from perfect as it is, is not an unreflective embodiment of patriarchy in and of itself - Duke has as many women students as men, anti-discrimination policies in hiring, and was recently led by a woman president. Racism and sexism thrive within its walls, but the extreme versions of those attitudes manifested by players on that team do not represent the institution's public face, or even its present mission. Manchester United, on the other hand, is a men's organization - with some under 16 coaching as window dressing. The story of this party has been swallowed up by indifference to the ways that it reminds us of just what a patriarchal culture looks like.

As scandalous as it is to admit, I can understand why someone might make a false rape accusation. Most of the people attending that party have little opportunity to consider what feels exploitative, abusive, disempowering and why - and what avenues are available to them to protest and resist the behavior, and the attitudes that behavior manifests. What avenue is there really for anyone at a party like that to complain? To register their sense of outrage? Someone had a right to protest - and why not one of the women's boyfriends? Frankly, that's the kind of man I wouldn't mind having as a friend. That party had all the hallmarks of the kind of thing at which people are victimized - at which, at the very least, a woman's consent is used an excuse for the abuse of power.

I would like to imagine a football club whose culture produces both fiercely competitve athletes, and compassionate people. The two can and do go together. But to get from here to there would take a fair amount of self-examination - some real work.

Now, here's my cross: I think the disaster of that party is on a continuum with the events that led to Manchester United's abandonment of its women's team (2005's squad is pictured left). Yes, you read me right: There is no Manchester United women's team. Manchester City (pictured below left), however, does have one, and seems most proud of the fact!

Man U ladies were disbanded by the organization in 2005. The disbanded team played most of its life outside the organization's umbrella - they formed in 1979 as "Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies" - this group eventually became founding members of the North West Women's Regional Football League in 1989, and enjoyed increasingly competitive seasons at varying levels until they were brought into Man U, which had been running schools for girls through its community development programs. Some of the players in the disbanded team had come up through this system. Man U is required by law to offer training for girls in order to run a school for boys - and one gets the sense this is the ONLY reason they train girls at all.

Incredibly, in the letter sent to players informing them that the team was disbanded - and that they couldn't play even on their own under the name - the organization's leaders explained that it had never been their 'intention to become involved in women's football at a high level'. In his 2005 article for the Salford Advertiser, Tony Howard cites a Man U spokesman: "We have always made it clear the ladies' and girls' section was about community partnership and education rather than establishing a centre of excellence. Ultimately the hope is the boys will progress to the first team. So naturally more resources are put into that area because it is our core business."

Enough said - women's soccer is only as good as a side show. According to the May 2005 Man U shareholder's newsletter, Hayley Bates, pictured here on the right, saw the dismantling of the team as the final expression of "a pattern of a lack of respect for the women and sexual discrimination since the inception of the women's department." The team members were given plastic water bottles as a send-off.

As I know the Man U guys in the office and on the pitch wouldn't listen to anything that felt at all feminist-y, I would recommend they watch a couple films about women athletes - like Dare to Dream: The Story of US Women's Soccer, an HBO documentary about the US team that won the world cup in penalty kicks before a statium audience of 90,000. Or This Is a Game Ladies, about top ranked Rutgers University Women's Basketball team and their inspiring coach C. Vivian Springer (these women were infamously the subject of racist/sexist remarks from radio host Imas, who very much picked on the wrong group of woman - check out a recent highlight of their season here).

Anyway, what if Man U players make a point of talking to the women who play football in Manchester - Why not begin to learn about women by learning about women who have a lot in common with male athletes, but who enjoy none of their privileges?

The women of Manchester have a right to expect the city's men to take an interest in their side - not just to defend it, but to, in fact, fight for it. FC United, the fan-owned club formed in 2005 by disgruntled Man U fans (wary of the new American owner Glazer whose takeover coincides with the axing of the women's team) should, according to their website, be forwarding a ladies' side about now. I look forward to seeing them in action.

10 comments:

  1. I hope you realize that you trivialize rape when you condone someone making a false rape claim purely because they've been treated like meat. Every time a woman makes a rape claim, there's always the suspicion that she's making it up. It makes harder to believe the genunine cases when people give false testimony because they've been offended by boorish behaviour. As Lionel Hutz would say, there's rape, and then there's "rape". And there's a world of difference between the two.

    Furthermore, why does the women's side have a right to expect help from the men's side? They're both competitors for the same market (football fans). From a financial point of view, Man Utd should see them in exactly the same light as they see Man City, FC United and any other Mancunian footy side. Are you suggesting the women's team deserve help purely because they're women?

    Granted, it'll be nice to see a big club like Man Utd look after a smaller, lesser establish club like the Man Utd ladies. But make no mistake about it - they don't have the "right" to demand anything of Man Utd.

    I'm Ipanema Bob.

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  2. Hi Bob. If you'd read the comments & replies on soccerlens (where I know you are a participant), you'll see my reiterations regarding the filing of false accusations - my point was *rhetorical*.

    And re: Man U Ladies - there's a bigger story there - about how the FA has tried to go about starting a women's league, and done so badly, and about the sexism of the organization itself. Man U's behavior towards the ladies team was just plain awful - no matter how you cut it. This isn't just about rights, it's about sportsmanship and fair play.

    Now - I'm happy to get dialogue going on my blogspot site. But a couple of your posts replying to my writing on soccerlens were really lame - one in particular was just flat out offensive. This blogspot marks out a different sort of community: Imagine, for example, my 12 year old niece reading this, as well as my Dad, my sis, and my teammates from Hackney Ladies. Post anything like that here and I'll do whatever I can to make sure you never post to From A Left Wing.

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  3. Jennifer,

    You devoted a substantial part of that post to the Jonathan Evans rape claim, and then expanded it to include a similiar incident involving a lacrosse player. So, I figured rape was something you wanted to discuss.

    About the Man Utd women's team, I've got no idea about the attempts of the FA to set up a women's league. I can't comment about the treatment the Man Utd ladies received from Man Utd. However, the tone of your article suggested that Man Utd OWED something to the ladies club, as if they were entitled to something. I felt this wasn't incorrect.

    By the way, you haven't explained why thinking that a 2-1 goal advantage for women is "lame" or "flat-out offensive".

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  4. IB,

    I used the words "lame" and "flat-out offensive" to describe the first post on soccerlens under the creepier Ipanema name - I've been assuming you were the same author.

    I've maintained throughout my posting regarding the 2 point rule that I don't personally like it, and have pointed out numerous times that it's something aimed at low level play to change bad habits - I was, however, surprised to learn that the rule wasn't about a mindset in which women are assumed to be bad players, but a mindset in which guys need incentive to see that women are in fact part of the team.

    My post on Man U's party isn't about rape, it's about creepy and abusive sexist behavior that might drive someone to call the cops. AND, it's about reading that behavior on a continuum with how Man U treated its women.

    You should familiarize yourself with the FA's campaigns regarding women's football and the association of (already existing) women's teams with men's clubs, and what a disaster that's been for some of the women's teams: Imagine your club - playing together for nearly 20 years - gets taken over by Man U, which promises all sorts of support, which they never come through with, the little they did give they then take away, and then they tell your team they can't even play as a team any more. Now that doesn't seem fair does it? So yeah - I think the Man U ladies deserved better.

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  5. I found this post really interesting (a bit belatedly! I hope you see this!)

    I have to say that I a) see no continuum at all between the rape issue and the lack of a ladies' team; and b) don't see why Utd should have to support a ladies' team. The latter point in particular I found myself feeling quite strongly about as I read your post.

    First and foremost: why *should* they have a ladies' team? The FA should be supporting the women's game, sure, but individual men's clubs have no obligation to take part. If they want to, great. But if the women's game is to take off it ought to have its own structures and perhaps its own teams. I love that Doncaster Belles are a much bigger side than Doncaster will ever be, though I dislike the cutesy name. Far worse than Utd's longstanding indifference, and far more damaging to the women's game, is what Charlton did to their women's side, traditionally one of the strongest.

    I guess I see it as a reductive thing - the idea that a women's side is like the youth team or the reserves - an appendage to the "proper" team. Sod that, if women's football deserves a proper club structure it shouldn't be an afterthought.

    I should raise the caveat that I neither play nor have any real interest in women's football, other than as another arena in which women suffer discrimination and inequality. So maybe if I were within the game, my opinion would be different.

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  6. hi sparkly princess,

    glad you came over to visit this site. in a perfect world, i'd write a follow up blog entry expanding the issues i raise here.

    my point about the man u rape party could have been made more simply:

    Manchester United is a patriarchal organization - a party like that doesn't just happen out of the blue. It is an extreme version of the kind of attitude towards women that pervades the organization's culture - and it's hardly unique in football. My point takes some of the blame off the player's shoulders, and put it on the adminstration's. My information about how the women's team was treated is taken from the Man U shareholder's newsletter (there's a link to this in the blog). You KNOW the sexism is intense when it's being reported in the Man U shareholder's letter! I don't understand why it's so hard to see the two things as expressing an organization's attitude towards women.

    On the larger issue: as an American, I thought at first too that it was weird that the women's teams had this relationship to the big men's clubs. Now that I've been here, I get it - football is organized here through not TEAMS, but CLUBS - it's a totally different mindset compared to the US - and given that women were BANNED from playing on FA pitches and that, in fact, men and women were banned from refereeing or working as linesmen until the 70s (in other words, if you let women play on your field, it was 'spoiled' and if you supported women by working the line or ref'ing, you lost your place in the FA and couldn't work in FA games) - well, the FA had to start somewhere as a way to acknowledge the really severe damage inflicted on the once popular women's game.

    Charlton, by the way, pulled it together and still has a women's team. Rumors of their demise, in other words, are much exagerated. They were, however, just beaten 4-0 (!) by Birmingham City. Charlton's website (cafcwomen.co.uk) will tell you how their season went. A google search of "Charlton" and "women's football" gets you to their page,the AP reported on their rescue from the cutting room floor (with a sponsorship) in Sept 2007.

    Doncaster Belles are one of the oldest continuing women's sides in Britain - they originally played as the Belle Vue Ladies, and were formed by women selling draw tickets on the terraces at Doncaster Rovers. The name was eventually shortened to the Belles. They've been playing continuously since 1969. I think they are the oldest women's team in the UK. This and more info about the team is on their website.

    Let me just say - they are anything but 'cutsy': they are super-bad-ass, like most UK women footballers I've met. It's one of the things that's gotten me into the women's scene here - it's way more bad ass than back in the US of A, partly because you have to be pretty rock and roll to put up with so much of the bullshit people here dish out.

    To Wit: Can somebody tell me why no store in the united kingdom sells women's football boots? I mean, WTF??

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  9. Thanks FG - I deleted that inappropriate post, and your post pointing it out. I was traveling when that was posted, and missed it in my last weeding.

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Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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