Ministering to every sport

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The Independent Culture
"SHUT UP WOMAN" screamed the front-page headline in yesterday's Mirror. The woman in question was the new Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey. Pictured below The Mirror's imprecation, sitting alongside Manchester United's boss Martin Edwards in the VIP seats at Wembley, Hoey had her arms held aloft as she cheered her team, Arsenal, on to victory in the Charity Shield. Edwards, said The Mirror's caption, was stony-faced. Thank heavens that The Mirror's journalists have vocally supported Hoey's appointment as Sports minister. What headline might they have come up with had they not?

Not that the headline reflected The Mirror's editorial line at all. Instead it was a phrase that had been plucked out of the air to suggest that this might possibly be Edwards's view of Hoey's opinions. In other words, it was created to stir up trouble. For this latest front page joins many others from The Mirror in recent weeks that publicises the newspaper's campaign to reverse Manchester United's decision to drop out of next season's FA cup, in order to take part in some tournament in Brazil called the International Club Championship.

Whereas the previous Sports minister, Tony Banks, supported Manchester United in its wish to drop out of the FA cup, Hoey courted immediate controversy when she took over from him in last week's reshuffle by declaring, of the treble-winning club, that "they have treated their supporters in what I would say is quite a shabby way. I think it is quite unforgivable." Edwards responded by saying that her statement was "disgraceful".

By Saturday, Hoey had been asked to sit next to Edwards and make peace with him. According to The Mirror, Edwards was having none of it. There is little to back this up, beyond a few shots of Edwards looking glum as he watches his team lose. However it is true that a previous comment by the FA, in which it welcomed Hoey as Sports minister, and said it was looking forward to explaining "the details of the issue" to her, did seem, as the former spin doctor Charlie Whelan pointed out in yesterday's Mirror, "not just patronising, but sexist."

It also seems to me to be utterly unnecessary. While there is no doubt that Kate Hoey could do a fair amount of good as Minister for Sport, the chances are that any real difference she may be able to make to sport in this country will be subsumed, as has happened with past Sports ministers, by the all-encompassing demands of professional football.

The Mirror's headline, ironic as it may have been, suggests also that despite the superficial political correctness that has resulted in an overwhelmingly positive response to the appointment of a female Sports minister, the novelty value of Hoey's femaleness will be irresistible to the media. Which is a shame, because sexism does damage sport, and Hoey's appointment itself should be enough to blaze a trail for other women in sport to counter this tendency.

Football, of course, despite the inroads made by female managers and players, remains aggressively a macho world. Yesterday Rachel Anderson, Britain's only female soccer agent, went to court seeking exemplary damages from the footballer's union, the Professional Footballers' Association, over their alleged sex discrimination.

The PFA insists that only men can attend its yearly award ceremony, and so far has refused to break with this tradition to make room for the Sports minister. When the union's deputy chief executive, Brendon Batson, was asked whether an exception would be made for Hoey to be invited, his reply was unequivocal. "Our position is quite clear - we have a policy of only male guests at the ceremony. Meanwhile we wish her well in her new post."

Most dispiriting. While Hoey is a lifelong football fan, and therefore knows what she's up against, the idea of petty attitudes like this one littering her tenure as Sports minister is pretty depressing. In fact, the twin monoliths of football and its sexism may prove harder to get rid of than Wembley's twin towers.

When Hoey, again virtually within minutes of her appointment, expressed her disappointment that the towers would not be saved during the rebuilding of Wembley, she added that she didn't consider such matters to be within the remit of the Sports minister. The chances are, though, that she will have to continue to make comments on a myriad matters that she does not consider to be within her remit.

The Mirror's attempt to co-opt her into their campaign is part of a political watering down that so far the Blair Government has embraced instead of resisting. The most blatant example so far of the trivialisation of political support came when Tony Blair spoke out in favour of the release of Deirdre Rachid - a Coronation Street character who had gone to prison because of her husband's fraud. The funniest came when more than 50 Labour MPs attended the Brit Awards - until recently not a big night in the political calender.

While Hoey's opinion may be similar to The Mirror's, the newspaper does a service to no one by drawing her into its campaign. This simply promotes the erroneous idea that the Sports minister exists to have an opinion on sport, and that since football is the nation's dominant sport, it follows that she must be available for comment on every development in football.

At present, what with the Sports minister embroiled in the FA cup controversy, Tony Banks as special envoy for the 2006 World Cup bid, and various politicians involved with the Football Task Force, we're soon going to have a group of elected MPs as large as an entire government department charged with looking after football alone. Since football is pretty much the only British sport that doesn't need support from the Government, the situation suggests that something is very wrong.

And indeed something is very wrong, a something that Hoey has the perfect experience to tackle. As a former physical education teacher as well as a former educational adviser to young football players, Hoey understands that the reason why sport has become an activity that entertains spectators rather than participants is because playing sport at school is no longer properly valued.

There are various reasons for this, largely to be laid at the door of previous administrations. One quite breathtaking fact is that inter-schools competitive sports declined by 75 per cent between 1987 and 1994, partly owing to the fact that cash-starved schools were encouraged by the Tories to sell off their playing fields. However, while Labour has gone some way to tackling this, the broad thrust of its education policy is not conductive to promoting sport at school.

The league tables, combined with rewarding teachers by results, means that neither the teaching nor the learning of sport is considered to be part of the achievement on which a school's or a teacher's success can be judged. Meanwhile, sports clubs for children that exist outside of school don't even have charitable status. And though Tony Blair recently voiced much rhetoric about remaking Britain as one of the great sporting nations, and instilling once again the will to win in our children, this was rather more than countered by the decision to let children of 14 and older to opt out of competitive sports at school if they wished to do so.

What the Sports minister, answering to the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, and with no money of her own to spend, can do about this remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. The task ahead for Kate Hoey has little to do with the machinations of professional football clubs, nothing to do with her sex, and everything to do with changing the attitudes of David Blunkett and Gordon Brown. Once she's managed to do that, then she'll be able to start changing the attitudes of an entire generation of young Britons. For never has a nation worn so much competitive sportswear and played so little competitive sport.