"Managing People with Morecrofts"

A Slap in the Face for Equality?

by Charles Millett

It was reported yesterday (Monday) that Sunderland FC manager, David Moyes, told a female BBC reporter off camera that she “might get a slap even though you’re a woman” and added that she should be “careful” the next time she visited.

He has since apologised to the reporter, Vicki Sparks, who has accepted his apology.  He has described his comments as being “in the heat of the moment” following his team’s disappointing goalless draw at home to Burnley on 18th March that left them bottom of the Premier League table.  He has added publicly that he deeply regrets what he said.

Moyes’ comments have drawn criticism from across the football world and media.  His employers appear to be backing him and comments from a spokesperson suggest the club considers the matter has been resolved amicably.

Shadow Sports Minister, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, disagrees and has called upon the FA to get involved, commenting: “This is disgraceful.  David Moyes cannot get away with these sexist threats.”

The question arises over whether the description of the comments as “sexist” is accurate and whether the club will come under wider pressure to treat the matter more seriously. 

It is undeniable that Moyes did identify the reporter’s gender in his comments.  It appears that in fact he was stating that he would treat her no differently than he would treat a man including in terms of physical violence.  It is this - an apparent threat of violence from a man holding a high profile public role to a woman simply doing her job - that makes the comment so offensive. 

From an employment law perspective, it might therefore be the making threats of violence and damaging the reputation of the employer that would be the grounds on which the club could take action against its manager, rather than on the basis of sex discrimination. 

According to the BBC’s own report of the incident, both Moyes and Sparks were laughing during the exchange and Moyes might reasonably seek to suggest that Sparks did not take his comments at face value.  His subsequent explanation, however, that the comments were made “in the heat of the moment” seems to detract somewhat from this line of attempted justification.

What is clear is that in a sport that is trying to promote gender equality and whose stars act as role models to impressionable members of the public, comments of the type made by Moyes to a female BBC reporter are unlikely to sit well with the FA’s stated values.  It remains to be seen what action, if any, will be taken against him either by the FA or by his employer. 

Under employment law, threats of violence made in the course of employment can amount to gross misconduct, which in turn can result in immediate dismissal.  Each incident has to be investigated on its own merits and there have been a number of cases in which a threat of violence was seen as insufficient to justify dismissal.  It would be interesting to see how this incident would be treated by the club if it did deem disciplinary action to be appropriate.