Scudamore email affair reveals Britain’s elitist club culture

A representative of an outdated establishment with 19th century views … and Princes Charles. Justin Tallias/PA

Controversy continues to envelop Richard Scudamore, the long-standing Chief Executive of the English Premier League, nearly two weeks after sexist emails he exchanged with business associates were leaked by a former personal assistant. His future at the helm of the league remains in doubt despite the decision of its constituent clubs, and more latterly the Football Association (FA), to take no further disciplinary action following his public apology.

Why has the Scudamore affair caused so much controversy? For the most part the media has been split along familiar lines. On one side are those who argue that Scudamore’s apology is sufficient recompense for his “private” indiscretions and that the clamouring for further disciplinary action is not only unwarranted, but illustrative of the vengeful, hypocritical stance of the “professionally outraged”. There are others, such as the Women in Football network, who claim that such “everyday” sexism reflects a dysfunctional working culture that is “a long way from equality”.

The danger of reducing the debate to familiar tabloid terrain on the boundaries of political correctness is that it neglects the deeper tensions at play. The Premier League’s handling of the affair demonstrates its inability to regulate itself effectively. The internal investigation was conducted by Peter McCormick, the league chairman and only other member of the two-man board in addition to Scudamore. The decision to involve the league’s audit and remuneration committee, a body made up of another four white, middle-aged men with no remit for equality and diversity issues, to add a veneer of legitimacy to the decision appears to have been a redundant exercise. As David Conn highlights, the four appointees are not independent non-executive directors, but there on the exclusive patronage of Scudamore.

Despite the relative modernity of the Premier League – it was created as a breakaway from the rest of Football League in 1992 – it displays many of the characteristic traits and pathologies of other more traditional institutions in British social, political and economic life. It is characterised by oligarchic, informal and secretive governance practices – what David Marquand called “club government”. In this club world, members trust each other to observe “the spirit of the club rules”; the notion that the principles underlying the rules should be clearly defined and publicly proclaimed is profoundly alien.

It is ironic that the Premier League has come to reflect these features of traditional British institutions given its avowed rejection of the FA as a model of governance. In place of the FA’s stuffy “blazer brigade” of county association old boys was to be the brave new dawn of the Premier League, which was to be professionalised, strategic and commercially astute. On one level the Premier League been an unmitigated success; the huge revenue streams negotiated for member clubs is the main motivation for the rear-guard defence of Scudamore in the face of the recent backlash.

In stark contrast, however, to its self-portrayal as a modern, corporate entity the Premier League is entrenched in a governance culture that can be traced back to the 19th century, where sport and the other emerging professions of law, medicine and engineering were a haven for self-regulation.

The fact that Scudamore and his associates felt able – sexist discrimination aside for a moment – to engage in those conversations in their professional capacity reveals that they view the workplace as a private sphere, separate from the other stakeholders in football and the rest of society. Their behaviour reveals more than the tendency of white, middle-aged men with a penchant for golf and shooting to make boorish, sexist remarks. For this elite there seems to be little distinction made between the office, the gold club or the shooting range – they are all enclaves of the same interconnecting club world. The notion that these conversations were “private” has been reasserted in the Premier League’s statement, which denounces the actions of Scudamore’s former PA despite the fact they were sent from an official email address.

The problem for organisations entrenched in this 19th century model is that they are being increasingly challenged in an era of open source information. The public’s demand for greater transparency is breaking down the closed world of the interlocking elites – whether it is parliament (and the expenses scandal), the press (and hacking), or the police (and manipulation of crime statistics). Increased access to information allows the public to better scrutinise the internal operations of these institutions. In the most closed and secretive domains, insiders who refuse to comply with the “spirit” of the club rules are leaking or whistleblowing in the public interest.

These tensions create a double-edged sword for democracy. In one sense the increased scrutiny of key institutions is a good sign – it suggests a maturing democracy with an engaged and increasingly informed electorate. But it is also creates a dilemma for powerful institutions. The first instinct of the elites is to mount a defiant defence of the club’s informal rules, alongside some expression of regret and contrition and a promise that it will be never be repeated. But this strategy is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the face of public criticism and calls for more open governance.

Without thorough institutional reform that addresses the fundamental principles of organisations, such as the Premier League and the FA, tensions over issues like the sexist emails will only become more frequent. A failure to create more open and democratic governance structures will breed resentment and disenchantment, which will damage the legitimacy of these institutions to oversee important areas of social and economic life.