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“Britain’s Youngest Football Boss” is a story of who’s allowed to have power

When a teenager can be a Managing Director of a women’s team but a grown woman can’t be a coach of a men’s team

West Ham United v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League
Jack Sullivan was appointed Managing Director of West Ham Women at 18 years old
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

When Nike recently unveiled their beautiful new Women’s World Cup ad asking us to “change the world” a scene that really stuck out depicts former Lioness Alex Scott as the first female head coach of Barcelona men’s team, something that she would no doubt excel at.

Scott, though, has always wanted to be an on-air pundit and never a coach. While there are nine female head coaches at the World Cup in France, not a single one was in the Nike ad, perhaps because showing a woman over the age of 35 isn’t really on brand.

A Sky Sports-affiliated Twitter account recently asked (in alarming all caps) if the successful and popular manager of Chelsea Women, Emma Hayes, could ever coach Chelsea Men.

There is a common notion that before any woman can even think about stepping foot on the sidelines of a men’s sacred football game, she better have several years of established success as a coach of a premier men’s teams. But wait, the only way a woman can make it to the top is to have already been at the top in a male dominated industry that has historically excluded women?

And while the bar for women in coaching remains impossibly high, the bar for men coaching elite women’s soccer is, at times, incredibly low. Take, for instance, head manager of the England Lionesses: Phil Neville, who had no knowledge about women’s football and no long term managerial experience but was still offered the number one job without even having to apply.

Richie Burke had no coaching experience at the pro level and has been accused of being verbally abusive and of using homophobic slurs towards youth players, but that didn’t stop him from becoming head coach of the Washington Spirit, a job he got by knowing the owner.

And perhaps one of the weirdest examples of the bar being too low for rich white men is the case of Jack Sullivan becoming West Ham United Women’s Managing Director when he was only 18 years old, making him in charge of everyone, even the manager. Granted, Jack is no ordinary teenager; he is the son of David Sullivan, the billionaire owner of West Ham United.

David Sullivan is not what you would call a feminist pioneer, having became a young millionaire by producing porn movies which starred his own girlfriend. When she killed herself in 1979, that didn’t stop David from releasing a movie containing footage of her the following year to continue to profit off of her name and body.

But how exactly did David’s son, Jack, become Managing Director of West Ham United Women? That’s a good question. Jack himself has told several different versions of that story.

In one account, Jack, now the ripe old age of 19, told The Guardian that he had originally gone to the matriarch of the Sullivan family to profess his passion for the women’s football team back when they weren’t even wholly integrated into the club and Jack was just a wee lad.

“I asked mum, I wouldn’t have asked dad. I was about 14 and a bit naive. I saw the women’s team and I thought: ‘You know what? Women’s football is growing massively. I thought there was scope to really grow something at West Ham, build a fanbase and grow women’s football as well. I thought there was a massive opportunity.”

But wait — according to an interview in 2018, Jack said he actually did speak to his dad after the women’s team was already integrated into the club.

“The women’s team had just come in-house and I said to my dad, ‘This is a part of the club I think should grow.’ Dad thought it was a great way to learn how to run a bigger club and to see the struggles that he deals with on a day-to-day basis but on a much smaller scale.”

Yet according to statements Jack made in the BBC Documentary, “Britain’s Youngest Football Boss,” he left school at 16, did a year of work experience for West Ham men’s team and then spoke to his father, not about the women’s team specifically, but rather about wanting “a task.” That was when his father gifted him “the ladies” when he was around age 18, in 2017.

“I did work experience all around West Ham, I went around ticketing, retail, warehouse... That was instead of doing my A-Levels. As soon as that year finished I said, ‘Dad I want to do something, I want a task, a mission’ and that was to run the ladies, which I love. I jumped in head first.”

If it’s one thing the Sullivans know, it’s self promotion!

After Jack became involved, West Ham United Women put together an application to the FA promising a substantial increase in financial resources. They were brought up from the third tier to the first of English women’s football in 2018 after the FA accepted their application. Through David’s media connections, the BBC agreed to film Jack and the Hammers’ first season in the WSL for a documentary series. The goals Jack touts on camera are laudable; after investing several million pounds, bringing on a new coach and many new players, the team had a commendable WSL freshman season, making it to the FA Cup final and coming in 7th place in the 11-team league.

Jack has been receiving positive media coverage for helping to grow the women’s side but is that really fair? The show wasn’t called “West Ham United Women,” it was called “Britain’s Youngest Football Boss.” Jack is front and center in all of the promotional ads — a teenager with a baby face in charge of women who are more experienced than he is.

Reading Women v West Ham United Ladies - Women’s FA Cup Semi Final
Boss Baby, Jack
Photo by James Chance/Getty Images

While the BBC only airs a few WSL games a season on their online red button service, the documentary about Jack received coveted airtime after Match Of The Day and received 1.3 million viewers a week. Sure, the BBC doc may give some more eyeballs to the women’s team, but it also completely glosses over the more disturbing aspects of privilege that leads to a teenager being in a position of power in women’s sports during a time when many women and people of color are not even given a chance.

It also ignores the complete and utter indifference David Sullivan had for women’s football when he was co-owner of Birmingham and then when he became co-owner of West Ham in 2010. He didn’t seem to even know the West Ham women’s team existed until the club received bad press after captain Stacey Little set up a fundraising page in 2014 asking for donations to pay for kits because the women’s team was “self-funded.” A West Ham spokesman at the time told The Guardian that the women’s team was a “separate body” to the club but that they were also a “proud supporter.” Huh?

The spokesman also admitted that West Ham was not able to provide any playing grounds for home matches but would look into it in the “coming years.” Former chairman for the women’s team, Stephen Hunt, told the BBC that despite promised funding, West Ham never carried through on it and stopped answering emails. The women had to train on the side of a road because they were not granted access to West Ham facilities, despite multiple pleas from team captain Little.

Little left the club in 2015 after stating on Twitter that “there’s only so much you can take.” Hunt made a formal complaint to the FA in 2016 because the team couldn’t afford a physio and the players were wearing old kits with the names of former players crossed out on the back. He told The Guardian that he had “no idea” who actually owned the team and that he had been appointed by a “committee of fans” after answering an ad on a website not affiliated with West Ham. It wasn’t until after the FA complaint and more bad media coverage that the club finally agreed to fully support the women’s team.

So while Jack Sullivan has gotten his own documentary series and being given credit for building up the women’s football, former players like Stacey Little go completely ignored for fighting the good fight. Is all forgiven once a club finally invests in a women’s team?

Results are great ,but it’s also important to factor in the well being of the individual players and staff. When I joined an adult women’s rec league, a player took me aside and warned me to never be alone with our older male coach; there were rumors that he was not to be trusted. That, along with other shared experiences living as a woman in a male-dominated world, make me wonder what kind of coping mechanisms players put in place just to keep playing the sport they love.

Can the players that have to deal with a coach on a daily basis have more of a say in these decisions going forward and not just rich men in ownership and federations who hook up their buddies with jobs? For example, the first female coach of Brazil’s women’s team, Emily Lima, was very well-liked before she was abruptly fired despite protests from many of the players.

What will happen to West Ham Women when the owner’s son is no longer in charge? If Jack one day loses interest and moves on to his next project or passing interest, will the women’s team continue to receive adequate resources? When Jack was just 10 years old, his father admitted that he was grooming him to build a West Ham United Sullivan dynasty; it’s not unreasonable to think that running the women’s team is meant to serve as practice for running the men’s team.

Whenever I experience the dread from the constant debate regarding what women should be allowed to do, I think of Carrie Brownstein’s excellent quote about being asked to prove herself as a woman from her book, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.”

“[T]here was always a sense we were going to have to defend and analyze what we were doing. Why are you in an all-female band? What does it feel like to be a woman in a band? I realized that those questions — that talked about the experience — had become part of the experience itself. More than anything, I feel that this meta-discourse, talking about the talk, is part of how it feels to be a “woman in music” (or a “woman in anything,” for that matter — politics, business, comedy, power). There is the music itself, then there is the ongoing dialogue about how it feels. The two seem to be intertwined and also inescapable. To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band — I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’”

So my question is this: why isn’t Sky Sports asking why all of Chelsea’s coaches are men? Or why so many WSL and NWSL coaches are men? And also, why is a teenager in charge of a professional women’s team?

There are 15 male coaches at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, meaning that almost two-thirds of the women’s teams at the tournament will be coached by men. In comparison, 100% of the coaches at the Men’s World Cup were men.

So why can’t 100% of Women’s World Cup teams be coached by women in 2023?

VfL Wolfsburg Women’s v FC Chelsea Women’s - Women’s UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg
Emma Hayes, manager of Chelsea Women
Photo by Oliver Hardt/Getty Images