Vicki Sparks commentates for the BBC during Portugal vs. Morocco. Photo: Getty Images
Let’s talk about women at the FIFA World Cup. More specifically, the reaction to female commentators and pundits at the World Cup. There are over 44 female broadcasters at the 2018 World Cup, according to Diversity Guide to Russia. For the first time, both the BBC and ITV have taken female presenters, pundits and commentators to the FIFA World Cup, the most watched sporting event in the world. The BBC have Gabby Logan presenting, Arsenal legend Alex Scott as a pundit and Vicki Sparks commentating. Rival channel ITV have got Jaqui Oatley and Seema Jaswal reporting, with punditry from Eni Aluko, an England star who now plays at Juventus. This is more women at a World Cup being seen and heard by the British public than ever before. While this is a huge step forward for the representation of women at the top level of sports journalism, it’s clear some people have some negative thoughts about it. I have some thoughts about these thoughts. Buckle up for a super fun guided tour of some of the best sexism and misogyny from sports journalists and football Twitter from the past week!
First up, we have Simon Kelner’s column for i. The first I saw of it was the headline, which I read over the shoulder of the lovely lady sat next to me on a train from London to Exeter. Following that, I must have seen at least 30 tweets from different people all, rightly, fuming about it. To save you reading it (and giving it the clicks), the gist is that Scott and Aluko have only been put on their respective panels for ‘reasons of appearance’ and that as female footballers they don’t understand the men’s game enough to offer insight on it. “It’s like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball” is a direct quote. Major League Basketball isn’t even a thing, and the only significant difference between men’s and women’s football is the gender of the people playing it. The rules are universal, and many of the tactics are the same. How many male commentators cover women’s sport? In Simon’s eyes, they must not be able to provide true insight. How many male pundits, commentators and journalists have never played football to the level they’re reporting on? He conveniently forgot to mention them. Refreshingly, most of the comments on the article and replies on Twitter are negative. A particular favourite was @FionaNouri’s “It’s like saying only dogs can commentate at Crufts!”, but I think @Dupstep1988 can have the last word on this one: “You only get articles like this when the establishment is being threatened”.
Second stop on our tour is football Twitter’s response to Vicki Sparks. She made history by becoming the first woman to commentate on a live World Cup match being broadcast on UK television, 11 years after Jacqui Oatley becoming the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day. The general consensus from the tweets that I had the pleasure of encountering (albeit when I searched them out) were that Sparks was appointed in an attempt by the BBC to be PC. Not only that, but also that she has a ‘grating’ voice, and that she was ‘whining’ and ‘screeching’. It appears these comments didn’t quite get the same public backlash, because in all honesty there’s just too many of them. One comment that caught my attention in particular was this gem from @Larterlia: “All woman commentators have grating voices. Won’t listen to any of them out of principle”. Another was “What benefits will it being having more women anyway?’ ‘There’s no real benefit in terms of quality”. Well, @Goonerjimbo_, let me tell you. According to Neilsen, 31% of football fans are women. Maybe they’ll enjoy being welcomed into a space that has previously vehemently told them it’s not for them? Not only does it mean a previously ignored large proportion of the audience are starting to be represented and included, it also provides diversity of opinion, which might help you when you want to play devil’s advocate with your mates down the pub. Regarding your quality comment, maybe Vicki Sparks is not as good as her male counterparts due to the fact she’s never had the opportunity commentate at this level before? I reckon you’re just pissed off because she was good and that means she’s here to stay. Sorry, not sorry that you might have to watch more football without sound if you’re refusing to listen to a woman tell you what’s happening.
Onwards we go. Our third sight to see is Jason Cundy, a Talksport presenter and ex-Chelsea player. He appeared on Good Morning Britain to share his belief that women shouldn’t commentate due to their voices being too high-pitched for the excitement and drama of the game. In an unsurprising turn of events, he’s since had to issue an insincere apology for these comments. I think the moment he knew he’d fucked up was when Piers Morgan suggested he might be a “sexist pig”. Morgan also said “My only criteria, Jason, is not that they’re male or female. It’s do they know what they’re talking about?”. For what might be the first time in my life, I agree with Piers Morgan. But let’s not dwell on that too much. Preference is of course subjective, but to say women can’t talk about football says more about your attitude towards women than whether you enjoy their commentary or punditry style.
Our fourth and final stop on our tour of World Cup sexism and misogyny is a classic that I’ve been waiting for. The old band wagon is back. And do you know who’s jumping on it? Boys. Its destination? The bin for people who think that girls don’t, or aren’t allowed to like football. Yes, we understand the offside rule. Yes, we know that Rashford is not some kind of disease. But even if someone doesn’t, it’s okay to take an interest in something you don’t know everything about! Let people enjoy things! You’re better than tweeting patronising shit for the sake of RTs and likes so let’s have less of that, please.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Good things are happening at the Word Cup, in addition to the fact it’s coming home. I really had to search for the negative stuff I’ve mentioned and when I did, I saw it being called out and shot down. As hard and frustrating as the sexist and misogynistic comments are to read, you’ll often find men calling out other men for their comments. Plus, so many people are vocally loving women in media smashing it at the World Cup, with particular praise for Alex Scott & Eni Aluko’s thorough preparation and clear communication of their knowledge and expertise. I expect we’ll only get to see and hear more of them in the future, and I can’t wait. Women in football should pave the way for female pundits and commentators in other sports. It will have global impact too. Gabby Logan tweeted about speaking to two Iranian journalists about their campaign to get more female commentators and presenters in Iran, where women were allowed to enter the Azadi Staduim in Tehran for the first time since 1979 to watch their game against Spain.
The tide feels like it’s slowly starting to turn for women in football, in broadcasting at least, after so much work by so many people under the surface. Change is just going to keep coming and I’m excited.
Check out the great work Women in Football do to support and champion professional women in and around the the football industry on Twitter. Get in involved in the conversation using #WomeninFootball.