Friday, April 20, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Ladies vs Lads

A feminist commonplace runs that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Why, then, should women bother themselves with football commentary, far less than bothering themselves with 1000 or so words on Jacqui Oatley, Match of the Day’s first distaff commentator at Fulham vs Blackburn, as per today’s broadsheets?

But they do – and so do many others.

I can’t comment on Oatley, not having heard her – but her has raised chauvinistic hackles in the usual quarters, the barrack-room, backstairs trog-world of British football that those fancy-dan foreigners are (thankfully) consigning to history. The sports-desk’s card-index gorblimey Dave Bassett (remember him?), of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang cru of 1988, says with manly authority that everyone in football is ‘totally against it’. Oatley has this week raised laughs privately by asking why professional Scouser Mike Newell, former Luton manager and self-confessed sexist, hasn’t chucked in his closing-time-in-Croxteth opinion yet.

On Graham Kibble-White’s TV criticism website,, there is currently an informed and intelligent multipartite analysis of the history of broadcast soccer commentary. The only lacuna, in the present writer’s opinion, is a lack of an examination as to why the form has taken the form it has. Hundreds of thousands of people attend football matches weekly; many others watch them in pubs, where commentary, if audible, is superfluous.

There is acknowledgement of a rarely-uttered truism, that from ‘they think it’s all over’ onwards (and downwards – oh my Wolstenholme long ago!), football broadcasters have helped inculcate a particularly cretinizing vernacular in the sport and thus upon those who look to it for meaning in their lives. Nobody expects those at the mike to quote Lichtenberg or La Rochefoucauld, but they help refract a vision of the world seen through a tabloid prism which talks down to the sport and its audience.

The present writer is unconcerned as to Oatley’s gender, simply her attitude and/or susceptibility to the cadences and clichés of broadcast football and journalism. That she is a graduate of Five Live inspires what that station would doubtless call ‘the sinking feeling of relegation’.

As an MOTD spokesman comments: ‘most of our commentators come from Five Live’, with the unspoken subtext that they are of that commercial-radio journalistic m.o. where the shouty soundbite rules. This school of semi-calculated spontaneity dates back to David Coleman’s ‘goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share’ when Kev volleyed home in the 1974 FA Cup Final. Showy and superficially clever, but actually not that difficult once you master the demotic. The pretence is to mastery of the language; the actuality is the producer’s need for immediacy. Guess which wins?

The BBC now has, surely, a factory belt-breeder of inoffensive young men with names like Gabriel and Adrian and Mark to people its sports programmes, reducing the language of sport and its consumers to a populist shorthand and introduce us to phrases like ‘on the bounce’ and ‘the top of the programme’.

It is ironic indeed that one of Oatley’s detractors has been the veteran Mail soccer hack Steve Curry, as responsible as any for the near-illiterate vocabulary of sports media; for the appearance of non-verbs like ‘storm’ and non-nouns like ‘bouncebackability’. As long ago as 1976 The Foul Book of Football’s splendid ‘Good Writers Guide’ (which eventually and unfairly saw Foul magazine effectively sued to extinction) had the number of Curry’s ilk as cynical weathervanes of populist prejudice and bias and whose style matched and reinforced the slowness of their readership, people who have made the intensifying adverb ‘totally’ part and parcel not only of the language but of the thought-processes of Bassett and his like.

In 1972, Foul raised the question of how much nervous energy the average TV viewer of football expended on disparaging the TV commentary in relation to that devoted to the match in question. The issue is still live, as evidenced by the introduction of the means to exclude commentary from the soccer TV experience – although this, tellingly, is given little publicity.

Quite why a woman should want to involve herself in this bombastic and slow-witted milieu is hard to fathom. Feminism is, I suppose, about making choices, although seeing these choices through does not suggest, in itself, a solution to a particular issue. The lively writer Paula Cocozza, in today’s Guardian, falls into the trap of dismissing out of hand the social bio-determinism that suggests, in the words of the veteran footy hack Julie Welch, “there’s something about the pitch of a male TV commentators’ voice which makes it believable even when its owner is talking complete rubbish”. Cocozza contends that Welch’s implication is that “a woman’s pitch and cadence lacks conviction”, inherently contemptible and not merely tendentious. But we are given no evidence either way. We can leave aside the new level in irrelevance attained by a rejoinder from Clare Balding, “people talk about technicalities like the range of voice – it’s like saying women can’t sing”. More significantly, Cocozza omits any comparative scientific detail on the issue of cadence, scalar vocal measurements relative to action as to whether or not Welch and the determinists are wrong, or even if any such detail exists. The fact that Oatley is comely, blonde and blue-eyed, ie sellable, wasn’t mentioned either. No, Oatley won’t be a visual presence on Saturday – but her looks are surely being used to promote this event.

Cocozza, always readable, can be forgiven – her otherwise fine article at least gives John Motson a good hiding (“Motson never seems to know what’s going on unless his cohort Mark Lawrenson tells him”). It also importantly inculpates the backslapping, back-scratching sodality of old pros who populate TV’s pundit panels, of whom only a few (Gray, Hansen, Robbie Earle, the endearingly baleful Lawro) can parse a sentence and even they are hardly likely to bite the hand of Big Football that fed them so handsomely. Neither will they snap at their new benefactors, the TV stations who can be dropped by footy authorities at the slightest slackening in the tugging of the forelock. Vide the award of the FA Cup to ITV after the authorities took umbrage at Auntie’s perceived diss of the trophy’s status, and of the England XI.

Most lobbying for more hacks on TV football coverage comes from hacks themselves (Cocozza included, something she admits) – and they are hardly the disinterested bunch they paint themselves as (after all, exclusion from a Premiership club’s media orbit is professional suicide for a national sportswriter). But as one of the two or three finest soccer journalists in the UK is the Observer’s Amy Lawrence, erudite and with an international as opposed to a provincial outlook, surely her presence as a pundit or co-commentator would have paved the way both for women’s voices in the box and a more measured approach? Being better at commentary than Alan Shearer is more of an insult than a compliment, but it confirms there’s room for improvement. Adrian Chiles would be fine, but why not a woman? On current form one imagines Jordan would call a game more eloquently than Carlton Palmer. Mind you, so might Sègolene Royal. In Lappish.

A female presence on MOTD represents no intrinsic advance for women, sport, journalism or women in sport and sports journalism. But a woman changing the way TV reports sport would be a cultural shift of much greater significance. It would do us all a favour – doesn’t matter how your plumbing works. Oatley might be the start – but don’t bet on it.

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