You’re Just Wrong
Even before she took to the mic, the very notion that a woman might be given such an opportunity caused paroxysms of despair among the football fraternity. Dave Bassett, whom I had always thought of as a rather avuncular character, offered the following insight:
‘Commentary is different. You must have an understanding of the game and the tactics, and I think in order to do that you need to have played the game. When she commentates at the weekend, I shall not be watching.’
A rugged but correct assessment from an expert? A bold stand against political correctness? A wrongheaded but nonetheless harmless and charmingly eccentric remark? A blow for male freedom? None of the above.
We can be much too tolerant of this sort of idiocy. I stand firm alongside those who are disquieted by the pace of change in this country, and with those who baulk at criminalising people for articulating unpopular viewpoints. That doesn’t mean that I think Bassett and others should make their remarks unchallenged. But that’s what they and their ilk want – to be left secure in their prejudices, free from awkward dissenting voices. Sorry lads, no dice.
The first (unoriginal) point to make is that Jacqui Oatley has played football. If Bassett means that you have to have played top flight professional football, then (as others have highlighted)pretty much every commentator is ruled out. (Pundits are a different matter, and we will return to them.) As Bassett has not objected publicly to John Motson’s career, it’s fair to wonder if in fact he specifically has a problem with women in football.
Some men genuinely believe that women necessarily cannot fully comprehend the intricacies of sport. No-one has ever offered me a better explanation than ‘they just can’t’. The thing about any stonewall, self-evident thesis is that - if one can be bothered - one can immediately cite overwhelming reasons for supporting it.
People who think women can’t understand sport need to counter the FACTS: women do play sport; some of the finest male commentators and journalists have not played at a high level or even at all; there is no compelling evidence that women have inferior brains; a paucity of women in certain professions inevitably means that it can take time for standards to rise (international women footballers are definitely much better now that so many more girls play the game); and ad hominem attacks do not prove a broader point.
You need to be articulate and shrewd to describe a football match. Anyone who truly thinks that a woman can’t fit that description is a bloody fool, plain and simple. Anyone who wants to assert that falsehood as fact regardless of how women and decent people will feel is an arsehole.
A perfectly sensible argument is that top level pundits - who ANALYSE the game - should have a wealth of experience in the sport. Moreover, unless they’ve been knocking around for a long time, it’s unlikely that someone who hasn’t actually played themselves is going to be the best choice for that job.
Ron Atkinson had a famously and hilariously fragile grasp on the English language, but he could dissect what had happened on a football pitch brilliantly, and was superb at talking through events immediately the action replay began. (He alone is to blame for his departure from our screens, however.)
So there is a place for the inarticulate on TV, and indeed for monumentally stupid people on the pitch. The simpleton nature of several Premiership footballers shows that experience does bolster understanding. But I wouldn’t give David Beckham a microphone and a sheepskin coat if I was a BBC editor.
I would give Jacqui Oatley 6/10, and 8/10 as a debut mark. That’s not being patronising. When Alan Hansen started as a pundit he KEPT saying ‘absolutely magnificent’, but has now come up with some other superlatives, and is excellent. Graeme Le Saux has shown noticeable improvement, and Gary Lineker certainly was not the assured voice he is today when he began. I know myself from debating and stand-up that these things take time.
My major gripe would be, ironically, that Jacqui Oatley sounded a bit young. I was brought up listening to Brian Moore and Barry Davies, whose solemn tones lent the occasion of a football match the gravity I felt it merited. That said, I’ll be glad if John Motson ceases to monopolise major games. His obsessive relaying of irrelevant statistics evidently delights some fans. I find it wilfully autistic and annoying.
I very much deprecate the fact that in other areas of television (e.g. the news and the weather) experienced professionals are being edged out in favour of good looking women who aren’t as competent. It’s unfair on the craggy faced experts, and also casts an undeserved shadow on bright, able television journalists who also happen to be hotties.
And yes, women can’t compete with men on the pitch at the highest level because they’re not strong enough. For God’s sake stop going on about it. It’s not as though most men are all that strong either. I can lift a 200kg barbell off the ground, which is probably more than you could manage, but a lot less than what some female powerlifters can do. There are huge numbers of women who would put your (let alone my own) aerobic fitness levels to shame. And guess what - a female footballer may even be much more skilful than you. (Gasp!)
I can forgive men for being a bit wary about women emerging in football. I used to enjoy the fact that games lessons at school gave us a chance to hang out as the lads. I would be prepared to engage in civil disobedience if private organisations with single sex memberships were banned; I believe in freedom of association passionately.
But it is unwholesome and unpleasant that some men dislike women so thoroughly, and are so determined to bar their entry into the wider world. Football is our national sport, not some local cult. Of course women will want to be involved. It’s not admirable or brave of stupid, boorish men to try to obstruct their progress, or snipe from the sidelines. I shudder at the thought of someone treating my Mum or my sister, or my friends, or any daughter I might have, or any female, like that. And so should you.
There is no serious case for stopping women from commentating on football. If I’m wrong, you will be able to prove me wrong. And saying ‘it just shouldn’t be allowed’ isn’t going to cut it.