People began talking about Leah Hextall on Monday night.
They’re still talking about her today.
And they’ll be talking about her the next time she puts on a head set to describe the goings-on in a National Hockey League skirmish.
Why is that? Because she’s a she.
Leah’s critics, who seem to have multiplied this week like fish and loaves in a Bible story, are numerous and loud, and many among them couch their comments by pretending it isn’t about gender when they pull an arrow out of the quiver and sling it in her direction.
Some samples from Twitter:
“Nothing to do with her sex, but…”
“Nothing to do with the fact she’s female, but…”
“I’m all for gender equality when and where possible, but…”
“No man would get away with that PBP calibre in Junior A let alone NHL on national TV. It’s not cuz she’s a woman, she’s just not good at it.”
Yet it’s precisely because Leah Hextall is female that her play-by-play call on the Pittsburgh Penguins-Winnipeg Jets joust Monday on Sportsnet evoked an avalanche of gender-based naysaying, and it’s also the reason many have rallied behind her.
“Thanks for bringing a female voice to NHL play-by-play.”
“Hope we soon will be able to hear more female voices doing play-by-play!”
“Sports need more women in media to encourage and inspire young girls to pick up the mic!”
So, you see, when so many comment about gender, it’s about gender.
If not, neither side of the discussion would be talking about the influence chromosomes have on one’s ability/inability to describe a hockey game. We wouldn’t read or hear the words “female” or “sex” or “girls” or “this lady” or (exaggerated eye roll) “really pretty.” It would be about performance. Period. Just like it is for Chris Cuthbert and Dave Randorf and Harnarayan Singh and Gord Miller and Dennis Beyak, not to mention the guys riding shotgun for them in the Blah-Blah-Blah Box.
Alas, what’s sauce for the goose isn’t necessarily sauce for the gander.
Male broadcasters are, of course, also dissected like a frog in a high school biology class, but it’s never about the XY chromosome and not often about appearance, unless the guy shows up on camera wearing a clown outfit (hello, Don Cherry) or looking like he’s been riding the rails with Box Car Willie and hasn’t dragged a brush through his hair in six months (hello, Elliotte Friedman). Fat, thin, tall, short, frumpy and unkempt or straight off the pages of GQ, it’s not an issue with the boys. And it’s assumed they know what they’re talking about until they say something stupid to convince us otherwise.
Not so fortunate are the women, who bear a different kind of cross.
It’s assumed they don’t know what they’re talking about before they begin flapping their lips, which better be painted, and all those lumps on bar stools and in man caves suffer severe ear bleeds at the first sound of a female voice word-painting their macho sport. Doesn’t matter if she’s spot-on with her play-by-play call. It just isn’t “right.”
There are exceptions, to be sure.
Cheryl Bernard, for example, works men’s curling on TSN and there’s nary a squawk about her female voice, her delivery, or her knowledge of Pebble People and the game. It shouldn’t matter, but it probably helps male viewers that the camera likes Cheryl and her cover-girl looks a whole lot, and that she sits between two guys, Vic Rauter and Russ Howard, who aren’t exactly GQ cover material.
Meanwhile, viewers have grown accustomed to, and are comfortable with, the sound of Dottie Pepper’s voice on PGA tournament coverage, and if the great Judy Rankin were to work next year’s Masters at Augusta, nary a discouraging word would be heard. The same applies to Mary Cirillo, who talks men’s tennis as well as anyone and won’t take a step back from John McEnroe in the Blurt Booth.
In the main, though, the women are seen as brazen interlopers busting into the frat house, and a more typical experience would be that of Suzyn Waldman, who went from the life of a singer/dancer on Broadway to the Bronx and the New York Yankees broadcast booth in the 1980s.
“I went through years of terrible things,” she once said. “I had people spit at me. I got used condoms in the mail. I had my own police force at the Yankee Stadium in 1989 for a solid year because I was getting death threats. I did Broadway for years. There’s nothing worse than that except this.”
Female broadcasters are still receiving used Trojans in the mail, only they now arrive in the form of disgusting, toxic commentary on social media, most notably Twitter, where mean tweets include the B-word and the C-word and are cruel enough to make men fidget uncomfortably in shame and women weep. So don’t try to tell me it isn’t about gender.
I’m sure Leah Hextall knows all about this. She must, because she’s a she. Every woman in jock journalism—hell, every female who’s had the (apparent) bad manners to bust down the door to an ol’ boys club—knows it’s part of the gig, and many have moved on to other pursuits because of it. It’s so very tiresome.
I just hope the paddywhacking Leah has taken this week won’t make her one of the casualties.