Up until this year, TV commentators for the World Cup in the UK have always been male. But last week, when Portugal played Morocco, Vicki Sparks became the first woman to commentate a televised World Cup game in the UK.
The 29-year-old’s coverage was highly praised and she was hailed as a ‘history maker’. But, predictably, not everyone was pleased. One ex-footballer, Jason Cundy, said he found it a ‘tough listen’. Not because Vicki’s observations weren’t accurate, engaging or knowledge. And not even because he disagreed with her insights. It was simply because he didn’t like her voice.
“Personal preference – I would like to hear a male voice, for 90 minutes of football hearing a high-pitched tone is not really what I would like to hear,” said Cundy, a pundit and former Chelsea player. “When there is a moment of drama as there often is in football, that moment needs to be done with a slightly lower voice, it’s a personal preference.”
Cundy said this with a straight face on national TV – he was being interviewed on Good Morning Britain – and when host Piers Morgan called him a ‘sexist pig’, Cundy tried to defend himself: “It’s nothing to do with their insight, the way she delivers it, or her knowledge or her ability to do the job. It’s the voice. For ninety minutes I would prefer to hear a male voice. I find it difficult to hear that voice.”
These comments are, as Morgan said, obviously sexist. Women naturally tend to have more high-pitched voices than men, and that is completely out of their control. Besides, as Cundy himself said, he wouldn’t even be happy with a woman commentator who had a lower-pitched voice: he “would prefer to hear a male voice”.
It goes without saying that these comments are unjustified. But what’s really disturbing is the fact that Cundy thinks there’s nothing wrong with them. He genuinely thinks it’s okay to admit on TV that he prefers to listen to male voices when he’s watching sports. And what’s even worse is that hundreds of GMB viewers agree with him.
A poll found that out of 11,710 voters (at the time of writing), 37% agreed with Cundy. In the comments below, a number of women said they too preferred male commentators for sports. “Why is this so controversial?” they asked, while others pointed out that every commentator should be judged solely on their abilities to commentate.
Of course, people are allowed to dislike Sparks. Personal preferences are real, and no TV presenter expects to be universally liked by all. The problem is when people dislike her purely because she is female – and that is what Cundy and hundreds of other voters have done. They are against female commentators just because their voices are “too high-pitched.” And that – making judgements solely based on gender – is the very definition of sexism.
Unfortunately, right now, there are just a handful of female sports commentators on TV, and Sparks is currently the only one flying the flag for the World Cup. That’s the real issue. Only when there are more women presenting sports TV shows will the public start to get used to female commentators – and their voices.
Right now, people like Cundy dislike the ‘high-pitched’ female voice because they just aren’t used to hearing it on sports channels. It is a classic example of people not liking change. And many of the people who agreed with Cundy on Twitter admitted that, with time, they’d probably get over it.
“Women commentating does not quite do it for me yet.,” said one. “Just doesn’t sound right at the moment. Will take some getting used to.” While another said: “I haven’t heard a female commentator I like listening too yet but it’s not due to a female / male thing. Many of the male ones annoy me but if there are more of them, you are bound to like more.”
This is why broadcasters need to take notice of this debate, and use it as proof that we need more female commentators. Only then, with the luxury of choice, will viewers start to ditch their preconceived sexist ideas, and start to actually judge women based on their merit and talent – rather than the pitch of their voices.