Sexism reigns in AFL commentary box

FOR all the talk about the number of women involved in Australain rules football, better known as AFL, there are fresh indications that, like many other things in the country, it is run by, and meant for, middle-aged and old white Australian males.

The latest indication of this comes in the dumping of commentator Kelli Underwood by Channel 10, one of the two free-to-air channels which won the right to broadcast the game in the last bidding contest for TV rights.

Underwood was given a two-year trial and has now been relegated to doing the job of boundary rider; an all-male team will call the games for this season and, conceivably, for the foreseeable future.

The decision smacks of sexism. It was made after a local tabloid, the Herald Sun, published the results of an online survey that ranked AFL commentators according to the annoyance factor. That anyone could take an online poll seriously is surprising; further the Sun’s readers cannot be exactly said to be at the high end of the IQ spectrum.

My rating of Underwood comes from nearly 43 years of listening to sport on radio and watching various kinds of sport on TV. Among the many commentators I have listened to are Bob Harvey (Sri Lankan – rugby union), Dicky Rutnagur (Indian – cricket), Alan McGilvray, Jim Maxwell, Glen Mitchell (Australian – cricket), John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Don Mosey, Christopher Martin-Jenkins (all British – cricket), Tony Cozier, Reds Perera, Fazeer Mohammed (West Indies – cricket), Dennis Commetti, Gerard Whatley, Drew Morphett, Mark McClure, Stan Alves, Rex Hunt, Anthony Hudson, Sam Newman (Australia – AFL), and many more whose names do not come to mind immediately.

Underwood is no better and no worse than any male commentator employed by a TV channel or a radio station; in fact, several of the men who commentate on the game are much worse than her. She has the right approach to communicating the state of the game, and never allows herself to go overboard. Instead, in the manner of top commentators like Brian Glanville, she builds up the excitement, never indulging in the kind of yelling and verbal diarrhoea that many of the men do.

Hudson, one of the Channel 10 commentators, should not be allowed anywhere near a commentary box. His delivery is poor, he gets excited all the time and screams, and for him every goal is “unbelievable.” But he has the characteristics which Underwood lacks – he is white, middle-aged and male.

This isn’t the first time that a woman has ventured near the commentary box of a predominantly male sport: in 1983, actress Kate Fitzpatrick joined the cricket commentary team of Channel 9. She did not last long, only until the end of that season. There are other women like Rebecca Wilson (who lasted one episode of the National Rugby League’s footy show) and Caroline Wilson, who appears on Channel 9’s Footy Classified and has done so for some time.

The commentators of today indulge in a lot of hyperbole, in the belief that they have to jazz up the game that they are covering. They use tired, worn phrases all the time and try to outdo each other in the use of superlatives. For the most part these days, I turn off the sound if I watch an AFL game.

Australians are willing to endure Bruce MacAvaney (who when describing young Hawthorn footballer Cyril Rioli gushed “what a delicious young player he is), Hudson (who shoots off at the mouth all the time), and Hunt (who is prone to the occasional racist gibe and whose commentary is mostly understood by an audience of one – himself).

At a time when even a country like Pakistan has put a competent woman in the commentary box – sadly, after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, she has not been able to commentate because international cricket matches are not being staged in the country – it seems absurd that a country like Australia, which claims to be oh-so-progressive, cannot do as much.

But then, on reflection, why am I surprised? Graphic evidence of the sexism in the country was provided when elections were held last year. One shouldn’t be surprised that a smaller subset of the population expresses the same sentiment.