Of Musburgers and men

It's not always easy, being a Southern feminist - especially one who loves football.

Like most of America, I cringed to hear Brent Musburger go all dog-humping-leg about Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's girlfriend, former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb, during Monday night's national championship game. (Also, I suspect, like most most of America, I cringe most of the the time I hear Brent Musburger.) With ESPN cameras fixated on Webb, Musburger enthused, "That's one beautiful woman," as one envisioned his bifocals fogging up - and worse. 

Musburger went on to offer career advice, saying, "If you're a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop,” and told broadcast partner Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State QB, “You quarterbacks get all the good-looking women.”

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, told Musburger through the announcer’s earpiece that he had to “move on,” according to a person briefed on the conversation.

The predictable fallout has included decrying such focus on a woman's looks and calls for Musburger to be reprimanded, as well as an apology from ESPN, with spokesman Josh Krulewitz telling the Times: “We always try to capture interesting story lines and the relationship between an Auburn grad who is Miss Alabama and the current Alabama quarterback certainly met that test. However, we apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that.”

The lady herself wasn't ruffled, telling The Associated Press she doesn't see how a woman being called beautiful is an issue. 

I agree, and I don't.

There is a certain genre of male - usually older, usually Southern - who feels most comfortable interacting with women by complimenting them, and this in and of itself is not, to me, offensive. It can be charming. When old-time announcers in rickety high school press boxes in small towns would tell me I was easier on the eyes than a male counterpart who was there last week, I'd smile, say "Thank you" or "Well, I  hope so," and maybe bat an eyelash. I felt no urge to lecture, to frown, to sue.  

It can, of course, also be condescending, reducing a woman to nothing more than superficial qualities of facial structure, eye color and hair body. By and large, no one can control any of these things, and to assign them any sizable role in determining a person's character is foolhardy.

But that's not what the press box men meant. At least I don't think it is. Do I believe men and women are, in all the ways that matter, equal? Yes. But equal doesn't mean the same. Interactions between humans vary, and sometimes they vary according to sex. Do I expect a man to, say, open a door for me? No, but I will wait a beat to see if he's going to, and smile and thank him if he does. I think that's good manners. Manners aren't, on their face, offensive.

Musburger's comments do cross a line. I'm just trying to figure out what that line is. For the record, I'm not a Musburger fan. I don't hate him the way I hate Tim McCarver, but I find him grating, ingratiating, smug and loathe to praise teams that fall outside of Big Media's love circle - like, for instance, my South Carolina Gamecocks. Hearing him swoon over a girl - who, yes, was quite lovely - made my skin crawl and my fingers fly to Facebook to post, "Down, Brent." But was it the message or the messenger that so bothered me? That's the question.

Critics have said the comments point to the marginalized role females have been grudgingly permitted in athletics, football in particular. The devoted coach's wife, the dependable team mom, the perky cheerleader, the (worst of all) sideline reporter. Focusing on a woman's looks perpetuate these stereotypes, they say. It's antiquated. It's sexist. It's actionable.

Does testosterone-fueled jock culture lead to the objectification - and worse - of women? Of course. But as a woman who's been immersed in the sweat of locker rooms and clubhouses, I can't paint the entire landscape with such a broad brush. Yes, I've encountered thinly veiled hostility. I've also experienced polite respect and genuine camaraderie. I've been asked out by a baseball player, who laughed with me when I declined. I've heard some comments that may have roiled more sensitive psyches, but that I chose to take in the spirit of the moment and roll with. Does that prevent me from claiming my aforementioned feminist title? I don't think so.

So while I was bothered by Musburger's on-air drooling, I don't think any reprimand is in order. (I think he should have had the grace to retire about 10 years before opening his creepy 80-year-old mouth, but that's beside this point.)

I also think women are strong, wonderful, complex creatures who do indeed hold up half the world and are capable of achieving anything we set our minds to.

And I think it's OK to mention that we look great while doing so.