On February 13th the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team had a friendly against Russia here in Atlanta. Fans not in attendance could only watch the game via webcast.
The local NASL team, the Atlanta Silverbacks, was involved in production of the entire event, from the spotter to the stretcher-bearers. They also brought in their P.A. announcer, Justin Hanover, to do the webcast play-by-play.
Now before we go any further you should know Justin and I are pals and if you came here looking for some WoSo Rage you’re not going to find it. It’s also important to note that since I went to the game I didn’t hear the webcast live and only listened to parts of it later, and I thought Justin did a very good job.
About 25 minutes into the first half, Justin used the phrase “big girl soccer” to add color to an rare throw-in foul by Kelley O’Hara. Check it out (if it starts at the beginning, go to 39:30):
Now, if you know Justin you know he has two young daughters and has undoubtedly seen his share of actual little girl soccer. Obviously though, the vast majority of the 8,000 webcast viewers do not know him, and some were upset at his use of “big girl soccer,” deeming it as “patronizing” and suggesting it “torpedoed” the entire webcast.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what Justin said, what he likely meant, how some people interpreted it, and how they reacted to him. I contacted a couple people who objected to his use of the phrase to get an expanded view of their takes, and I had dinner with Justin to discuss the whole match, including some behind-the-scenes stuff. This is what I came away with:
1. Justin did not mean any harm with the phrase. He was genuinely confused why it upset some people. I attempted to explain to him how the use of “girls” to describe women is inherently infantilizing but fear I did a poor job. How do I describe to a white male who works for a sports-talk radio station – a poster job for male-dominated, testosterone-laden locker-room culture – what it’s like to live in a world where female athletic accomplishments are almost always seen as inferior to males’? Or how it feels to watch women’s soccer constantly treated as less-important than the men’s (hello, 2015 Women’s World Cup of Astroturf)? How frustrating and even hurtful things like a U.S. Soccer press release supporting Robbie Rogers but none for Abby Wambach can be? How that is the culture women’s sports fans live in?
Justin can never feel what it’s like to be part of this kind of minority. But we can have discussions about it. And that’s what I encourage people to do. Hurling tweets – something I certainly have done too – does not foster dialogue. Asking questions – “Justin, what did you mean by that?” does. That’s what’s needed to educate people about how and why to avoid language like “big girl soccer.” During our dinner Justin said he’d love to have a conversation with his Twitter detractors about this and I invite people to use the comments section for that purpose.
2. There’s an interesting multi-standard at play here. Not long after the soccer match I was watching the men’s Olympic cross-country relay. Finland unexpectedly won and the (male) announcer said it must be a big thrill for Finland because they rarely get to ski with the big boys (meaning the dominant cross-country teams of Germany, etc). I wonder if the Finns would be upset to know the announcer referred to them in that manner? I’ll never know, but I’m very curious.
The other piece is when women’s teams refer to themselves as girls. The Canadian Women’s Hockey Team, after being awarded the Olympic gold medal by the refs, left a note for their male counterparts before the latter took on the USA in the semi-finals. It was signed “Go get ’em! From The Girls :)”
Hockey’s a bit different from other sports in that on men’s teams the players constantly refer to each other as “boys” rather than “guys”. I can’t say whether or not women’s teams do the same – I’m fairly certain I’ve never said “let’s go girls!”; here in the south we have “y’all”. Do other teams use “girls”? “Ladies”? “Yous guys”? Should the way female athletes refer to each other inform the people who speak about them? And if so, should women’s hockey announcers call the players “girls”?
NBC hockey commentator Pierre McGuire used “ladies” throughout his Olympic broadcasts. I found this sort of stuck out like a big red goal light, but I appreciated what he was trying to do, which was to not refer to a group of adult world-class athletes as “girls,” because that inherently implies youth or a frilly, pink sort of femininity. Unfortunately, “ladies” is also an awkward word – you know how I feel about “Lady Silverbacks” – but if the alternative is to constantly call adult women “girls,” then I think “ladies” is better. We women don’t have a cool, multi-purpose, bland word like “guys.” I commend McGuire for trying to be aware of his words and encourage other sportscasters to do the same. Did Justin Hanover do something wrong by not being perfectly aware of that? No, and it’s an area he and countless other announcers can explore if they want to get better at their craft.
3. U.S. Soccer bears responsibility for the Atlanta webcast. Justin and I went back and forth on this and the simple fact is women’s voices make up such a small percentage of sports broadcasters that yes I think where it’s feasible, governing bodies should make a concentrated effort to get a female voice on the air for their women’s sports broadcasts. This may not be so simple in a smaller market but here in Atlanta I can think of four people who could have led or been a part of the webcast: former Silverbacks captain and current Kennesaw State assistant coach Rebecca Nolin, Emory University women’s soccer head coach Sue Patberg and associate coach Rachel Moreland, and in a pinch former Silverbacks and current Emory announcer, me. These four are well-known to the Silverbacks’ folks who put together the media crew (both Justin and Silverbacks PR guru Neal Malone do side work with Emory). But I don’t blame them one whit for not reaching out to a female announcer. What they did makes perfect sense: they called up the guy who works hard for them and offered him the opportunity to participate in a rare event. It rewards Justin for his loyalty to the club and ticks off one more thing on the to-do list. I believe many organizations would have acted in the exact same manner.
That’s why I say U.S. Soccer should advocate for (if not require) a female voice on its women’s soccer webcasts. No local group is going to go out of their way to find a qualified, experienced female announcer (talk about rare) if the easy move is to call the person they already know – male or female. It falls upon U.S. Soccer to set that guideline for local groups to follow. In Atlanta’s case (and presumably for others) they wanted only one person on the webcast. In my opinion, U.S. Soccer should aim higher and strive to provide their viewers/listeners with a voice that represents the audience. The people who are sitting at home on a Thursday night dialed into a webcast of a women’s soccer friendly against a vastly inferior opponent are not casual fans. They deserve more than an announcer with a casual understanding of women’s soccer.*
Do I think this will ever happen? No.
In conclusion, Justin’s use of “big girl soccer” hit the ears of a group of listeners used to being treated as inferior by male-dominated sports media and it struck a nerve in some. Is it reason to demonize him – or as was suggested on Twitter, fire him?** Of course not. It was three words out of an otherwise quite good two-hour webcast. I hope this experience allows us announcers to learn a bit more about how to talk about women’s sports, and for Twitter woso fans to learn how to be a bit less reactionary. Justin and I have already had discussion we otherwise would never have had and it was a good experience for both of us. I can only hope we all – including U.S. Soccer – use this as an opportunity to improve our communication skills, be it on the air or on Twitter.
*To be clear, this is not a dig at Justin. I thought he was well prepared, did a great job in particular with the Russian surnames, and was able to relay relevant information about the USWNT and its players.
** Yeah, Justin was fired the second the match ended considering the chances are pretty much nil the USWNT will come back to Atlanta for a game that is only webcast and involves the NASL team he works for part time. Good call, people!