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The happiness of having sports back isn’t enough for at least two sports broadcasters. Last week, they brought antiquated ideas to their respective booths, too.
On consecutive nights, Thom Brennaman of Fox Sports Ohio was caught using a gay slur on a hot mic during a Cincinnati Reds game, and Mike Milbury said the NHL’s bubble plan has benefited from the fact there are no women to “disrupt [the] concentration” of players during a playoff game broadcast on NBC Sports.
The comments had some of us wondering if we were experiencing quarantine-induced hallucinations, conjuring some long-ago time when men still thought it was “macho” to be homophobic and sexist.
Unfortunately though, for as out-of-touch as those comments are, they’re emblematic of a sports broadcasting industry that in too many corners is still clinging to old ideas of what it means to talk about (male) athletes on the air.
It was likely ingrained in Brennaman and Milbury when they were young, and, well, they haven’t grown much since.
“When Brennaman and Milbury were growing up and playing sports and learning about sports, a lot of sports coverage was kind of an amplification of these ideas about masculinity and what sports meant,” said Jane McManus, director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College. “It was not just about telling a story about what happened on the field, it was also about lauding someone’s toughness and using words that would reinforce the idea of what is masculinity and how can we show that we’re part of the architecture of upholding masculinity.”
Milbury’s comment — he won’t be part of NBC Sports’ broadcast for the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs — was insulting both to women and the players. Though coming from him, they weren’t much of a surprise. First and foremost, for those of us who have to be away from our spouses and children for lengthy stretches, it’s not usually a plus, and after a time, it becomes a negative. Covering a Super Bowl as a team beat reporter means a nine-to-10-day road trip, and about five days in, the excitement of covering the week’s events has faded, replaced by missing those people who enrich your daily life.
Players feel that, too, no matter how “tough” or “manly” Milbury wants to say they are, or how much he wants to believe that a bigger-than-average paycheck fills the void or makes them immune from human emotions like love.
It’s not just women Milbury denigrates. It’s that he believes professional athletes are so weak of mind that they can’t concentrate with their significant others in their lives. That demonstrates he doesn’t think very highly of them, either. (And are we sure every player’s significant other is a woman, Mike? Think about it.)
Earlier this month, Milbury mocked Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask for leaving the NHL bubble to be with his family, which includes a newborn daughter. Milbury called the Olympic medalist, Vezina Trophy honoree, two-time All-Star, Stanley Cup champion and winningest goalie in the history of an Original Six franchise a “nobody.” He also commented that broadcasting games played in an empty arena was no different than covering women’s college hockey — another gratuitous shot at women, and this one demonstrably false.
And those are Milbury’s dumb takes from the month of August. NBC Sports and the “hockey is for everyone” NHL really can’t find someone who doesn’t make a fool of himself and his employer almost every game he broadcasts?
In Brennaman’s case, there’s an ugly undercurrent on Twitter that believes he should get a pass because he didn’t know his comments would be aired. That doesn’t absolve him in the least. Live broadcasts require numerous people, from camera operators to production assistants to directors, many of whom hear everything Brennaman says whether it goes out to the public or not. Among those co-workers, it’s a near certainty that at least one is LGBT and/or has a loved one who is; Brennaman’s slur is a direct insult to them. Given how casually he said it, how many other times have his colleagues had to endure his homophobia?
Even before last week’s incidents, broadcast booths across all sports were in dire need of more diverse voices — more women, more people of color, fewer dinosaurs stuck in the amber of their ways. That won’t necessarily eliminate comments like those of Brennaman and Milbury, but it can help.
As McManus noted, the real-time reaction to their comments shows that things are changing.
“There are a lot of really obvious and really subtle ways that communicate to us that we are still on territory where we may not be welcome, whether as people whose sexual orientation may not be ‘conventional’ or because of gender, and women of color deal with twice as much as anybody else is,” she said. “The fact that there’s a lot of pushback against saying it out loud is the thing that’s changed.”
And it’s not just fans who were upset. Cincinnati pitchers Amir Garrett and Matt Bowman tweeted support to the LGBT community and expressed remorse, with Garrett saying “whoever is against you, is against me.”
Their words were likely incredibly meaningful to queer baseball fans everywhere, and they also serve notice to broadcasters who want to perpetuate such outmoded ideas: Grow up, or make room for someone who has.
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