At the World Cup, there is no end to the moments of high athletic drama. Who gets to narrate such moments became a subject of controversy this week when Vicki Sparks, a British sports journalist, faced criticism for her “high-pitched tone.”
“I prefer to hear a male voice when watching football,” Jason Cundy, a former defender for Chelsea and Tottenham, said on “Good Morning Britain.” “Ninety minutes of hearing a high-pitched tone isn’t really what I like to hear. And when there’s a moment of drama, as there often is in football, that moment needs to be done with a slightly lower voice.”
The assessment — “just a personal preference,” Cundy said on the ITV show, disclaiming bias — is a familiar one for women who venture to speak in male-dominated spheres. A similar judgment dogged Hillary Clinton in her pursuit of the Oval Office. It weighs, too, on women in media and entertainment.
Cundy’s objection to Sparks, who made history by becoming the first woman to commentate on a live World Cup match for British television, drew the rebuke of Piers Morgan, co-host of “Good Morning Britain.”
The World Cup is proving to be a fraught arena for gender relations and norms of appropriate conduct, as female sports journalists fend off unwanted kissing and groping — sometimes on air.
In both cases, full-throated condemnations have echoed more loudly than the original affront.
“Your annoyance appears to be because they have too pitchy voices even though yours is just as pitchy, which seems to make you a sexist pig,” Morgan told Cundy, referring to a side-by-side comparison revealing that his voice was in the same pitch range as Sparks’s.
Cundy later issued a three-part Twitter apology on Monday night.
“There are times when you have to hold your hands up and admit you are wrong and have been an idiot — and this is definitely one of those times,” he wrote, adding that there was “absolutely no place for these demeaning attitudes towards female commentators.”
The flap brought renewed attention to Sparks’s performance, which shattered a glass ceiling long keeping women from the prominent role of commentator. Umbrage at Cundy’s comments reflected disbelief that a view apparently tinged by gender bias could be trumpeted so plainly amid the current reckoning with discrimination and abuse endured by women.
“God forbid a woman could talk for 90 minutes,” “Good Morning Britain” co-host Susanna Reid said. “I mean, something I could only dream of, frankly.”
Lynsey Hooper, a sports reporter, said Sparks’s performance was personal for female sports fans — and cause for celebration. “They have someone to relate to,” she said on the show.
“There are so many people that loved what Vicki did,” she said. “And there were people that didn’t like it. And that’s just the way of life. But you have a choice. We haven’t had a choice before.”