The veteran N.F.L. reporter Andrea Kremer said she was hardly surprised by the backlash against Mowins’s play-by-play on the sport’s biggest stage. “I have no doubt that ‘hating the sound of her voice’ is code for ‘I hate that there was a woman announcing football,’” Kremer told me.
The whining was neither surprising nor accurate, Kremer said: “One of the many positives about Beth doing the game, in addition to her being a top-notch, seasoned broadcaster, is that she has a great voice that cuts through all the ambient noise in the stadium. Whether you’re in the booth or on the field, you need a resonant voice that can be audible. The voice is like an instrument, and Beth is blessed with some great pipes.”
Much of the social-media discussion of Mowins’s voice was preceded by the always dubious claim that the criticism had nothing to do with the fact that Mowins was a woman. Setting aside that starting a tweet with “I’m not sexist, but” usually ensures that what follows will be sexist, it’s hard to imagine how to separate Mowins the woman from Mowins the voice. Beth Mowins sounds like a woman.
“The negative online reaction to Mowins’s play-by-play calling football games is steeped in sexism,” said Rebecca Martinez, who teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri. “The comments, mostly from men, have focused on her voice being annoying to the point of not wanting to listen to her. They’ll focus on the naturally higher pitch of women’s voices and ‘shrillness,’ all the while claiming their critiques of higher pitch have nothing to do with sexism. Women who have high visibility, particularly in settings that are traditionally male, will experience backlash.”
The response to female broadcasters’ voices is not new. Sports are commonly perceived to be an arena for men — by men, of men — and anything that disrupts that makes some men uneasy.
“As women in high-profile sports broadcasting jobs, we get criticized from head, and hair, to toe,” Kremer said. “We are in a subjective business, and the haters are always going to find something they don’t like about us because they don’t want us there.”
Andrew Dzurisin, an assistant professor of sociology at Middlesex County College, said the criticism stems from deep-rooted cultural beliefs.
“‘Friday Night Lights’ isn’t just a movie or book; it’s real,” he said. “In many parts of the country, football is an ingrained part of masculinity, culturally. Of the major sports, football is seen as the one that fits the traditional definition of masculinity. It’s rough, it’s violent, it’s tribal, it’s a ‘man’s’ game. To hear a woman do the play-by-play of the sport that most fits the traditional definition of masculinity is beyond comprehension to some men.
“The primal masculinity of football makes a woman calling a game antithetical to their core ideas about gender.”
Barriers persist in other sports, too. The ESPN baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza has also been the target of social-media scorn, despite high praise from many of her colleagues and from former players.
“Mendoza to me is an example of ‘new’ baseball intersecting with the gender and even ethnicity,” Dzurisin said. “Most of her commentary revolves around analytics. Baseball audiences also skew older, so male viewership is more likely to embrace traditional gender norms that do not include female baseball analysts. The fact that she is Hispanic also irks men, as they see a sport of the ‘white man’ until Jackie Robinson now becoming increasingly Hispanic.”
Some men insist they turn to sports to get a break from women. This is something I hear more than you would probably believe. I’ve been told my voice is too high, too low, too young-sounding, too Chicago-sounding, too harsh, too soft, and “just generally obnoxious.” The only time I’ve ever been complimented on my voice was when I had bronchitis and a bunch of men called in to tell me my voice was sexy. But bronchitis is hard to maintain on any kind of regular basis just to please the lonely faction of my male listeners. And anyway, antibiotics forced me to go back to sounding like myself.
Sports fans have been subjected to a large number of male broadcasters with objectively terrible voices, from Howard Cosell’s nasal staccato to Phil Simms’s Kentucky twang. Chris Russo’s New York accent was so thick, his Florida station supposedly sent him to speech therapy. The White Sox’ Hawk Harrelson is given to long stretches of silence in the booth when he’s upset. Do we even need to list the former male athletes with marbles in their mouths and very little to say who somehow retain seats in the broadcast booth?
So it’s 2017, and some Americans are unwilling to tolerate a sports broadcaster sounding like a woman. Can we overcome it? I am confident we can.