back to you in the booth

1/28/04

While watching our beloved Heels deliver a hard-fought spankin’ to the Wolfpack tonight, I was again intrigued by the presence of Doris Burke on the sidelines. As far as I know, she has become ESPN’s Girl Friday on game days, working many of the ACC and Big East matchups I’ve seen.

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Like Bonnie Bernstein at CBS and a host of other well-attired female sportscasters, she might never be allowed to do either play-by-play or color commentary for a national game. They’ll let women do some roving reporting (referring to them as “analysts”), but I have yet to hear one actually call a game.

This was a sore point upstate last weekend as Alex Yong’s wife Wendi is fully capable of doing the play-by-play for any college football game, including historical facts and the occasional deft turn of phrase. Truth is, besides the sparse remarks of Billy Jean King during tennis or the interstitial Up Close and Personal segments by Hannah Storm during the 1992 Olympics, we have yet to experience the true gender-busting equivalent of Howard Cosell, Harry Carey, John Madden or Frank Gifford.

It is true that most sportscasters get their jobs by having played the sport themselves on television, something very few women can claim. However, Cosell could barely throw a forward pass, and Dick Vitale had a terrible coaching record. Many sportscasters come from nowhere more special than the RTVMP department at Carolina (Stuart Scott) or that joke of a student paper over at Dook (Seth Davis).

It could be chalked up to simple xenophobia – we haven’t tried a woman play-by-play announcer, and we don’t feel like it – but there might be physical limitations as well. Put simply, the male voice has greater range from low to high without sounding psychotic. Certainly women are capable of 4-octave voices (I’d love to hear Kate Bush call a soccer game), but the top three octaves are usually various level of shrieking. I don’t mean to sound pejorative, it’s just a laryngeal thing.

If you listen to Woody Durham or Mick Mixon call a Carolina game on the radio, they provide non-stop talking with a clear dymanic range: low basso when we dribble midcourt, then a high exclamation when Raymond feeds Rashad for an alley-oop. The most memorable sports moments come from sportscasters who get so excited that they go up a few octaves (Vitale’s “babeeeeeee” and Marv Albert’s “Yessssssssss!”) I don’t wonder if a female Woody Durham, doing the same, would induce ear fatigue. I could be utterly wrong, but I think it might be tough to hear for an entire game.

If you truly listen to women in the media, most of them have husky voices that belie the occasional cigarette and Jim Beam & Coke. Listen to Lynne Russell on Headline News, Paula Zahn on CNN, or our very own Laurie Dhue on Fox – Laurie was one of the infamous low altos in the Carolina singing group The Loreleis. I think you have to be an alto to be a woman anchor; anything higher, and you have nowhere else to go.

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Laurie reporting for Fox

The one thing that does strike me as subconsciously sexist about female sports reporters is their physical position relative to the men in the booth – the boys are up on high, the women are down in the trough. It’s no wonder that Joe Namath thought he could sneak a quick one on Suzi Kolber; after all, she was just working the fields. It’s also no wonder that the sideline reporter is always called upon to deliver injury reports on the players (something Doris Burke does all the time) – can anything be more motherly than a female voice telling us that one of our boys has been hurt but will soon feel better?

I’m waiting for the one female sportscaster that will prove my vocal theory wrong and rise up through the hierarchy to call a national game. Linda Cohn is one of my favorites at ESPN – will they ever give her, or someone without a Y chromosome, a chance?