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The Brent Musburger / Katherine Webb Controvery Has Reached Academic Proportions

A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend Katherine Webb created a national stir, fueled by some gushing commentary from Brent Musburger. The incident blew up social media. It became the lead story on national news outlets. It pierced the New York Times’ bubble, became fodder for academics and was inflamed further by ESPN’s apology. Now that they are down with Finebaum, we’re waiting with bated breath for the New Yorker to chime in.

ESPN showed Webb on camera. That’s not abnormal. The network, correctly, recognizes college football having a broader scope than the game itself. Producers pepper broadcasts with all manner of sidebars. Alabama’s star quarterback dating Miss Alabama fit that mold. It had firmer grounding than ESPN’s traditional metric for choosing to display a quarterback’s wife/girlfriend on camera: blondeness.

Did ESPN need to fixate on Webb repetitively? No, but it is hard to be pious with millions of dollars worth of ads sold and a football game uncompetitive from the first possession. The audience spoke. She became the story.

Musburger had prepped to talk about her.  His fawning tone and exclamations about her looks were enthusiastic to the point of awkwardness as producers kept the camera guled to her. He said this to Kirk Herbstreit.

Musburger: Wow, I’m telling you, quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women, what a beautiful woman.

Herbstreit: Wow, A.J. is doing some things right in Tuscaloosa.

Musburger: So if you’re a youngster in Alabama, start getting a football out and throwing around with pops.

Musburger acknowledged a well-worn trope about quarterbacks dating the head cheerleader. He needled Herbstreit, a former quarterback, in a joking fashion. He went over the top, but was in no way obscene. ESPN’s mild apology might have been overkill or a response to some media criticism, but it was sufficient.

Ms. Webb was not offended, though that’s peripheral when debating the professionalism. Some might argue Webb’s status as a public figure, model and beauty queen, as opposed to a random cheerleader, offers Musburger more license to comment on her appearance. That’s not entirely convincing. Nor is her benefitting from the attention lavished upon her. One could ask what the backlash would have been had Musburger joked about a colleague in that manner, but he didn’t do that.

Some have read further into Musburger’s joke. Saying being the quarterback at Alabama entitles someone to date attractive women would be wrong. Saying attractiveness is the only quality one should consider in women would be wrong. Drawing a line between either statement and Musburger’s comments requires some logical contortions.

Some have called Musburger’s comments heteronormative. That’s valid, but painting with a broad brush. He did not acknowledge that Alabama youngsters throwing the ball with Pop might be interested in A.J. McCarron, but arguing that oversight was an active slight, expressing a preference for a certain sexual orientation seems tenuous.

The strongest critique seems to be that a woman’s appearance was fodder for male discussion during a football broadcast. Some found the fact the discussion went there at all offensive. Michigan State journalism professor Sue Carter called it “a major personal violation” and “so retrograde it was embarrassing.”

“It’s extraordinarily inappropriate to focus on an individual’s looks,” said Sue Carter, a professor of journalism at Michigan State. “In this instance, the appearance of the quarterback’s girlfriend had no bearing on the outcome of the game. It’s a major personal violation, and it’s so retrograde that it’s embarrassing. I think there’s a generational issue, but it’s incumbent on people practicing in these eras to keep up and this is not a norm.”

Musburger’s joke was retrograde, though it is hard distinguishing that from the rest of a football broadcast. Football is among the most retrograde of human activities. The sport is rife with war metaphors and outdated masculinity conceptions. Hypermales take the field to engage in a precisely engineered version of bucks ramming each other. Most women in the vicinity are wearing cheerleader skirts or spandex dance outfits. Enjoying football and holding progressive views on the role of women in society requires a substantial amount of cognitive dissonance.

Many words have been expended on this, as well as far more thought than went into the initial comment. Taking offense is a personal matter. Perhaps the best lesson here is to leave the obvious unstated, especially when discussing attractive women on television.

 

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