The play began slowly, with a neat corner kick to one of Portugal’s midfielders four minutes into last week’s World Cup match against Morocco. The drama built with a lob to the six-yard box, tantalizingly close to the goal. And it reached a crescendo with a diving header by Cristiano Ronaldo that sent the ball to the back of Morocco’s net. One to 0.
Who gets to narrate such moments of high athletic drama became a subject of controversy this week when Vicki Sparks, a British sports journalist who made history by becoming the first woman to commentate on a live World Cup match for British television, 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 the female commentator drew the rebuke of Piers Morgan, co-host of “Good Morning Britain,” and became one more piece of evidence that 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.
Morgan warned the pundit and former competitor: “This is not a fight to pick. This is not a hill to die on.”
Cundy later came to the same conclusion, issuing 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.”
As Sparks broke one gender boundary at the World Cup, other women encountered persistent barriers to the simple execution of their jobs.
During the weekend, a Brazilian journalist, Julia Guimaraes, was presenting outside the Senegal-Japan game in Yekaterinburg, a Russian city east of the Ural Mountains, when a man bounded up to her and attempted to kiss her. She successfully dodged him and then proceeded to lecture him about respecting women.
“Don’t do this,” she said. “Never do this again, okay? Don’t do this. I don’t allow you to do that.”
The man can be heard apologizing off-screen.
Guimaraes, a reporter for Brazil’s TV Globo/SporTV, said on Twitter that this was not the first time she had been harassed during the World Cup in Russia. “Fortunately, I have never experienced this in Brazil!” she wrote.
Other instances of harassment have similarly been captured on video. Julieth González Therán, a Colombian journalist, was in the middle of a live report for Deutsche Welle’s Spanish channel on opening day of the World Cup when a man approached her, grabbing her breast and kissing her on the cheek. She continued her broadcast but later said, “We do not deserve this treatment.” DW posted a video of the incident online, adding: “Sexual harassment is not okay. It needs to stop. In football, and elsewhere.”
Some took a different view of the man’s behavior, with one Twitter user responding that “people are simply overfilled with joy.”
“Sorry, but no,” DW responded. “Kissing someone against their will is sexual harassment. Groping a woman’s breast while she’s busy doing her job is sexual harassment.”
The international broadcaster said the man in question had come forward and apologized to González Therán via Skype.