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On sexism in sports, the last acceptable prejudice

A hockey player's dismissal of a female reporter suggests that in sports it's still okay to invalidate someone on the basis of gender or appearance.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

What if wins above replacement considered a baseball player's looks in the calculation? OPS+, fielding, speed, positional adjustments, and other variables would still be taken into account, but the evaluation of rippling chests, meaty thighs, and beard integrity would also be considered.

Including appearance as a criteria is absolutely preposterous, of course, not only because there is no correlation between production and appearance, but also because a subjective judgment on who has above-average jawlines and behinds would be even less reliable than UZR. But on yesterday's episode of "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" on Chicago's 670 The Score, the hosts completed a "female sports media draft" in which they considered the best females in the profession based on three criteria: intelligence, what they brought to the broadcast... and looks.

The hour of ignorance on Chicago sports radio Tuesday was ignited by a comment by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith to sports reporter Karen Thomson of Vancouver's Team 1040 AM following Monday night's loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Thomson baited Keith with a question about a slashing penalty that wasn't called on him prior to the Canucks' third goal of the game, and it was clear he didn't appreciate the line of questioning. After a defensive initial response, he followed up by insulting the one thing that makes Thomson different: Her gender (full audio here):

Keith: "What did you see?"

Thomson: "Well, there looked like maybe there was a penalty that went undetected. You seemed a bit frustrated."

Keith: "Oh, no. I don't think there was. I think he scored a nice goal, and the ref was right there, that's what the ref saw. We should get you as a ref, maybe, hey?"

Thomson: "Yeah, maybe. I can't skate though."

Keith: "First female referee -- can't play probably either, right? But you're thinking the game like you know it? Okay, see ya."

Keith's comments made the rounds of the Internet, and Dan McNeil and Matt Spiegel weighed in during their radio show. At first, McNeil and Spiegel agreed that Keith was out of line, and Spiegel advocated that the Blackhawks suspend him. However, in the next breath, McNeil doubted a woman's ability to speak authoritatively about sports, and later in the broadcast commented that they should call Karen Thomson, hoping she would be available to talk about sports after getting the kids off to school, cleaning the kitchen, and making breakfast.

McNeil and Spiegel didn't stop at just reacting to Keith's comment, however. They decided to attempt to combat sexism by conducting a female sports media draft. When Spiegel commented that the list would be about how hot the women were, McNeil responded, "They don't have to be attractive! Otherwise I wouldn't be snatching up Holly Rowe with my first pick," which, as you could imagine, was met with much laughter in the studio.

They defined the criterion for inclusion as, "Which broad can you handle talking authoritatively about sports" and continued to rate the attractiveness and unattractiveness of female sports journalists. In an attempt to diminish the sexist nature of the list they published to their website, they asked one of the station's few on-air women, Kerry Sayers, to participate, as if implicating a woman in demeaning other women made it okay to do. They also read an email from a listener: "Here are a list of my favorite women in sports media." The list was blank.

None of us can interpret Duncan Keith's intent. He's been in the NHL since 2005 and this is the first instance of him lashing out at a female reporter in his career, so perhaps Thomson simply asked the wrong question on a bad night. Some have argued that he wasn't being sexist; Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star thought his comment was a sign of progress for female reporters -- "players fear and distrust the women just as much as they do the men" -- a blithe Uncle Tomism that accepts being demeaned on the basis of gender as the price of admission to a male bastion like the locker room, and confirms that for many, including women, sexism is the last acceptable prejudice.

In sports culture, however, sexism is still fair game.

If Keith, or any athlete for that matter, had commented on Thomson's race or religion, he'd be facing a suspension and sensitivity training. If McNeil and Spiegel worked in any other profession and spoke so frankly about not just the appearance but also the ineptitude of the opposite gender, they might find themselves in hot water. In sports culture, however, sexism is still fair game.

It's important to recognize that there has been progress in the acceptance of women covering sports. We have come a long way from the days of Billy Martin kicking women out of the clubhouse and Dave Kingman sending a rat to a female reporter, but sexism manifests itself frequently enough that women must still be on guard in the predominantly male sports culture. That doesn't mean being militant or searching for disagreements, but it does mean being willing to stand up when necessary.

McNeil and Speigel's shtick is not exactly shocking; most sports radio isn't exactly known as being a bastion of progressive, much less intelligent, thought, but Tuesday's show didn't just toe the line of sexism, it treaded in Don Imus territory. This wasn't the first time The Score did something overtly sexist on air; in fact, it wasn't even the first time this month. During a discussion of Baylor basketball phenom Brittney Griner last week, the male hosts debated whether or not Griner was actually a female, using arguments about her body, her voice, and her athletic ability as evidence for why they believed she was actually a man. Not only was the tenor of the discussion disappointing, it was disturbing that such a frank discussion of a 22-year-old female's sexuality and gender was considered an appropriate topic of conversation.

The toughest part to stomach is that I could have written this article literally dozens of times over the past few years. It's not just Keith or Chicago sports radio; it's those who choose to demean women through "mansplaining." It's DeMarcus Cousins, who was ejected from a game for telling a referee to stop, "acting like a f---ing female." It's for all of the times I've been told to step away from the keyboard and get back in the kitchen. While it might read a bit differently based on the offense, there's just one basic question that needs to be answered: Why do some think it is okay to judge a sports reporter, an athlete, or a fan based on their appearance and gender when we've almost universally decided that all other forms of prejudice, like those of race and religion, won't be tolerated?

I wrote an article last year entitled, "An Experiment in Bias," in which I excerpted works of female and male writers that were largely indistinguishable with the byline removed. For some, the byline adds a layer of bias; they cannot ignore that a woman wrote the article, even when there is no discernable difference in content. For those who work in broadcast journalism, it's even more difficult. Appearance is an unspoken hiring criteria for both men and women in television, but women would seem to have a higher hurdle to clear there as well. There is a separate discussion that could (and probably should) happen about how media outlets use their female on-air talent by often reducing them to mostly ornamental roles that do allow them to contribute analysis on the same basis as their male counterparts.

Still, the hope is that women should not be evaluated differently, that sexism and gender differences shouldn't be treated as a reason for jokes, but as simple facts of life. That's not just some utopian dream: in both broadcast and print journalism, it is the quality of one's information and presentation that distinguishes a person, so the flimsy nature of gender stereotyping should be more apparent there than elsewhere. The braggadocio of the McNeils and Speigels may score cheap points with their target audience, but it's really just the hollow sound of desperate men clinging to one of the last arenas in which its okay for them to preen and strut and celebrate an unearned sense of superiority.