Cris Collinsworth is shocked women understand NFL. 90m of us disagree

Cris Collinsworth spent time with some women this week. These women, it seems, asked some decent questions about football. They even sounded smart, maybe. And I guess it was all too much for Collinsworth. He was overcome. He had to share this mind-bending experience on national television.

Cris Collinsworth wearing a suit and tie: Photograph: Ron Jenkins/AP

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Ron Jenkins/AP

“Everybody’s a fan,” the NBC commentator said during Wednesday afternoon’s Steelers-Ravens broadcast. “In particular the ladies that I met. They have really specific questions about the game. I’m like wow, just blown away.”

It’s possible that Collinsworth hasn’t been around too many women. Or if he has, he hasn’t been listening. Has he watched Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer call Thursday Night Football? Has he taken note of anything Michele Tafoya’s said on the very broadcasts he’s worked for years? Either the answer is no, or he views those women as outliers. Yes: they’re talented, professional, knowledgeable as all hell about the sport they cover. And a lot of women – a lot of little girls, too – speak that same language.

Collinsworth’s comments discounted that. They were a thinly-veiled insult – but unlike a lot of the garbage that’s said on the airwaves, the core of the sentiment he relayed was true. Women are informed about sports, and interested in them – and that proves a very different point than the one Collinsworth was trying to make.

Related: NBC’s Collinsworth sorry after being ‘blown away’ that women understand NFL

Sexism is baked into much of the dialogue around sports. So is racism. And homophobia. If someone were to do an audit of all the millions of games broadcast on television and the radio each year, the transcripts would be a horror show. In August, Thom Brennaman uttered a slur and delivered a bizarre, homophobic statement on a hot mic in the middle of a Cincinnati Reds game. The next day, on an NBC broadcast from Canada, John Forslund discussed players’ ability to focus during the NHL’s playoff bubble, calling it “a terrific environment.” His partner, Mike Milbury, agreed and piled on: “Not even any woman here to disrupt your concentration.”

Cris Collinsworth wearing a suit and tie: Cris Collinsworth is one of the most prominent NFL analysts in the US.

© Photograph: Ron Jenkins/AP
Cris Collinsworth is one of the most prominent NFL analysts in the US.

Collinsworth’s comments paled in comparison to those. Both Brennaman and Milbury resigned in the wake of what they said. Collinsworth won’t, nor should he have to. The problem with his treatise on female fans was his tone, the abject wonderment in his voice, the fact that he thought it was worth noting at all. By pointing out that these women knew football, he fed into the stereotype that most don’t. These women are not exceptional. They are, increasingly, the norm. But sports media, especially in broadcast television, doesn’t come close to representing that reality.

As a woman in sports media, I’m happy to join the chorus of voices criticizing Collinsworth. He deserves to be mocked. And if I’ve learned one thing when faced with sexism on the job, it’s this: Laughing helps. Getting mad does too, for a bit. But the best way forward, whether it’s fair or not, is to do something about it: to ask a better question, to write a better story, to come up with a better solution.

Here’s how we could solve this: put more women – more diverse voices, period – in broadcast booths. Collinsworth’s comments are evidence that the industry would benefit from an overhaul. For too long, women were kept out of the conversation around sports. Our voices didn’t hold any kind of authority. We’ve been let gradually in over the past couple decades, though there are still few of us in top-tier roles: as columnists, editors, play-by-play voices, commentators. On television, we’re almost always on the sideline, both literally and figuratively. That needs to change, for more reasons than I’m allowed words here. But what Collinsworth said illustrates one of them: football booths are no longer a reflection of their audience.

The NFL announced in March that women make up 47% of its fanbase. That’s nearly 90 million women cheering every Sunday. A few of those, some infinitesimal fraction of that total, left an impression this week on a man who’s paid millions to call games. And those women weren’t some vocal minority. They weren’t a spectacle. They are the norm, and they deserve to be represented in the conversation about a sport they know inside and out.

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