Brent Musburger became AARP-eligible nearly a quarter-century ago, but you wouldn’t have thought he was over the hill last Monday night when the 73-year-old broadcaster drifted into a creepy adolescent dalliance during his play-by-play call of the Alabama-Notre Dame BCS championship game.
Late in the first quarter, the game already a stinker with ’Bama ahead by two touchdowns, the ABC/ESPN camera framed the lovely face of Katherine Webb as she sat in the stands. Webb is the girlfriend of Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, and she is a model and beauty queen, the 2012 Miss Alabama.
Turns out, based on Musburger’s commentary, Webb is also the old man’s dream girl, something he made clear when he abruptly turned the broadcast into a streaming peep show. His remarks were prurient, sexist, and just plain too weird for prime time TV, considering that he is a half-century older than Webb and should have been smart enough, or at least aware enough, not to draw a flag for offensive ogling.
All of which had ESPN scurrying Tuesday to issue this apology:
“We always try to capture interesting storylines,’’ read the Worldwide Leader’s release, “and the relationship between an Auburn grad (Webb) and the current Alabama quarterback certainly met that test. However, we apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that.’’
Musburger, of course, didn’t act alone in purveying the prurience. Sidekick Kirk Herbstreit was a willing, effusive contributor in the commentary, at one point prompting Musburger to break him up by blurting out, “Whoa!’’, again to proclaim Webb’s striking good looks. Musburger also pointed out the older attractive woman sitting near Webb was McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee Sonders, thus adding to the peeping-tommery.
Let’s not forget, none of this could have happened without teamwork. TV is nothing if not interdependent, which is often what dissuades independent thinkers from working in the medium. To pull off such a shot, it took at least a story editor, a couple of producers, and a camera person.
All of them knew the shot would be used at some point during the broadcast, and Musburger’s comments, though certainly not scripted (let’s hope), took what could have been a benign, cute, quick hit in the stands to yet another easy, sleazy sexploitation.
Bad game. Hyped to high heaven for weeks and now a blowout. TV audience caving faster than the Irish defense. What to do? Find the girl!
“Now, when you are a quarterback at Alabama . . . ,’’ said Musburger as he introduced the shot. “You see that lovely lady there? That’s AJ McCarron’s girlfriend, OK?’’
Okey dokey. The camera remained fixed on Webb.
“Wow, I’ll tell you, you quarterbacks . . . ,’’ Musburger continued to fawn. “You get all the good-looking women! Honestly, what a beautiful woman.’’
Yes, honestly. The camera remained on the closeup of Webb, who, though no doubt unaware of what was being said, looked anxious, even queasy.
“So, if you’re a youngster in Alabama,’’ instructed Musburger, “start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop.’’
One of those lines would have been sufficient, and would have left Musburger unscathed. Two might have been OK, but no doubt would have arched an eyebrow or two among the viewership. But the third remark raised it to voyeurism, making Musburger sound lecherous.
As his employer said, Musburger went too far, which is often what leads broadcasters and writers into dangerous territory. Had a writer for a mainstream daily paper or website dropped those three lines into a game story or column, all three would have been deleted by a right-thinking copy editor. Broadcast and print media are different worlds. Open Mike Night didn’t do Musburger or ESPN any favors.
A day after the apology, Webb appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and told host Matt Lauer that she was OK with the whole thing.
“I think if he had said something along the line if we were hot or sexy,’’ said Webb, “I think that would be a little different.’’
Things are different in the South than here in the North, for sure. But even without a secret decoder ring, it sure sounded to me like that’s what Musburger said. Over and over.
Alan Webb, Katherine’s father, told Atlanta’s Fox affiliate that he also was OK with it and that the media should “give Brent a break.’’
“You can look at it as being kind of like this dirty old man,’’ added her father, “but I am used to this.’’
So neither the victim nor the victim’s father thought much of it, which frankly disturbs me even more. No one has the right to tell them how to feel, obviously, and maybe both daughter and father have learned over time how to be gracious in such circumstances. Webb’s beauty obviously didn’t appear overnight, and given where we are in today’s America, she probably has learned to filter out far more blatantly sexist comments than what Musburger had to say.
But all of Musburger’s gushing, combined with ESPN’s lingering lens, yet again framed the games we watch with cheap, stereotypical, and unnecessary banter over sex appeal. OK, she’s cute. We get it, Brent, and boys and their dads should work extra hard in the backyard so that little Johnny someday might win himself some dazzling eye candy. Yeah, boy.
Is it any wonder that those good-looking American girls grow up to be women who ask why equal work doesn’t bring equal pay?
Is it any wonder that the sports broadcast business doesn’t have a 73-year-old woman working championship games, or any games, in an era when sixtysomething and seventysomething males still get parked in the broadcast booth, on the sidelines, and in studio headquarters?
Men at all levels of the American sports industry keep saying that women are their equals. But clearly they don’t mean it, don’t own it. It’s just lip service. And last Monday night, Musburger’s lips once again provided the proof.