The Jacqui Oatley cycle of outrage

TIME is measured by the observation of a number of repetitions of a cyclical event. Examples of this might include the orbit of the earth around the sun, the orbit of the moon around the earth, or the appearance of Jacqui Oatley on Match of the Day – followed by the inevitable deluge of “I’m not being sexist, but…” criticism that follows.

It’s now just short of a year since Oatley became the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day, when she covered a fairly meaningless end-of-season game between Fulham and Blackburn, and prompted Dave Bassett – among others – to throw their arms up and shout: “It just doesn’t sound right.”

Since then, Oatley’s television football commentary career has settled into a cyclical pattern. She will commentate on a forgettable mid-table Premier League game on Match of the Day, then a lot of football fans will pile on to message boards and claim it’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard, then one of the middle-market tabloids will run a story on it, then she will go back to doing a few forgettable Championship games on Radio Five Live’s digital station Sports Extra, then the fuss will die down, then she will commentate on another forgettable mid-table Premier League game on Match of the Day, then it all starts again.

A complete Jacqui Oatley cycle takes, on average, about two months to complete.

Oatley has, so far, commentated on a grand total of five games on MOTD. Each one has been met with a level of protest that would have made Bob Dylan’s electric guitar wince. Fans and journalists claim that women are just not suited to football commentary, in the same way that some people – mainly men – claim that women are not suited to stand-up comedy.

There was a particularly unpleasant piece in the Daily Mail about this today, written by ‘Hatchet Man’. “Women are good for many things,” it begins. “Not just washing, ironing and cleaning.”

Sorry, excuse me a minute; I’m just off to restitch my sides. Ah, that’s better. Carry on, Hatchet Man.

“They do not make for good football commentators.”

This somewhat reactionary attitude to the role of women in society is interesting, coming from a newspaper which spent the entire 1980s – and a large chunk of the 1990s too – with its head up Margaret Thatcher’s backside.

Now the usual response to people like me who decry this kind of nonsense as sexist is to either claim: a) It’s just a joke; b) That political correctness has, as the saying goes, “gone mad”; or c) That it’s a free country, and people should be allowed to have opinions, no matter how controversial.

OK. In response:

a) Hatchet Man’s column may well have been meant tongue-in-cheek (albeit using the lightness of touch of an elephant doing a parachute jump attached to an anvil), but the depressing nature of some of the responses to it showed that the article clearly appealed to the Sid The Sexist that lurks in some of the Daily Mail’s readership.

“totally agree. women football commentators…NO..she was awful, bless her,” typed Wayne, Lancs, UK, who may one day grow up enough to realise that English sentences start with a capital letter.

b) If political correctness really had gone mad, then the Daily Mail – which sells around two million copies a day, and is therefore by some distance the most popular middle-market newspaper in Britain – would not feel able to run a column with the headline: “Women in football? No, leave them in the kitchen where they belong.”

c) I do believe in free speech, and that people should be entitled to have an opinion. So, with that in mind, here is mine:

The person who wrote the Hatchet Man column is a gutless wimp who is hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, and would not have the nerve to voice those opinions to Jacqui Oatley’s face on a one-to-one basis.

I heard Oatley’s commentary on Birmingham v Manchester City on Saturday. It was technically competent – not the best I’ve heard, but not the worst either – but was held back by the fact that she sounded a bit nervous.

It’s a shame that her every commentary is now subjected to such scrutiny purely because of her gender. There were worse commentaries on Match of the Day last weekend. For instance, Tony Gubba made a complete pig’s ear of covering Derby v Fulham – referring to Diomansy Kamara as “Diomansky Kamara” throughout and at one point describing Kasey Keller as making “a despairing save”, whatever that is. But no one noticed that.

It’s a shame too that Oatley has to overcome the prejudices of certain fans and journalists. You have to wonder too how supportive her Radio Five Live commentary colleagues have been; especially the ones who may be counted as among her rivals to make the transition to television.

You could argue, with some validity, that Oatley should have been given more time to find her feet as a radio commentator before being thrown into TV work. Even as a radio commentator, she is still very inexperienced.

But throughout all the prejudice thrown her way, she has managed to keep her dignity. She has avoided given interviews about her commentary work – the last piece I saw from her was in The Observer early last year, when she was still solely a radio commentator; I’ve not seen anything from her since she made her TV debut. For that reason alone, giving her a Match of the Day slot could never be described as a publicity stunt; and even her staunchest critics have shied away from claiming that it is.

By my calendar, those critics now have another two months before she does her next Match of the Day commentary, and the Jacqui Oatley cycle of criticism comes full circle again. Joy.

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