Commentating on live sports for a national television audience can be a herculean task, but it’s a lot easier if you decide to rely on tired racial stereotypes to fill the dead air—as Fox’s Lisa Byington and Cat Whitehill discovered on Saturday.
The issues started early for the broadcasting team, with Byington getting things started less than 10 minutes into a match by parroting what the German manager had to say about their then-upcoming Nigerian opponents.
Byington: “Martina Voss-Tecklenburg has said it’s always tough to play the African sides. Good mentality with their pace and physicality. Something obviously you can always expect.”
It doesn’t matter if what Byington is doing is just repeating—or likely paraphrasing, in this case—what Voss-Tecklenburg was saying. For someone to uncritically regurgitate that kind of nonsense is pretty much as bad as that person saying it themselves. Byington had a clear opportunity to point out the flaw in the German coach’s logic with the fact that Nigeria has distinguished itself as far and away the best women’s team on the continent, so grouping them in with all the other countries doesn’t do that team any justice. It especially doesn’t help that Byington used Voss-Tecklenburg’s comments as a stepping stone for a compliment just moments later, and has no clear indication of where the German coach’s words end and hers begin.
But the more obvious sign of this trope-reliance came later in the first half when Whitehill was assessing how this Nigeria squad was able to return to the World Cup knockout stage for the first time in 20 years. She said after years of relying only on athleticism to get in the tournament, it was thanks to the European coach they hired that they finally learned some discipline to get past the group stage.
Whitehill: “Somehow Nigeria keeps making it into the World Cup and they’re finally, with [Thomas] Dennerby, getting a proper coach to teach them proper tactical and technical aspects to their game. I think it’s exciting for Nigeria. They’re finally, you know, looking like a side that can compete.“
Some important context for Whitehill’s comment: earlier in the match, she complimented Dennerby for being Swedish because his European heritage means he’d know how to approach a game against Germany—because, you know, no European manager has ever flubbed a game against Germany. When you combine those two comments, you get quite a shit sandwich from the broadcast booth. Forget the usual run-of-the-mill patronizing compliments about an African team’s “pace and power,” this is some real neo-colonial shit from Whitehill as she describes the story of an African team that relies on physical traits becoming more “tactical” thanks to their new European coach. She might as well have started quoting Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” outright.
This sort of stereotyping wasn’t even lost on a fellow Fox media member. Aaron West, host of the network’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Now tweeted this out shortly after the end of the first half.
It’s worth noting that these two moments weren’t the only times that these tropes were trotted out, they were just the two most prominent examples of them happening. But even with these two cases isolated out, one can only hope that both Byington and Whitehill are able to look at the criticism coming from co-workers and many others, and reflect on where they went wrong with their broadcasting approach so that they can improve their choice of language before Cameroon’s game against England on Sunday—or at least before the next Women’s World Cup.