January 8, 2016

The Gayle affair underlines that cricket is a boys club

The saga and its aftermath provide an indictment of the marginalisation of women in cricket broadcasting

Before the storm: McLaughlin at the Hurricanes v Renegades toss with the captains © Getty Images

A few days ago Chris Gayle decided, in his wisdom, that a live television interview at the Big Bash League was an appropriate place to make a crude, clumsy attempt to flirt with Mel McLaughlin, a television reporter working for the broadcaster Channel Ten. It made for extremely uncomfortable television. Gayle demonstrated contempt not only for his own position as a professional sportsman but also for the professional role of McLaughlin, who is an Australian television presenter specialising in sports programmes.

It was a poor advertisement for the BBL, which has been systematically trying to build an audience among female viewers. The condemnation from the authorities was swift, if ultimately toothless. Gayle will not be thrown out of the 2015-16 tournament. He will not even miss a single game. Gayle, who is one of the highest-earning international stars in the BBL has been fined A$10,000, and will have to serve the penance of no longer being "miked up" during games.

At first, McLaughlin's employer publicised the interview with Gayle on their Twitter feed with the hashtag #smooth. They deleted this tweet shortly after. Later, they tweeted: "Well played to our very own @Mel_Mclaughlin for staying professional during the interview. What a pro." Their head of sport, David Barham, then said, "We won't be using [Gayle] in the game [broadcast] anymore. Unless things change in the next few days, it's not happening. It was totally inappropriate behaviour. Mel's a working journalist doing a job." A few minutes after the interview, a commentator on Ten, Mark Howard, said: "It must be pointed out that Mel is a wonderful, professional, informed sports broadcaster and a valued member of Network Ten, and on reflection, I don't think that's appropriate for what's required in that format… Chris is an entertainer and he's a joker, but I think he probably went a bit too far there. I hope we don't see any of it again, and Mel will be back for her next interview, prepared and ready to go as she always is."

The nature of Gayle's misconduct becomes clear when you consider what his position in the evening's spectacle was, compared to that of McLaughlin. Gayle is the international superstar, while McLaughlin has the marginal duty of conducting extremely short celebrity interviews so that viewers get face time with the big stars of the day. Gayle's penalty for misbehaving is barely a rounding error in his annual income. McLaughlin's lot, apart from being placed in an impossible situation, was to have her male colleagues in the commentary box snigger when they first heard Gayle's remarks, and then, via Howard, mildly admonish Gayle for being naughty. As if the fact that Gayle is "an entertainer and a joker" is relevant to what happened. If anything, Howard's considered observation that Gayle "probably went a bit too far" was outrageous. What was Howard implying? That a more "good-natured", more humorous, less obnoxious flirtation from Gayle would have been entertaining or funny? What would have happened had McLaughlin played along? It would have made for "quality TV", I suppose.

What is Ten's response to the very public initial reaction to Gayle's performance from the commentary box, which betrayed the fact that the commentators' first audible instinct was to think Gayle was being funny, not insulting? Will the person who runs their official Twitter feed, or the commentators in the commentary box at the time, be punished? McLaughlin, whose professional fortitude was so lauded, may have showed up to work the next day to work with these men, taking it in her stride, but does that make it right?

Cricket Australia's boss, James Sutherland, observed that anybody who saw humour in the situation was delusional. He has not ruled out sanctions against Gayle. When and where will the possibility of such sanctions be discussed? Will the professional cricket press (dominated as it is by men) maintain pressure on Sutherland to initiate action against Gayle?

If Gayle's conduct was beyond the pale, there must appropriate punishment to make the point stick. His team, which clearly has an interest in winning, cannot be expected to fire or suspend him. That must come from the BBL or Cricket Australia, or failing this, from the ICC. Will it? Or will they wait for the season to end, so nobody's interests are hurt?

Perhaps the damning initial reaction from the commentators and Ten's Twitter feed, and the fact that this reaction has not received either official attention or sanction, can only be understood by considering the roles women are granted in cricket broadcasts. George Orwell once observed that "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations." It is a stretch to describe a television sports presenter as a "journalist".

If the only place in the cricket broadcast for women is as presenters whose tedious duty it is to perform pointless celebrity interviews, then women will never be equal, empowered participants in the spor

Women professionals may well be taken more seriously in Australian cricket on the whole than they are in the IPL, say, but it is clear from the composition of commentary boxes at the BBL, and in the Australian Test and ODI summer, that live cricket commentary is a man's game. Further, it is no longer even a serious, thinking cricket fan's game. The journalist Geoff Lemon wonderfully described Australian cricket commentary as being "all about being the matiest mates who ever mated". Marginal interviewing duties are granted to women television presenters, who are then described as "journalists". They exist for the world of TV show business because, to paraphrase Ten, they provide a "smooth" show.

Gayle was wrong. He let himself and others down by showing contempt for the fact that he was a professional speaking to another professional. When it comes to evaluating his misconduct, it is irrelevant that the interview was purely about giving viewers face time with one of the big star performers of the day. It is equally irrelevant that there was no significant information to be exchanged in the interview.

It is a truism that celebrity is more profitable than argument on television. Under the show-business model of presenting sport, which all T20 league broadcasters and organisers have embraced, a cricket version of the red-carpet interview at the Academy Awards is integral to the presentation. It is a matter of uttering routine banalities in response to routine questions. McLaughlin was performing a chore, and as a professional she was doing her duty with the necessary diligence.

Cricket Australia, the BBL, and Melbourne Renegades have played the public relations game to perfection, but the punishment they have meted out to Gayle is ridiculously trivial. He might draw a bigger fine, and possibly even a suspension, for disagreeing vehemently with an umpire's lbw decision than he has for sexually harassing a fellow professional on live television.

The demands that show business put on an individual in McLaughlin's position are partly at fault for what happened here. If the only place in the cricket broadcast for women is as presenters whose tedious duty it is to perform pointless celebrity interviews, then women will never be equal, empowered participants in the sport. There is no shortage of women in the cricket-playing world who are expert observers of the game. The BBL or Cricket Australia would do well to insist that some of McLaughlin's sniggering male colleagues be replaced by experienced women cricketers who are the cricketing equals of the Waughs and Nicholases. Had there been an experienced woman cricketer in the commentary box as Gayle was being interviewed, would Mark Howard would have got away with his sexist, patronising observations?

Sadly, one fears that the show will just go on. It is too profitable not to. Women will continue to feature marginally in cricket. The Gayles of cricket will continue be let off by cricket bosses on the premise that boys will be boys. Perhaps, as a concession to the times, they will add "How terrible!" in the end.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here