The flap over Andy Rooney's bitchy remarks about women reporters on the NFL sidelines demonstrates how far we've come and how little we've learned.
Best known as CBS's "60 Minutes" curmudgeon, Rooney complains about everything. That's his shtick, his well-paid job, his raison d'etre. The fact that he ticks people off by what he says is the finely honed point of his three-minute rant.
Yet when he voices a complaint that likely reflects the unspoken thoughts of many an American-male couch potato, he is vilified. The message from outraged feminists, who are demanding Rooney's firing, is archaically feminine: "Why, you can't say that about women! Why, why, it's unfair!"
They may as well have cried "Meany!" and stomped off to tell Mrs. Wilson all about it.
What Rooney said was this: "The only thing that really bugs me about television's coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don't know what the hell they're talking about. I mean, I'm not a sexist person, but a woman has no business being down there trying to make some comment about a football game."
Andy, I know just what you mean. I feel the same way about male gynecologists.
I suppose it's a small sign of grace that we indulge ourselves in tantrums about boy-girl differences as the world girds its loins for a potential apocalypse. Only in America, where women do everything men do except play professional football, can tempers flare over an old man's tongue-in-cheek commentary that affects no one and nothing.
I confess to a certain professional empathy for Rooney, whose charge is to come up with something new each week to complain about. Try it for 30 years or so. In Rooney's case, his complaints are usually "lite" fare, which can be even tougher to make interesting: pens that don't cooperate; toothpaste tubes that don't squeeze right; women reporters who remind some old cusses of their granddaughters rather than the hard-scrabble sports guys they recall nostalgically.
I can't speak to Rooney's claim that some of these women don't know what they're talking about. I don't watch them. My guess is they do or they wouldn't be out there. But whether they do or don't know football to the extent Rooney thinks they should is irrelevant compared to Rooney's right to speak his mind.
As certain parties apparently need reminding:
It's an opinion, stupid. By careful design in this country, we don't get hung, stoned, dismembered or unemployed for uttering an opinion that does no harm. At least theoretically.
Concerns that Rooney's comment undermines women's credibility in traditionally male dominions or threatens their hard-earned status are outgrowths of a victim mentality that has expired under the statute of common sense. If a sideline reporter doesn't do a good job, she's history. Networks don't blithely risk the affections of their best-paying customers. If she's good, who's Andy Rooney?
Can women cover sports as well as men? Of course. One of the most elegant sportswriters in America happens to be a woman -Selena Roberts of The New York Times. I doubt Roberts would feel threatened were a TV wag to suggest she can't write effectively about sports she hasn't played. Competent people don't collapse under the assault of fools or the barbs of hired insult slingers.
Besides, does anyone really believe that Rooney's dislike of delicate young girly-girls (remember, he's 83) interviewing big burly he-guys during football games is going to change the future of Title IX or send ambitious sports-minded women back home to bake cookies?
Rooney's a brand and that brand stands for sturm und drang from the lips of a sourpuss. Love or hate him, he's the Don Rickles of misanthropes and malcontents everywhere, strictly designed for entertainment. Who really cares what he thinks?
Ah, but delicate, sensitive women care, and who might they be? Not I. Nor anyone I know. For whom, then, do these petty protectors of womaninity speak? Surely not for the thousand or so women who cover sports.
Having once been a photographer from the sidelines of Vanderbilt University's football team, feeling tinier than a gnat on Gulliver's knee, I can attest to this much: Any female who can manage a microphone and ask questions of a heavy-breathing, sweaty, pad-enhanced behemoth of a male specimen can handle the Andy Rooneys of the world.
Meanwhile, we might remind ourselves that CBS is a media instrument and free speech is still constitutionally protected. Theoretically.