Let’s talk about “Delicious Debbie’s” gams and how the boys on the beat saw them

In another century that today seems so distant, the use of sexist language and stereotyping in sports was not uncommon, and that included the writing game.

I recall, for example, the great Jack Matheson using what now would be considered sexist terms when mentioning female athletes or politicians in his Winnipeg Tribune column. One might be “a doll” and another might be “a cutey.” When Pierre Trudeau introduced Iona Campagnolo as his Minister of Sport in 1976, she became “Elegant Iona” to Matty, and it was true. She was elegant.

Other women were “beautiful” or “sweet” or “glamorous or “a dame” or “a broad.”

Debbie Brill

High jumper Debbie Brill became “Darling Debbie” and “Delicious Debbie,” and Matty made note of her long, shapely legs more than once.

“Indoor track fans always enjoy watching girls jump high,” he wrote, “especially girls with legs like Debbie’s.”

Legendary sports scribe Trent Frayne similarly gazed upon the Brill gams with unreserved admiration, writing, “There she is, maybe 20 yards from the crossbar, calmly eyeing it, one foot slightly ahead of the other, teetering slowly, back and forth, back and forth, long legs bare and smooth and tanned, twin cynosures.”

Seriously. Twin cynosures? I had to cozy up to my good friend Merriam-Webster to clue in. Means Debbie Brill’s underpinnings were “the centre of attention or attraction.”

So where am I going with this?

Trent Frayne

Well, it certainly isn’t to discredit Matty, my first sports editor and the best jock essayist during my time in Good Ol’ Hometown, or Trent, with whom I had the considerable good fortune of sharing a work space at the Toronto Sun. They weren’t guilty of some heinous crime punishable by public flogging or prison time.

Those old boys wrote in the fashion of the 20th century, which allowed for descriptors not meant to be viewed through the judgmental lens of 2020. (Actually, reading it today, one might find humor in its antiquity. Like, they actually got away with writing that stuff?)

I don’t suppose Matty or Trent would use many, if any, of those terms were they around today to crank out their cheeky, witty, sassy essays, because the Politically Correct Police would be knocking on their doors and it wouldn’t be a social call. (Mind you, chances are Matty would tell them to shove it, but their visit might put him off his dinner, nonetheless.)

And it’s not like they’d gone rogue in their scribblings.

Jocelyne Bourassa

As we learn from Maclean’s magazine and The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sports in Canada by Margaret Ann Hall, it was commonplace for scribes, almost exclusively male, to wax poetically about the different “cynosures” of various female athletes, and it wasn’t always flattering.

This, for example, is the way Jack Batten of Maclean’s described the women on the LPGA Tour in 1973: “Tousle-haired, sunshiny, more muscular and perhaps more ‘masculine’ than most women, like a gang of phys-ed teachers, but fresh and appealing in an Anne Murray kind of way.”

Of Canadian Jocelyne Bourassa, he wrote: “She’s a husky woman, a little broad in the beam. Her face can’t make up its mind whether it belongs to the cute kid next door or to a determined pug, someone with a tough style. It lets you know, anyway, that it is the face of someone independent, aggressive, a woman who can—what the hell—play touch football or baseball with the men.” He added that, at a formal function, Bourassa “radiated an approachable tomboy charm.”

Which is sort of like saying she wasn’t full-on butch, but butch nonetheless.

Meanwhile, here’s how journalist/author Paul Grescoe described members of the Vancouver Chimos volleyball team: “They are not the big, butch girls the male chauvenist might expect. Under their loose sweaters—’Up Your Volleyball,’ the back of one reads—their baggy sweatpants and shorts, the protective pads on their knees, lurk some women who’d be whistled at in their civvies. Only thick thighs and the occasional masculine-muscled arm reflect their training.”

Hmmm. Whistled at in their civvies. No doubt what every elite female athlete strives for—not!

An even more-blatant example of sexism in sports writing would be an Associated Press dispatch from the U.S. Women’s National Open golf tournament in 1967. It mentioned that former champion Mrs. Murle Lindstrom was “a pretty divorcee of 28,” but not as pretty as Sharron Moran, declared the “prettiest golfer” in America by Golf Digest. Marlene Bauer wasn’t pretty, but she was “little and cute.”

The article included this comment from tour director Leonard Wirtz: “A few paint on their shorts. If their figures are good, we don’t say anything to them. But if some of the plumper girls do it, we give them a gentle hint. We figure it’s good for them and the tour.” So Jennifer Aniston would be permitted to “paint on” her shorts, but Amy Schumer would receive a verbal undressing (pun intended) if she teed off in anything more form-fitting than a hoop skirt.

When the U.S. Women’s Open tees off later this week in Houston, I don’t expect we’ll be reading or hearing a discussion about butchness, hemlines, pretty divorcees and plump girls. The focus will be on their golf, not their gams.

Times change. Language changes. What’s tolerable changes. What’s acceptable changes.

I mean, it’s one thing to mention that our Brooke Henderson has a fabulous smile and girl-next-door appeal, because it’s true. She seems like an absolute delight. But her “babe” factor ought not come into play. Go ahead and describe her outfit, just don’t tell us she’d look a whole lot “hotter” golfing in short skirts. Not unless a higher hemline would help her get the ball into the hole.

Female athletes have made strides in how they’re perceived, but most still struggle to be taken seriously, just as female sports scribes and broadcasters do.

If only they didn’t have those damn “twin cynosures” for the boys on the beat to gawk at.

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