On Tuesday morning, commentary on the broadcast of the Bowl Championship Series national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame included words like "creepy," ''awkward," ''uncomfortable" and "heteronormative."
The subject was not Alabama's 42-14 victory, but comments made during the game by the ESPN play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger regarding the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
In the first quarter, ESPN showed McCarron's girlfriend, Katherine Webb, who was sitting near his parents. Musburger called the 23-year-old Webb, the current Miss Alabama, a "lovely lady" and "beautiful," and said to his broadcast partner, Kirk Herbstreit, a former quarterback at Ohio State, "You quarterbacks get all the good-looking women."
''AJ's doing some things right," Herbstreit replied. Musburger, 73, then said, "If you're a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the back yard with Pop."
Almost immediately, Webb's name began trending on Twitter and her account added nearly 100,000 followers within hours, including athletes like LeBron James. Meanwhile, Musburger's comments, which some saw as harmless fun, struck other observers as off-putting.
''It's extraordinarily inappropriate to focus on an individual's looks," said Sue Carter, a professor of journalism at Michigan State. "In this instance, the appearance of the quarterback's girlfriend had no bearing on the outcome of the game. It's a major personal violation, and it's so retrograde that it's embarrassing. I think there's a generational issue, but it's incumbent on people practicing in these eras to keep up and this is not a norm."
ESPN planned in advance to mention that Webb, an Auburn graduate, is dating McCarron. But when Musburger's gushing over her went too far, some staffers in the production truck at the stadium "cringed." Soon after, John Wildhack, ESPN's executive vice president of production, told Musburger through the announcer's earpiece that he had to "move on," according to a person briefed on the conversation.
The network apologized for Musburger's comments Tuesday.
''We always try to capture interesting story lines and the relationship between an Auburn grad who is Miss Alabama and the current Alabama quarterback certainly met that test," the spokesman Josh Krulewitz said. "However, we apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that."
For her part, Webb did not seem to mind what Musburger said.
''It was kind of nice," Webb told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I didn't look at it as creepy at all. For a woman to be called beautiful, I don't see how that's an issue."
Carter was among those who said she thought Musburger should be reprimanded.
"I think because sports has been such a male-dominated domain, he obviously felt license and privilege and he's been able to do that for years," Carter said. "But the masculine aspect of sports is changing."
Musburger has made other controversial comments. His criticism of the demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics included a reference to Nazi Germany. While announcing a Florida State-Miami game in 2005, Musburger commented on a scantily clad Florida State fan, Jenn Sterger, who parlayed her notoriety into a television career.
In 2006, representatives from the University of Southern California said that Musburger disclosed the team's secret signals during a broadcast of a game against Nebraska. He raised eyebrows during the 2011 Fiesta Bowl when he said that a last-second field-goal attempt by Auburn was for "all the Tostitos," invoking the game's sponsor.
Timothy Burke, an editor at the website Deadspin, wrote a story on Musburger's comments Monday night and included the video clip from the broadcast. Deadspin has been criticized for publishing content that others have found offensive or too sexually explicit, but Burke said he thought Musburger's comments went too far.
''For Brent Musburger to find this woman attractive is normal," Burke said. "For him to assert that every man should, and that every boy should try to be a football hero to get such a gorgeous woman, is where it is really not a good thing for me."
Even on Alabama's campus, there were those who felt Musburger went too far.
''Football is a male domain," said Jennifer Greer, the chairwoman of the journalism department at Alabama. "And the role that women play even in the journalistic respect is in the supportive role, the mom, the hot girlfriend, the sideline reporter. They're accepted in this world, but in particular roles. It reinforces this stereotype of the hot model girlfriend attached to a quarterback and the maleness of sports that is hard for serious female athletes."
While critical of Musburger's comments, Greer said the mere fact that there was controversy surrounding them was a sign of progress for women and sports.
''We'll be using this as an example in our classes when we talk about journalists and sensitivity to issues," she said.