A broadcaster who was accidentally overheard making crude remarks about a women’s Olympic basketball team has apologized and been suspended for homophobic and sexist insults, drawing an outraged reaction from players and bosses.
Belgium basketball chiefs and players have said they are considering legal action against Eddy Demarez after shunning the opportunity of a Zoom call in which the long-serving commentator wanted to personally apologize for an incident during a purported celebration of their achievements.
Demarez, who has worked at five editions of the football World Cup and European Championships, was taking part in a live chat on Facebook when he made a series of sexist observations while appearing to believe that his audience could no longer hear him.
The sports anchor is said to have called former WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player Emma Meesseman manly, declared “that’s a man” of point guard Marjorie Carpreaux and called 21-year-old Billie Massey, who is 6ft 1 tall and reportedly known as ‘The Mountain’, “a colossus”.
Demarez is also widely reported to have claimed that “one’s a lesbian, the other’s not” of sisters Kim and Hanne Mestdagh, drawing an angry reaction from the siblings.
Kim responded with a vomiting emoji on social media, while Hanne lamented the controversy in the aftermath of the team’s return from the Tokyo Games by sarcastically seething: “Disrespectful, painful and demeaning. So great to be back home.”
Appearing to refer to sexism, Meesseman asked: “Can I just really, really not have it for a while? Thanks.”
Flemish broadcaster VRT distanced itself from what it described as employee Demarez’s “state of affairs”.
“While broadcasting a tribute to the returned Olympic medalists this afternoon via Sporza’s Facebook Live channel, sports journalist Eddy Demarez made an inappropriate comment about the Belgian Cats,” it said in a statement.
“The VRT management takes this delay seriously. This goes completely against the positive policy that the VRT wants to pursue.
“The VRT will talk to Eddy and, in the meantime, he will no longer comment on programs. Such statements cannot be tolerated. In the coming weeks, it will be examined whether and how Demarez can resume work.”
Demarez issued a grovelling response in the same press release. “In the euphoria after the honoring of the returned medalists, I made statements in a private conversation away from the studio that seriously crossed the line,” the 53-year-old confessed.
“I never intended to offend anyone on the basis of gender or orientation. It is doubly unfortunate that these statements are a stain on the Games that were very successful for Team Belgium and [sports arm] Sporza.
“I would therefore like to sincerely apologize to the Belgian Cats and their team and also to anyone who feels offended, addressed or neglected by this.
“I have asked the Belgian Cats to personally send them my apologies. I will draw the necessary lessons from this and ensure that this does not happen again in the future.”
Governing body Basketball Belgium issued a lengthy reply, calling the fiasco “shameful” and adding that Sporza had immediately contacted team General Manager Koen Umans to apologize.
“The entire basketball community – and, by extension the sports world – was confronted yesterday with the particularly hurtful statements made by [Demarez],” it said, adding that Demarez had requested the chance to personally speak to the team via video.
“The journalist was apparently unaware that his microphone was still on. Mr Demarez’s statements about our Olympic athletes are unacceptable. These are not only very offensive to The Belgian Cats, but also to a much wider audience.
“His words touch everyone who is the object of discrimination – not only in sport, but also beyond. Discrimination and mental well-being are two themes that deserve special attention in the sports world.
“Every day, we notice that there is still a lot of margin for improvement. Basketball Belgium therefore considers together with the players whether further legal action is necessary.
“The question is whether someone with such opinions can still credibly act as a presenter and figurehead of our public broadcaster. We are convinced that the answer is no, and we therefore urgently request that Mr Demarez resign as a journalist and, if he refuses , that the VRT terminate his employment contract.
“The proposal to apologize to The Cats via a zoom call was not accepted. In the first place, that is because the players have just returned from one of the biggest moments of their career, which they all wanted to process with family and friends before most of the Cats go abroad again. Our players don’t want to waste this time on Mr Demarez.
“Secondly, the players just don’t think this is enough and they don’t like it. Moreover, the issues mentioned do not only affect the team and our players, but are shameful and stigmatizing towards all people who feel targeted by this, and in particular players and athletes.”
The organization pointed to Meesseman’s role as the “figurehead” of the Cats and the initiator of a project set up by leaders to raise awareness among young people about issues including gender equality, homophobia and racism.
It said that community work is the “DNA” of the project, emphasizing that Meesseman “does not see a project on gender equality and anti-racism as a one-off action” and is determined alongside the team to create “an inclusive basketball world where everyone is accepted as equal.”
Meesseman said: “Physically, but especially mentally, we were empty when we arrived in [municipality] Zaventem. Mr Demarez ‘s disrespectful and hurtful words were a heavy blow that we just can’t handle right now and that will be a stain on our career peak for a long time to come.
“Fortunately, we are strong together as a team and fans. This is one of many examples of why we will continue to be committed to equality.
“The new generation is coming, with the right values and with respect for each other.”
Jan Van Lantschoot, the President of Basketball Belgium, offered his “full support” on behalf of directors, members and supporters of the team.
“Obviously, the entire basketball community feels shaken in its integrity by this statement,” he said.
“We stand behind our team 100 percent and, in particular, behind the players as people. We are very proud of them, of their performance on the field and of their unwavering social commitment.”
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