The View from Professional Sports people on Sports Journalism

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Eamon Dunphy’s seminal book Only a Game?, first published in the mid- 1970s when he was a professional player in the English game, gives a clear insight into the ambiguous relationship that existed at that time between professional footballers and sports journalists.

Dunphy (1987) argued that players had double standards towards journalists. He suggests: ‘On the one hand they despise them, thinking they know nothing about the game. On the other hand, players are flattered by their attention.

Flattered by the idea that this guy has come along especially to write about them’ (Dunphy, 1987: 132-3). In this sense, despite the perceptions among sportswriters about the breakdown of trust being a contemporary issue, for Dunphy there has always been an element of mistrust between the people that play and the journalists who write about the game.

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His criticism of football journalists is implicitly related to levels of insight, knowledge and understanding.

As he argues: ‘Whereas theatre critics and film critics do know what the mechanics of a production are, most football writers don’t. So players tend to despise journalists. They don’t go into a story to discover but to substantiate preconceived ideas’ (Dunphy, 1987: 133-4).

Dunphy’s critique is interesting and raises issues about the extent to which he offers a snapshot of a relationship that has long changed, or has simple been updated to facilitate the drives of the contemporary media.

As a journalist, broadcaster and author Dunphy has been writing about sport for over 30 years. He is a former professional footballer who has successfully reinvented himself as a journalist, an author and a broadcaster working across newspapers, radio and television on a wide range of subjects from sport to politics.

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Dunphy has had trenchant views on the role and function of a sports journalist and has never shied away from expressing opinions in print or on air that have cut against the dominant journalistic consensus.

One such occasion was during the Republic of Ireland’s campaign at the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals in Italy, when his public criticism of the team’s style of play, at a time when the team was enjoying its most successful run in its history, provoked a storm of protest raged against him.

In particular, the then Irish football manager Jack Charlton refused to take questions from Dunphy at press conferences.

Recalling that period journalist and author Colm Toibin noted that as a colleague he had been requested by his newspaper editor back in Dublin to look after Dunphy when he was in Italy: ‘Ireland had fallen in love with Charlton.

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No journalist dared say anything against him. Only one did, and I was now his bodyguard’ (Toibin, 1995: 140).

The most telling line in Toibin’s account of the vilification experienced by Dunphy in the months and years after the tournament is when he notes that for all the hassle, Dunphy realised: ‘It’s what happens, he understood, when you speak your mind in a small country which has invented a new set of heroes’ (Toibin, 1996: 143). In many ways this characterises some of the core tensions at the centre of sports journalism and writing.

On one hand, as a journalist you face the challenge of telling the story as you find it and often have to resist the temptation to simply run with the ‘media pack’.

While on the other, you must recognise that at the cultural and commercial core of the sports industry is the process of mythmaking, with sports journalists absolutely a central element of that process.

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Sports journalism and journalists have also enjoyed cameo roles in nonfiction sports books written by novelists and journalists. Davies’s account (1990) of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy presents a less than flattering picture of the English football press pack abroad as they cover England’s campaign.

The level of disdain between players and press is clearly evident from the categorising of the press as ‘the rotters’, with particular contempt being reserved for those ‘news journalists’ sent to Italy by their papers to cover and/or seek out scandal or hooliganism stories involving players and fans.

As noted above, the relationship between football player and the press is a highly ambiguous one. Davies (1990) captures this relationship on the cusp of change, noting that the 1990s would see massive amounts of money flow into the game from television and related sponsorship, making millionaires out of the elite players in the sport.

This process has clearly taken place, altering the labour dynamics within the sport as well as the relationships players have with the media.

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No longer does media appearance money or the lure of a ghosted column in a national newspaper (once the staple diet of additional income for relatively poorly paid players) hold much appeal for players earning up to £100,000 a week.

Humphries (2003) brilliantly captures the impact of this new level of financial independence on the player-journalist relationship when he recalls his attempt to get an interview with the then Tottenham Hotspur and Republic of Ireland player Stephen Carr in the run-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

He writes: As individuals, if you can separate a player from the herd, there are some fine people among them.

A couple of the older guys, in particular are capable of holding real grown-up conversations.

In the main, though, when the players get together they radiate the surliness of supermodels that have just woken up to find acne all over their faces once asked Steve Carr, the Spurs fullback, if he had a few minutes to spare in order to do a short piece with me.

He turned around with almost theatrical slowness, looked me up and down and laughed, ‘No way pal’. Off he walked, shaking his head never met him or written about him before, but came away and bought a bell for around my neck and for weeks thereafter walked through the streets shouting ‘unclean, unclean, and unclean’.

From this exchange, one can perhaps assume that unlike many of his more cash-strapped professional predecessors, Carr does not plan a career in sports journalism when his playing days are over.

Lest we think it is only footballers who have this cynical relationship with journalists, Burns’s examination (1986) of the increasingly global television driven professional snooker circuit saw the sports journalists who covered the sport and the ‘stars’ associated with it, being nicknamed ‘the reptiles’ by the players.

The strained relationship between the sport and sections of the media intensified as the tabloid press attempted to run stories of scandal and sexual intrigue involving players who enjoyed a celebrity status bestowed on them through a combination of television coverage and tabloid interest.

These more aggressive forms of tabloid intrusion which began to intensify in the 1980s increasingly saw news journalists view sports and sportspeople as part of their natural beat and within their orbit of influence. At the core of much of the discursive writing about sports journalism tend to be a number of assumptions.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, given that these accounts are likely to come from the print media, there is a perception that it is the written word and newspapers specifically that remain the true home of sports journalism, rather than the journalism found in sports broadcasting.

When sports journalism is being discussed, the overarching frame of reference remains the sportswriter, with broadcasting and its historical connotations of impartiality being more associated with sports commentary and presentation.

We have seen how this process is clearly evident in many academic encounters with sports journalism and in the role, status and position of the sports journalist within the profession.

Differing attitudes towards the status of sports journalism in specific countries tell us much about the differing status of sport in particular national cultures and societies.

The ability of countries such as Spain, Italy and France to support long-term sports journalism publications and the particular status given to the sportswriter within US journalism all indicate the centrality of sport as a cultural form in helping to both shape and reflect wider national myths.

In the UK, more so than these countries, class has been an important marker in shaping the wider social and cultural parameters within which sports culture and its attendant sports media have evolved and developed.

As Coleman and Hornby writing in the mid-1990s has argued: Yet those who write about sport still create a whole set of problems for themselves in Britain, many of them relating, predictably, to the subject of class. Sport in Britain has all sorts of class associations apparently absent elsewhere in the world.

Cricket and (English, rather than Welsh) rugby union are ‘posh’ sports, played and watched by ‘posh’ people, and it is therefore acceptable to write in a ‘posh’ way about them; but anyone who dares to write about the more traditional working-class sports football or rugby league, say in a way which recognises the existence of polysyllabic words, or metaphors, or even ideas, is asking for trouble, or at the very least a great deal of suspicion.

Indeed, as Glanville (1999: 269) has suggested, football has ‘enraptured’ the middle classes elsewhere in both Europe and South America for decades. Broadly speaking, this argument could be extended more generally to sports reporting and writing.

Put simply, the class-based support for sports has been reflected in the way they have been covered, reported and made sense of by sports journalists and has also dictated this broader dichotomy between ‘quality’ and ‘popular’ journalism.

Thus sports such as cricket have a long literary tradition associated with both its print and its broadcast media coverage, with writers such as Neville Cardus embedding the sport in mythological images of England and Englishness.

Previous research by Boyle and Haynes (2000:176-86) has commented on the explosion in both the volume and the range of sports writing within the traditional ‘broadsheet’ print media market that became evident in the 1990s.

They identify how a combination of the changing print media marketplace, increased newspaper competition, broader cultural shifts in the social position of sport (and specifically football) and new technology helped facilitate the expansion in the sports sections of all the national broadsheets.

Rowe’s research (1999) highlighted one of the key contradictions evident from any examination of the sports journalism culture.

He noted: ‘it is also often the case that the economic power of the sports department (in terms of the large number and handsome remuneration of personnel; importance for circulation, ratings, advertising revenue and so on) is at variance with its cultural power (low professional reputation and esteem)’ (Rowe, 1999: 62).

Rowe also suggested that this was beginning to change in the late 1990s as the popularity and profile of sport across a range of media platforms increased.

One of the key issues this book examines is whether the broader economic and cultural shifts in sports journalism culture, driven by media interest, have fundamentally altered the situation outlined from the research carried ‘out by Rowe in the 1990s.

There is also a need to examine the extent to which the wider social, economic and indeed political factors that are reformulating journalistic practice (Sparks, 2000: 36) are being played out across the field of sports journalism.

If one agrees with Harcup (2004: 9) that at its basic core ‘Journalism is not simply fact-gathering.

It involves dealing with sources, selecting information and opinion, and telling stories all within the framework of constraints, routines, principles and practices’, and then to what extent do the wider cultural codes of journalism apply to sports journalism?

Rowe (1999: 38) has argued that it was the print rather than the broadcasting form of sports journalism that dominated this sector of the journalistic terrain, both in profile and in prominence.

To what extent has the explosion in broadcast media coverage of sport over the last decade or so altered this ecology? Or is much that passes for broadcast sports journalism more accurately labeled presentation, analysis and commentary?

One of the interesting areas of growth both on television and on radio is the rise of the sports news correspondent, a clear recognition of the wider shift in the news values associated with sport and its growing hinterland.

A key factor, often ignored by those academic critics of sports journalism, is the impact that the changing position of sports within society has had on the range of reporting of sports-related news.

For example, the economic and political profile that was given to the successful campaign by London in securing the 2012 Olympic Games was covered across the business, news and features pages of broadsheet/compact newspapers through to the back and front pages of the popular press.

Issues relating to the governance of sport and the politics associated with aspects of the industry have also become more prominent in recent years.

In other words, the ongoing commercialization and internationalization of the business of sport, its relationship with corporate capital and national and international media companies has resulted in those journalists who write about sport finding their traditional beat being encroached upon by business and political journalists or the broadcast ‘sports news’ correspondent.

As sportswriter Richard Williams (2003: 4) has noted: ‘The last few years in sport have been full of examples of philosophical questions overshadowing the business of straightforward games-playing.’

Closely linked with this process are the wider structural and cultural shifts that have seen elite sport increasingly located within the entertainment industries as money from television in particular has flowed into some sports, and the athletes in these areas have become stars.

While the concept of sports stardom and the extent to which the print media specifically are implicated in this process is not a new phenomenon within the sporting arena (Andrews and Jackson, 2001; Whannel, 2002; Smart, 2005), what is changed is its scale and the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the process; what Whannel (2002) has called the ‘vortextuality’ of media sports stardom.

To this end the rise of sport public relations and the formalising of access and relationships between sports stars, clubs and various media outlets have become a significant aspect of the landscape of sports journalism in the 21st century.

Informed and underpinned by the seemingly relentless commercialization of popular cultural activity, sport has found itself at the intersection of new media technologies allowing greater exploitation of image rights and a massively expanded, highly competitive print and broadcast media sector keen to secure differing forms of sports content as they chase readers, viewers and listeners in a complex media marketplace.

As we see throughout this book, at this centre of this maelstrom, being buffeted by a range of forces is sports journalism and sports journalists, some of whom feel they no longer recognise the games they have made a living reporting on, or indeed the profession they originally fell in love with.

So, what are the processes at work that are reformulating what sports journalism is, and who sports journalists are?

In this respect the book aims to identify and map out the combination of internal pressures that are occurring within media organisations as journalism adapts to both the changing patterns and expectations among media consumers and the wider structural economic and cultural shifts in what now can be called the sports economy.

Other concerns also addressed include asking to what extent has the growth of the online sector impacted on the traditional sports print media.

What is also clear is that any book about sports journalism must be at least as interested in the wider political economy of both the sports and the media industries that have shaped and reshaped the profession since its inception.

So it is these concerns, allied with a desire to understand the contemporary professional ideologies and production constraints that shape sports journalism, that are at the core of this book.

In previous work, Boyle and Haynes (2000: 174-6) have examined Rowe’s typology of modes of sports writing (1992), which he categorised as hard news, soft news, orthodox rhetoric and reflexive analysis.

These ways of thinking about the modes of address found within print media sports journalism are important in helping to make sense of the vast outpouring of sports copy.

What is of particular interest in this book is the extent to which the volume of material within these categories is shifting or changing.

In other words, at one end of the axis hard news, with its focus on a supposedly objective description of events and score lines, remains a staple part of the sports pages (although Blain and O’Donnell (1998) argue that the UK newspaper market is so saturated with politics that even this aspect of sports journalism is far from ideologically neutral).

While soft news, with its fixation on speculation, comment and the centrality of stars and the star system in sports culture, continues to be the main staple diet of the tabloid sports section.

At the other end of the axis is reflexive analysis, which places sport and the sports journalist at the centre of wider political, economic and cultural factors and influences, and is traditionally most likely to appear either outside of the sports pages or in small doses in the broadsheet press.

Against the wider structural shifts in both the sports and the media industries has the balance of material within these categories altered or shifted in emphasis?

Sports journalism is a form of journalism that reports on sports topics and events. While the sports department within some newspapers has been mockingly called the toy department, because sports journalists do not concern themselves with the ‘serious’ topics covered by the news desk, sports coverage has grown in importance as sport has grown in wealth, power and influence.

Sports journalism is an essential element of any news media organization. Sports journalism includes organizations devoted entirely to sports reporting newspapers such as L’Equipe in France, La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, Marca in Spain, and the now defunct Sporting Life in Britain.

American magazines such as Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News, all-sports talk radio stations, and television networks such as Euro sport, ESPN and The Sports Network (TSN).

Sports teams are not always very accommodating to journalists: in the United States, while they allow reporters into locker rooms for interviews and some extra information, sports teams provide extensive information support, even if reporting it is unfavorable to them.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in the coverage of soccer, the journalist’s role is often barely tolerated by the clubs and players.

For example, despite contractual media requirements in the English Premier League, prominent managers Sir Alex Ferguson (of Manchester United) and Harry Redknapp (first at Portsmouth, now at Tottenham) have refused to conduct post-match interviews with the BBC because of unfavorable coverage by the television channel’s news department.

Sports journalists ought to be like reporters on other news beats, in that they must find the story, rather than simply relying on press releases and prepared statements from the sports team, coaching staff, or players.

Sports journalists verify facts given to them by the athletes, teams, leagues, or organizations they are covering.

Access for sports journalists is usually easier for North American professional and intercollegiate sports such as football, ice hockey, basketball and baseball where the commercial relationship between media coverage and increased ticket, merchandise, or advertising sales, is better understood.

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