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Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Dragon and Saint George: is the media killing sport?

Will Pearson

The word “exclusive” is one riddled with complexities:
When used as a noun by the media, the traditional association is that of sordid, cheap gossip columns and the garish front pages of tabloid papers, perhaps detailing the latest political scandal or the misdoings of a Hollywood regular.  In its voracity for scandal, certain spheres of the media have evolved into a money-spinning, fire-breathing monstrosity of almost mythical proportions. 
Increasingly, this ‘tricky’ word, exclusive, is now attached to stories of luminaries in the sporting world – the Georges to our Dragon in this modern fairy-tale en noir.
Such is the level of celebrity now attained by men and women at the peak of physical and athletic pursuits, their respective stars burn as brightly and far-afield as any politician or renowned actor.  The degree of global media attention on the private lives of sportsmen, and the universal interest that their stories now command, has never been so pronounced as in the past twelve months.
When the world’s number one golfer, Tiger Woods, crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant close to his Florida family-home on Thanksgiving last year, the volume of international coverage of both the incident, and the damaging revelations which subsequently unravelled, was both monumental and unparalleled in its breadth. 
This was a story – about a sportsman – which no longer just occupied the back pages of the papers, nor merely the front page either, but near-as-dammit filled every other page in between.  This was a story which transcended media platforms – dominating all forms of print, television, the airwaves, and every online outlet imaginable; this was near-total blanket-exposure on a scale previously unimaginable for an athlete.  And for sport’s first billionaire, that is truly saying something.
For Woods it was undoubtedly a PR disaster.  For a man that had built such a vast and all-encompassing empire based on the sturdy foundations of privacy and familial principles, it not only rocked his home-life but also shook the very core of what had propelled him to fame in the first place: his golf.   In the fallout, and in the wake of numerous sponsorship losses, Woods admitted to “transgressions” and decided to take an indefinite hiatus from golf in December 2009. 
Whilst Woods’ actions could never be condoned or pardoned, the media furore raised questions about both the privacy rights and the moral statûs of high-profile sportsmen; should – as is frequently mooted – sportsmen in fact be considered satisfactory role-models in the first place?  It is obvious and expected that young people will aspire to attain the athletic peaks achieved by men like Tiger Woods, but is it also necessary for them to be a good person into the bargain?  Anyway, surely parents (and the media) everywhere should be sourcing more palpable targets for garnering a right-and-true moral compass than those of a man who hits a little white ball around a field. 
Many would suggest that sportsmen have an obligation, as soon as they turn professional, to offer a good example; that they should accept their personal lives will be played out in full view of the public eye, just as long as they are banking large sums of money for their troubles.
But what of the effect on Tiger’s sporting talent?  After the media uproar, and after twenty weeks break from golf, Woods returned to the sport at the 2010 Masters in April only to complete a season scattered with some of his worst-ever rounds and tournament finishes, and with no PGA Tour win – the first barren season of his fourteen-year professional career.  Whilst it will be cited that Woods inflicted the original problems on himself, shouldn’t we – in some ways – be protecting a talent as prodigious as Tiger’s; selfish as it is, shouldn’t we attempt to preserve his genius for our own sporting pleasure as long as is physically possible? 
Though it would be foolhardy to jump aboard the “Tiger’s-never-going-to-win-another-major” bandwagon which has been gaining impetus in some sections of the press, it is very possible that Woods might never again return to the golfing heights he attained in the years before his media-driven slaughter.  And as a sports fan, is that not a great shame?    
Since the turn of the year, there have been numerous more accounts detailing the philandering of the world’s prized sportsmen – usually exacerbated by the oily, fuel-guzzling engine room which is the tabloid press.
Snooker’s number one, John Higgins, was accused earlier this year of match-fixing after another News of the World set up; despite being cleared in a recent tribunal the Scotsman will struggle to shake off the stain rendered on his reputation by the charade.  And with his deteriorated esteem, the chances of returning to his former glory-days have also dimmed considerably.
 Just months before the start of the world cup the very same papers which insisted on exclaiming in articles laced with hyperbole that “This was our year”, published allegations against the then captain of the England football team, John Terry.  This damning exposé about the personal life of the team’s captain only served in further cranking the already-taut noose of pressure around the squad – and Capello’s – neck; the revelations about Terry’s private life, and the consequent unease which perpetuated around the team, perhaps contributed towards the limp displays in South Africa.
Wayne Rooney, having last term completed the most successful season of his career, scoring 34 goals, is now also struggling to regain his best form after the News of the World published stories linking him to a number of prostitutes.  How much of Rooney’s recent on-the-field mediocrity has also stemmed from the immense build-up afforded him by the press in the run-up to the world cup, and the resultant criticism he received when his performances paled?  Often – and rightly – touted as not only a great hope of English football, but also a world-class striker, does it not seem sad – to an impartial fan of sports – that his talent is being obscured by the circulation-enhancing approaches of some sections of our own national media? 
There would seem to be no brighter future in prospect for the sportsmen seeking to keep their private-lives clandestine; reports published in The Times this week suggest measures are being taken to curb the securing of media super-injunctions which have been used in the past to illegalise the printing of specific stories.  In January, John Terry notoriously had his plea for a super-injunction overturned on the grounds that Mr Justice Tugendhat believed the application to be more concerned with the impact the allegations would have on Terry’s sponsorship deals, rather than as an affront on his privacy.
And therein lies the rub: money.  Would the News of the World have bothered setting up stings on Pakistan cricketers or publishing pictures of Ricky Hatton ostensibly snorting cocaine, if they thought that no one was going to pay to read it? 
The fact of the matter is that many people adore nothing more than the very public lynching of a well-known individual; they revel in the juicy allegations, they relish the scandals to a degree verging on cannibalism; they delight in the rise-and-fall of past heroes – in effect they are witnessing the Dragon this time slaughtering George.
It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to suggest that the majority of the general public that buy into the coverage are not even sports fans.  Is their hungering for the next piece of gossip belittling top-class sport?     
 News of the World sports editor, Paul McCarthy, was asked on Sky Sports News whether his paper actually liked sport: he gushed about “loving sport”, and “outing” the bad-men poisoning it.  Whilst McCarthy might wish to portray their efforts as a moral crusade, the notion is entirely hypocritical; his paper hardly has the best track-record of morality itself.
Money is both the cause and the consequence in this issue.  Perhaps Terry was looking to protect his lucrative sponsorship deals; perhaps Tiger Woods’ millions made him lose sight of his family values.  Indisputably the abilities of various sporting greats are being driven down by the hunger of the public for scandal, and the media’s happiness to provide them with it.
And so, to “exclusive”- the adjective: elite, special, private? 
As true sports fans, we don’t care about “indiscretions”, we have no interest in the private lives of the protagonists – we simply want to maintain and sustain the elite of our sportsmen and the talents they have bestowed on us.  What we hunger for is more moments like that Tiger Woods chip: moments that thrill the soul and invigorate the senses, moments provided by special sportsmen.    
In this modern legend, though, Saint George – perhaps having had his head turned by the glamorous Princess – momentarily neglected his otherwise-knightly and laudable duties, thus allowing the Dragon to steal in to commit a merciless kill.  The Dragon returned to the village with George’s ravaged corpse in tow, whereupon the people set upon their former hero, feasting hungrily on the very-human skin and bones of his exposed flesh.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Carefully does it, or does it?

Henry Salmon

For two weeks now I have been slowly compiling and editing my first article for this blog. Whilst my style is not as naturally verbose as Msr. W.R. Pearson, I have felt it my duty to maintain the high standard of literary ingenuity that he attained. It may therefore come as a shock for me to say that this morning (18/09/10), one day before my blog is posted, I have scrapped my original work and started afresh. The previous has been saved for a barren period of interest, perhaps sometime in February, but a far more pressing issue needs my attention. This issue is the England one-day team selection (50 overs not T20). Apologies to non-cricket fans who were eagerly awaiting some sort of witty reminiscences from my afternoons as an inmate in Selhurst Park but bear with me – it's worthwhile.

It is easy to criticize a side that has just lost, as England did Friday, but the result wasn't what bothered me. The selections all summer have worried me. There is an ethos within the whole England set-up that demands “multi-faceted” cricketers of peak physical and mental fitness. Anyone found wanting in any of the areas must alter themselves in that respect before returning to the fold. This irks me on two levels.

Firstly, by insisting on all of the above, the England selectors miss out on some of the best talent available. Adaptability and all-round steadiness is valued higher than great talent. This mentality not only limits England's abilities as a team and, it is detrimental to the sport as a spectacle. Yardy, Wright and Bresnan all featured Friday whilst players such as Key, Patel, Pietersen, Shahzad, Sidebottom, Cook, Panesar and Bell were left on the sidelines.

On Thursday I was fortunate enough to see one of the best compiled and least selfish innings one could ever care to see, in Nottinghamshire's successful bid to win the county championship. Samit Patel scored 96 from 91 balls, at a time when his team desperately needed to get the run rate up to stand a chance of getting enough bonus points. He got out trying to hit boundaries, rather than scraping his way to 100. During the commentary, Paul Allot said “The rules of engagement from England are that you have to attain a certain level of fitness before we consider you for selection and that's that. If Samit Patel isn't prepared to buy into that work ethic or fitness ethic then he just doesn't get selected.” Patel is fit to bat and bowl his spin. He is also remarkably quick in the field for a member of the well-lunched gentry. He is eminently more talented and exciting to watch than Michael Yardy (to make a direct comparison) but does not get selected because he is perceived to be unfit. A distinction needs to be drawn between being fit to do your job, and looking fit.

This brings me neatly onto point number two. The England staff use this ethos as a positive and unquestionable force for good. Really it shows negativity. I still feel that your batsmen should bat and your bowlers should bowl. Anything else is a bonus. “Bits and Pieces” players such as the three aforementioned gentlemen are selected for the worst scenarios. England claim to “bat deep” and have “options in the bowling department.” Really this just means that the front-line bowlers aren't being backed to take enough wickets and the top order batsmen aren't being backed to score enough runs. I would rather see England have faith in the ability of the players at their disposal. Pick the five best batsmen, the best keeper-batsman, the best all rounder, and the four best bowlers. Once selected work on their weaknesses but they will win more games and play more exciting cricket.

Now you may point to England's recent good record in all forms of one-day cricket to disarm me. But I am here to predict, to foresee. We will struggle at next year’s World Cup because our ODI selection has been affected by the inherent negativity of T20 cricket. The bits and pieces style is perfect and England’s ability to squeeze runs out of the game in all areas of T20 is truly admirable. In 50 over cricket, the winning record is shallow. Since winning in South Africa last year, we lost our first ever game against Bangladesh, won three games against a rusty jet-lagged Aus before getting trounced when they found their feet, and lost against a hugely weakened Pakistan side after only scraping the second game. The negativity that has slipped in is denying the quality players needed to win the world cup the chance to gain valuable experience. To challenge the best teams consistently and dominate world cricket, the same trust must be put in England’s greatest talents as was put into the Australian team of the 90s and West Indian team of the 80s.

England haven’t lost a 50 over one day series for well over a year. You might say I’m being pessimistic. Don’t be fooled. Come back to me in 12 months time and we will discuss things then, and anyway, as Will so wonderfully reminded us, sport creates debate – debate away.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Cantona, Cork, Caddick, and Campsites: Sporting Memories

Will Pearson

My passion for sport began long before my episodic memory began to store moments of a special disposition.  
I was – though recollection of the momentous, life altering occasion now eludes me – present at my first Manchester United game at Old Trafford in March 1993.  My seven-year-old self was privy to a palatable nil-nil draw with Arsenal that preceded the seven-game winning streak which would take Cantona and co. to a ten-point lead over Aston Villa, thus crowning United champions in the Premier League’s inaugural season.  It is fitting that the generation-spanning family advocacy of the Red Devils was passed on to my brothers and me in a season of such significance in the history of the club, the title returning to Sir Matt Busby Way for the first time in twenty-six years. 
Reminiscences of my childhood camping holidays to northern France are frequently coloured by international test match cricket; we would insistently attempt to tune into Radio 4 LW in the hope of catching Henry Blofeld – when not remarking on superfluous details like red buses or wood-pigeons – covering England’s trials and tribulations in his own inimitable way.  At the age of 9, I can recall imbibing Dominic Cork’s sensational hat-trick against the West Indies in 1995; Australia being skittled for 118 in 1997; and Caddick’s four-wicket over in 2000. That these most vivid and happy of sporting memories occurred to the incongruous backdrop of the most uncricketing nation on Earth – France – is merely an odd footnote.
My own sporting zenith came, rather more annoyingly, at the tender age of 14; having spent years playing local football and cricket week-in-week-out I reached the dizzy heights of the Cheshire county cricket excellence academy and football trials for Stockport – feats which would, unfortunately for my heady sporting ambitions, never be surpassed.  I have, however, since my competitive apogee, soldiered on regardless in my distinctly amateurish sporting pursuits – still regularly playing football, cricket, a bit of golf (badly), and the odd frame of snooker.  The standard might perhaps be lower than I would have wished as a boy, but the immense enjoyment remains unaltered.      
I am, nevertheless, a much more established armchair critic of most sports – mainly of the afore-mentioned pursuits.  Having grown up surrounded by a family of journalists (including a golf writer) news and sports literature has always been compulsory reading.  I find fascinating the relationship between the media and sport; there is a strange bond which becomes (unsurprisingly) soured during periods of unrest, controversy, and defeat and yet (even less surprisingly) blossoms into a rose-tinted-Hollywood-super-romance in times of success.
Regardless, it is often pure theatre: without sport would we have ever been party to incomparable Mourinho quotes like, “Sometimes you see beautiful people with no brains. Sometimes you have ugly people who are intelligent, like scientists.”  Who would guess he was merely discussing the state of the Stamford Bridge pitch.
Sport is ultimately a very animalistic action, both in its actual contenders and its affiliates, and in the perfunctory, massed ideologies of the supporters who follow it; it is the people, their stories, and their own sporting heritages that truly cement our obsession.  The Corks, the Blofelds, the Mourinhos, the roar of the Stretford End; it is the people of sport that surely decree it as the most complete allegory for human nature.  
And I absolutely love it.     


Hello and welcome aboard the good ship Tees, Tackles, and Tons.

For a fair while now, myself – Mr Will Pearson – and my good friend-cum-respected-colleague Mr Henry Salmon, have considered dipping a tentative toe into the world of blogging. Originally planning solo ventures we had the brainwave to amalgamate our efforts instead, combining to create a no-holds-barred Sports Super-Blog. Our “blog of two halves” is an antidote to the world of regular sports punditry.

We shall endeavour to produce regular – and usually alternate – individual pieces on a broad compass of sporting topics, presented in varying degrees of seriousness/silliness. The content of our blogs will range from features on current sports events and news; research-led sporting studies; and anecdotal pieces on our own sporting memories. Our individual efforts will also be supplemented by duodecannual (or monthly for philistines) extended articles on which we will collaborate to produce a unique take on sporting events. You will also be able to follow the most current/interesting of sporting news/events via our twitter ( which we shall aim to update at a verging-on-annoying rate.

Regardless, the common link between the content shall be the immutable love we share for all sport – from football, cricket, golf, to Man Versus Horse. The hope is that via this blog we might offer some modicum of comment on an assortment of multi-sport stories from a Pearson/Salmon view-point; alternatively one might suggest it merely presents us with the opportunity to talk/think/dream about sport more than we do so already.

And that’s fine by us.