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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.

1 comment:

  1. As with all forms of mainstream media these days, the dominant motive has stopped being anything other than profit and its no longer cynical to say so.

    Newspapers omit stories because they do not fit in with the interests of their investors and advertisers. Writers are told what to write and how to write it.

    Last night I met an editor for Bloomberg (ok its not sport) but she informed me to my horror that on top of all the guidelines and procedures about what to write and how to write it, they had an extensive list of banned words, which each writer would include at their peril.

    Just as sports stars are built up by big companies and the media in order that they can endorse the products we are quick to consume (£££££), their downfall can also be enjoyed by other companies who will profit from their destruction.

    As with most things, professional sport is now a business, and however we might like to pretend otherwise, it will always be tainted by the vast amounts of money involved.