January 15, 2014

A sportsman's naivety is part of his magic

The media wants constant access to players, and insights and honesty from them, but this desire can only cheapen the experience of sport

Indulge me a splash of global economics before we get to the serious question of cricket. My theme is the imbalance between inflated surface value and underlying reality - and how that imbalance can have serious long-term consequences.

In 2006 the measured economic output of the world was $47 trillion. In the same year, the total market capitalisation of the world's stock markets was $51 trillion - 10% larger. And the amount of derivatives outstanding was $473 trillion, more than ten times larger. In other words, the spin-off industry - finance - that is derived from the actual economy had become ten times bigger than the underlying economy itself.

"Planet Finance," in Niall Ferguson's phrase, "dwarfed Planet Earth." With size, clout followed, as finance established a hold over government and policy. The financial services industry, once a utility that sustained other industries, had learned to serve itself instead. We know how that story developed: crash, crisis, recession.

A similar trend is happening to the relationship between sport - real sport - and the sports media. The sports media, which once served sport by bringing it to a wider audience, has become the master of that relationship. Sport now addresses the question of how it must serve the media far more often than the media asks how it might serve sport.

I am arguing, to a degree, against my own interests. Part of my living is derived from sports broadcasting and sports-writing - this column, for example. But I hope I am close enough to my playing days, and sufficiently detached from the whole scene, to observe independently how sport is evolving.

Here are some concerns I have about the relationship between the media and sport. First, there is an assumption - no, an imperative - that sportsmen will be at the beck and call of broadcasters and print media. Secondly, this hunger for access and "personal insights", far from settling at an appropriate level, increases voraciously. When television cameras are allowed into the dressing room, it is only a matter of time, surely, before they begin following athletes into the bathroom. Thirdly, sportsmen are constantly called upon to explain what they do, as though the creative art of self-expression through sport follows a road map that can be fished out of a pocket and draped onto the screen. Fourthly, the familiar clichés that athletes fall back on in interviews are subsequently held against them, the classic "gotcha" approach of people who imagine that is how "tough" journalism operates. Fifthly, all this is sustained by a big lie: that when athletes reveal themselves constantly they become personally popular and the game is enhanced as a whole.

I challenge all of those assumptions. At the very least, I think that the balance has swung too far (though it will surely swing further still). Let me take each of my concerns in turn.

The expectation that players should be interviewed immediately before, after and now even during the match, is absurd. I thought we had reached the nadir with professional tennis' pre-match interview in the corridor on the way out to court. If you are fortunate enough not to have seen one, let me summarise pretty much every exchange: "Really looking forward to the match, he's a good player, but I'm just thinking about my own game right now." But, inevitably, T20 cricket easily plumbed new depths by attaching microphones to players when they are in the heat of battle. At this point cricket veers away from legitimate sport and approaches a circus act. To administrators and broadcasters who say, "But look how many Facebook 'likes' it inspired", my response is that wrestlers/actors in faked American wrestling get a lot of social-media attention, too. I am safe, I trust, in assuming that cricket does not aspire to become the new wrestling?

There is a demand for "insights" about what it feels like to be out on the field. Imagine the reaction if they admitted the truth - that they sometimes feel bored, scared, lonely and unmotivated?

The vast scale of the sports media has the effect of hardening rumour into historical truth. Since rejoining the sports world as a commentator, I have noticed how a scrap of gossip can be passed around behind the scenes until it reaches the status of an established fact. I've also watched how a few strong voices in the media - especially legendary players - have the power to make or break careers that are hanging in the balance.

Meanwhile, the content of the actual historical record - the ubiquitous athlete interview - is often criticised as bland and clichéd. That is understandable. I certainly switch off when losing captains, after each defeat, promise to "work harder". (As an aside, an athlete's ambition should not be to work harder, but to work optimally hard - after that point, more work becomes counter-productive, a failure of nerve.) But the wider issue is that clichés evolve for a very good reason. They are a form a self-protection. There is a demand for "insights" about what it feels like to be out on the field, insights which athletes quite rightly are very reluctant to offer. Imagine the reaction if they admitted the truth - that they sometimes feel bored, scared, lonely and unmotivated? And that is not a criticism - the same emotions are felt by elite performers in the arts and indeed in all businesses. No wonder they prefer to stick with the usual clichés. It is a compromise position for everyone involved.

But there is a cost in recycling half-truths and untruths, however understandable they might be. It tampers with a sportsman's deepest need: to play with authenticity and naturalness. DH Lawrence was not a noted sportswriter. But one of his aphorisms, in Studies in Classic American Literature, captures a central truth about sport.

"An artist is usually a damned liar," he argued, "but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth." Now change the word "artist" for the word "sportsman": "A sportsman is usually a damned liar, but his sport, if it is real sport, will tell you the truth."

We should not blame sportsmen for using clichés to evade the truth. Sportsmen are an adaptive bunch, quick on their feet, and they have learnt to say things that appease the media, while trying to protect their true feelings from the spotlight. A sportsman, like the artist, seeks authenticity. Being forced to analyse his work in public makes that search for authenticity much harder. "If I could say what a painting meant," as Edward Hopper said, "then I couldn't paint it."

The same applies to sport. Sport is not all about the execution of a pre-arranged plan. There must always be room for instinctiveness, space for your true voice to emerge. Being able precisely and truthfully to answer the question "How will/did you approach the game?" is not a sign of strength or preparedness. It is a symptom of over-prescriptive narrowness.

One day, I hope, we will accept that sportsmen do not always know what they feel. And that their naivety is part of their magic. As Matthew Arnold wrote in this untitled poem:

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel - below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel - there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on January 17, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    Ed - Spot on! In his book "The Great Degeneration", Niall Ferguson writes: "We are living through a crisis of the institutions that were keys to our previous success ... as a civilization". While his focus is on "Planet Finance", his warning applies to threatened institutions like the media & civil society as well. Which makes Ed's well-laid concerns about the decay in the media-sports relationship a valid argument. Take the News of the World (NoW) tabloid. The expose of the spot-fixing scandal in 2010 by undercover NoW reporters shook the cricketing world: guilty players were sent to jail. While all this was playing out, NoW itself was the object of a much bigger "gotcha" investigation by British authorities. Engulfed in a huge phone-hacking, bribery & corruption scandal, NoW had to be shut down after 168 years of operation! At its dead centre is media tycoon Rupert Murdoch & his News Corp media empire! It has shaken up Britain's power structure, leading to a crisis of faith!

  • Jay on January 17, 2014, 4:02 GMT

    Yes, the media-sports balance has swung toward a disproportionate concentration of power in the media. In the reporters' ruthless pursuit of scoops, the privacy of sportsmen is compromised. Yes, such an imbalance can have serious consequences. Look at the countless celebrities, public figures & citizens who were harshly victimised by the NoW tabloid misadventures. A judge-led public inquiry blamed it squarely on the "culture, practices and ethics of the press". Murdoch admitted to a cover-up, was reprimanded by a parliamentary committee. Over 40 people - senior editors, journalists, public officials, etc - have been arrested or charged. It's not over yet. These are hard lessons cricketers must heed in media interviews: no harm in "using cliches to evade the truth". So what if sports fans are turned off & turn it off? Use the remote or "unlike" button. A boycott might even neutralise the media & restore the balance. Yes: "A sportsman's naivety is part of his magic" indeed, Ed!

  • Nicholas on January 17, 2014, 3:00 GMT

    No player speaking to the Media, tells the truth any more. I remember the Golfing legend Arnold Palmer being interviewed. Palmer was known for his attacking style and dislike of practice. The reporter asked: 'What advice would you give to a young player...?' The great man thought for a few moments, and said: 'Thrash it, Find it ... then Thrash it again'!!

  • David on January 16, 2014, 23:46 GMT

    It's interesting that David Warner, discussing Trott after the first test, got in such trouble for saying what he actually thought. (I suspect England got so upset with Warner because half of their team probably privately agreed with him, and felt guilty about it.) Warner's response was basically - OK, I have taken advice and in future I will talk in meaningless cliches. I agree with Ed's basic point - cricket players are good at playing cricket, and that's what I want to see them do, I don't care if they're interviewed or not. If I want to hear a speech I'll listen to Barack Obama or somebody.

  • Sean on January 16, 2014, 17:25 GMT

    Really enjoyed all of the points in this article and agree wholeheartedly with your premise. Your fear of the cameras entering the bedroom has unfortunately already occurred - the day after Australia won the fifth ashes test there was printed in the papers a full half page photo of Warner lying in bed with the urn (replica) sitting on the mantle above his head - I found the picture to be a little off.

  • Simon on January 16, 2014, 2:14 GMT

    Spot on Ed. There used to be a saying 'A picture is worth a thousand words'. Apparently having already viewed 6 hours of pictures we need a synopsis from the combatants. Inane questions answered with vague innocuous answers, none of which matter to your own interpretation of the actual event that you watched or will watch. It's a ridiculous circular arrangement between event organiser and media. If you want us to promote your event, you need to give us more access to allow us to increase our output, which will in turn promote your event more. That'd be fine, but now in the 24/7 news cycle we have rabid journos trying to get an exclusive byline with intrusive questions which do not enhance anyones credibility, all mostly side stepped by banal answers. Apparently the brainwashing has had an effect because some public believe they deserve access to dressing rooms and insight into players personal lives, that they would believe intrusive if asked of themselves. Sad society!

  • Dummy4 on January 15, 2014, 23:46 GMT

    Great article. I think captains should prepare two speeches - one for a win and one for a loss. Once they've read out the same speeches at several post-match conferences in a row, the media might start to back off a bit.

  • Arun on January 15, 2014, 21:50 GMT

    @Nutcutlet: Nice try, but false equivalence. I playing cricket to entertain myself is not the same as I playing cricket for *someone else's* entertainment in return for remuneration. I don't think that's a particularly difficult concept to grasp, but let me belabour the point: Dolphins don't make a career in play, sing, dance to entertain their brethren, who then feed them in return said performance. I'm not arguing that art & entertainment is useless; those are your words. I'm arguing that professional or career entertainers do not produce something that's of utilitarian value (i.e. valuable to the free market). The market remunerates sportspersons for the viewership (i.e. potential customers) that their performance brings in, not for excellence in sport itself. And therefore, the sportsperson must defer to the needs of the market if he/she wishes to make millions. Constant media exposure is a necessary part of this to keep these viewers involved (and comment on such articles!)

  • Pratik on January 15, 2014, 20:21 GMT

    Great essay! It's ironic, in a sense, that you as a part of the media, are being honest to encourage players to do the same. I wonder what the broadcasters have to say about it though. Cricket boards aren't necessarily encouraging players to open up either; they fine players upon crossing 'the line'. Isn't that why they employ media managers? I suppose it's a system which works as per definition. The way it's defined on the other hand ....

    If you really want some honest press conferences, look no further than San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich. He hates them and doesn't hide that fact. I highly recommend looking him up on Youtube.