These are truly extraordinary times for sport, and for those of us in the media trying to cover the relentless news cycle it generates.
Since becoming the BBC’s Sports Editor in late 2014, a significant proportion of my time has been spent reporting on a variety of governance, corruption and doping scandals.
Increasingly political, commercial and (of course) legal, sport has regularly been brought into disrepute, and hence finds itself under more scrutiny from journalists than ever before.
At times of crisis, it is easy to regard the media as the enemy. But while it may be tempting to put up the blockades and remain silent, it has arguably never been more important for sports institutions to properly communicate. Sports leaders, once granted autonomy and trusted to self-govern, are no longer afforded such a privilege. The spectacular downfalls – to varying degrees – of athletes like Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius, and Tiger Woods, previously regarded as almost untouchable at the height of their fame and standing, have helped ensure that deference has been replaced with scepticism. Fans, sponsors, regulators and government are all more informed and expect transparency. Ticket sales, public funding, commercial deals and reputations are all at stake.
Last year, with a state-sponsored doping scandal intensifying, the Russian government granted me exclusive access to the infamous Moscow lab where the astonishing conspiracy had begun, also giving the BBC some time with the country’s under-fire Sports Minister. It did not prevent many Russian athletes being banned from the Rio Games, of course, but at least it demonstrated a degree of openness, and a willingness to answer some tough questions.
Similarly, tennis superstar Maria Sharapova’s carefully crafted admission on live television that she had failed a drugs test for Meldonium did not enable her to avoid a two year suspension, but she did seize the PR initiative and took early control of the narrative. Lucrative sponsorship contracts may have been preserved as a result.
While presiding over the FIFA corruption scandal, former President Sepp Blatter went into siege mode, refusing to engage with the media for months. By the time he did, it was way too late – the crisis had engulfed his organisation and he was forced to step down. Even some of FIFA’s sponsors, previously silent for so long, recognised the need to take a stand and speak out. Closer to home, Roy Hodgson was reluctant to front up to the media after England’s dismal defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, telling me and other journalists gathered at the team’s Chantilly base for the now-traditional post-mortem, “I don’t know what I’m doing here”.
His disappointment was understandable, but the manager came across as evasive and even a little disrespectful towards the many fans who had spent thousands of pounds supporting a failing team, and who wanted answers. When the FA parted company with his replacement Sam Allardyce after just one match in charge – following an undercover newspaper sting – the Chairman Greg Clarke made himself available to the media just hours after the news broke. This helped their reasoning and decisiveness was part of our coverage that evening. Alternatively, the FA were seen to be way too slow to properly respond to the shocking child sex abuse scandal that exploded a few months later.
But the choice of how to communicate is also important. When former rider Sir Bradley Wiggins first reacted to the controversy over his use of banned medication before major races, he spoke, not to a cycling reporter, or even a sports journalist, but to a political one: Andrew Marr. That may have ensured a slightly less forensic interrogation, but it also backfired, with some of the more technical questions not asked and therefore left unanswered. His second broadcast interview – months later, to “Soccer AM” – was even less productive.
“Some in sport seem to forget that journalists are not fans or commercial partners”
The influence of broadcast rights, an issue peculiar to sport, is another thorny issue. Too often, especially in football, it determines who enjoys access. More and more interviews seem to be conducted by in-house TV channels. Sometimes this is understandable. Control is retained, and with more and more clubs resembling media entertainment businesses, there is inevitably less dependency on outside platforms.
Perhaps all this explains why some in sport often seem to forget that journalists are not fans or commercial partners. That coverage cannot always be overwhelmingly positive, and that balanced, impartial reporting is a core part of the job. The Qatari organisers of the 2022 World Cup, for instance, may not like it but the media will – and must – continue to ask questions about promised reform of the country’s controversial labour laws. And welcoming such scrutiny – rather than withdrawing access to journalists who dare to cover such issues – can go a long way to convincing the world that progress is being made.
In terms of broadcast news, sport traditionally propped up the running orders of TV bulletins. The “and finally…” item. No longer. With London 2012 acting as something of a watershed, sport has gone mainstream. It now regularly provides the lead story for the BBC’s flagship News at Ten, something unheard of until relatively recently. And while scandal and intrigue sells of course, it is not just bad news that cuts through. TeamGB, ParalympicsGB, Wales at the Euros, Andy Murray, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, Leicester City: just a few examples of the recent British success stories that have generated remarkable levels of coverage, and provided the drama, escapism, and inspiration that make sport such a popular entertainment commodity. But in each of these cases, the media has been handled positively, honestly, and as a friend rather than a foe.
Social media now provides a platform for those in sport to develop their brands, tell their stories, and directly reach their fans. Sport sells. But this is about more than just money. American football star Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against racial oppression challenged the assumption that in an age of lucrative endorsements and anodyne interviews, athletes must remain neutral and somehow removed from society. Certainly, Donald Trump’s presidency may make more US sports stars feel like they need to reveal their opinions. Basketball star Steven Curry recently felt the need to make clear his disapproval of Trump’s policies after the CEO of his sponsor Under Armour praised the new President, sparking calls for a consumer boycott.
By having the courage to make public her fears that she had been the victim of sexism, cyclist Jess Varnish has raised some very important questions for the whole of British sport, forcing it to ask whether medals have been won at the expense of welfare. And at a time when the vast amounts of money in sports has meant clubs and athletes – and their communities – seem further apart than ever, the media is a crucial means of bridging that divide.
And yet there is still a reluctance – a nervousness to let the media get too close. Despite paying billions to secure live TV rights, Sky and BT can only imagine the kind of access to players and managers that their counterparts covering US sport enjoy. There, journalists are welcomed inside the locker-room to conduct interviews after each and every match, and the idea of banning reporters for writing critically would rarely be even considered.
Premier League supremo Richard Scudamore has admitted such a revolution is highly unlikely to happen in England, where clubs still retain a sense of paranoia around certain sections of the media, and prefer to keep it at arm’s length. One need only recall the surprise that met an exclusive interview the BBC conducted with Raheem Sterling in 2015 about his frustration at former club Liverpool FC. A footballer being this open and honest about how he feels is still regarded as a rarity.
Punditry and commentary may be an increasingly regular career move for sports stars once they hang up their boots, racket, or spikes. But the days when journalists and sports stars mixed socially and enjoyed a relationship of mutual trust and respect appear over. Sports and the media may need each other more than ever. But this special relationship still requires work.