Hayden Donnell spoke to the captain of New Zealand’s only gay rugby team – the NZ Falcons – about the worst 10 minutes of sports radio in history, and what the NZRU and the All Blacks can do to make things better.
On Monday, Mark Watson announced Controversy Corner is no more.
By all accounts, Radio Sport bosses decided to axe the segment after listening to the impossibly dense black hole of bad content we catalogued last week. In one sense it’s a victory. Watson and Kieran Smyth will no longer be tipping huge vats of word vomit like this one onto the airwaves.
In reality, it doesn’t mean much. Getting rid of a show like Controversy Corner removes one obnoxious rat from the dank caverns of sports media. It does little to solve a wider problem.
Smyth is gone, but Watson is still on-air for four hours every weeknight. Tony Veitch is a “content leader” across the NZME group, despite repeatedly minimising the extent of his domestic abuse – most recently in another non-apology run as part of a Herald anti-domestic violence series. Mark Reason continues to be “a happy sexist” at Stuff and the Dominion Post despite some “feministas” objecting to his column.
Those are just some of the more glaring on-air and in-print examples. The lack of diversity across the sector is more insidious and intractable. Sky Sports’ commentary teams are nearly always as white as an Arctic blizzard and as male as the first Ghostbusters. Pretty much everyone on Radio Sport is a middle-aged man. Most TV and newspaper staffs are slightly less monochrome, but not by much.
There are voices of dissent – Andrew Mulligan and Daniel McHardy were notable in the most recent saga. But things are slow to change. As one NZME journalist told me after the Controversy Corner saga, the real problem lies with management who “never” listened to Mark Watson’s show and failed to monitor the segment. “It’s been terrible and reckless for ages,” the source said. Importantly, our most prominent sportsmen continue to tacitly endorse people like Veitch and Watson, either by continuing to appear on their shows, or choosing to remain silent when they do offensive stuff.
LISTEN: On The Rag discusses Controversy Corner, sports media, and Tony Veitch (27 mins in)
With all that in mind, I sat down with Jeremy Brankin, captain of New Zealand’s only gay rugby team, the NZ Falcons. We covered Controversy Corner, what it’s like for gay people consuming sport media in New Zealand, and how the All Blacks and NZRU could do more to improve things.
Could you give me a little bit of your background and the background of the Falcons.
I’m Jeremy and I captain the Falcons and I’ve captained them since 2013.
That’s pretty near the start, isn’t it?
Yeah. The predecessors to the Falcons were the Ponsonby Heroes, which was around in the early 2000’s. That lasted for quite a few seasons and for whatever reason it ceased to exist. Some of the players who had been around then were keen to get another team going and that’s how the Falcons came about.
So I mean, you’re talking about your value of inclusiveness. You read my article about Mark Watson and Kieran Smyth. They’re using – Kieran in particular – “homos” as an insult. What do you think when you hear those kinds of things on the radio?
You almost have to take a second take to think “am I really hearing this in 2016?” Because so much progress has been made. You know, with gay marriage and in a whole lot of different areas and then you hear someone on a show that’s being heard nationally [making] those comments. You think “is it just that person or is it a representation of a larger group or way of thinking?”
Someone like Kieran Smyth, he’s said “oh well, you didn’t include the bit where I said I actually like gays because they go to my art gallery”. Can you explain to someone on that very basic level why using “homos” is confronting?
Using the word “homos” and just using it off the bat like that, “homos” historically is a very derogatory term and has derogatory connotations attached to it. I mean, you’d only have to look back at the 80s and basically that’s when “homos” was yelled at people trying to get gay reform passed. So once again I just say he needs to think about what he says for any of those sort of off-hand comments.
I mean, he’s a middle-class white male and I understand it’s very hard for him to stand in other people’s shoes, but he needs to try and do that and see things from other people’s views.
Do you listen to a lot of sports radio? And do you kind of sense that this kind of old-school element of homophobia does still run through some of the commentators?
Yeah I do listen to a bit of sport on the radio but I do watch rugby on TV and just the way they say things, I mean they may not be quite as blatant as what was said on Radio Sport but you still get that feeling or there’s just some off-hand comments so it’s very much a boy’s club that’s still there.
So when you listen to sports radio or embed yourself in sports media culture, do you kind of still feel faintly excluded or diminished at any time?
Yeah and it can be the comments, whether it’s sort of direct words or indirect. You feel like you’re kind of part of it but you’re not really, you’re just hanging on the side really. It’s not that inclusive and it’s not catering to… I mean it doesn’t need to cater purely to the queer community, but you don’t feel like you’re entirely part of it either, whether it’s watching on TV and you hear the commentators or just listening to sport, you kind of feel like you’re not completely included.
It’s wider than these guys though isn’t it? Rugby in New Zealand has a bigger issue with homophobia. In what ways do you experience that?
I mean, the question that some people [ask] is “when’s there going to be a gay All Black?” and there’s been, I can’t remember, well over a thousand…
Yeah! So of course there has been a gay All Black, and what I think will happen is just some young person who is comfortable with their sexuality, hopefully they’ll get there and instead of comments from the likes of these guys on the radio they’ll just come through, play some high-grade rugby and make it into the All Blacks and just be like “I’m gay”, as opposed to someone being “out”.
We’ve been lucky that we’ve had lots of support and you might have read about the Rugby Union and the other codes’ with ‘Sport Is For Everyone’.
You’ve got people like Steve Tew that are on board now.
Yeah, so when you hear comments like [Watson and Smyth’s] it’s pretty disheartening and you can imagine some young, gay person or some old gay person who is still dealing with their sexuality hearing those comments… and I mean, it wasn’t just one mean comment, it was a lot, and then there was the sexist comments, and the racist comments. It was pretty full-on.
With the NZRU, what kind of action to you want to see from them after this Controversy Corner flare-up?
Well, I mean the NZRU is our governing body. I’d love to see them say to Radio Sport “look, that’s unacceptable, we’re not going to let any of our players come on until something is done about this”.
That’s it! Why are the players always going on these shows?
And then you have people like Steve Hansen who’ll readily go on these shows or talk to other presenters who have done less than desirable things and they just keep endorsing it.
I mean, you’re right. This isn’t a Tony Veitch interview, but I can turn on Newstalk or Radio Sport just about any time on a Saturday or a Sunday and he’s there and it’s always a jam-packed lineup of big-name people.
Exactly! If these guys do interviews with these people, it kind of makes that link between the All Blacks and these presenters.
They’re essentially lending them their brand name.
Effectively the [NZRU] via The All Blacks are supporting those [presenters]. And then of course the other thing is like, all the people and the different sponsors of the radio station. It’d be nice if some of them said “hang on a minute, that’s not acceptable”. But for us, because the NZRU has started ‘Sport is for Everyone’, it’d be nice to see them take action [about Controversy Corner]. This is an action point for them yet they’ve been quiet. They haven’t said boo.
They just sit back and kind of – I think they hope that things will blow over for them. So was Support For Everyone just a PR show or something?
It’s one thing to say “Oh I’m supportive” but the test is “what happens when it costs”?
Yeah, exactly. You always hope it’s not [like that] but you always have that little cynical voice at the back of your mind you know, saying “is this just going to be a stunt for these sporting codes?” So we’d really like to see the NZRU take a stand. We’re trying to work with the NZRU on it, we’re not pushing them into things but they need to… they’ve got a lot of resources to take a stand.
And not just on this right, but on other issues too?
Yeah exactly. I mean, the brand of the All Blacks is one of the most powerful, one of the most recognised brands worldwide so the resources they have and the influence they can have are immense, not just in New Zealand but overseas. I think if the NZRU made a stand, that would reach quite wide audiences as opposed to just us on our own. That’s what we’d really like to see