In a world where players have unfettered access to fans through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it raises the question of whether traditional media still has a role to play. But as Scotty Stevenson explains, a player-driven model powered by social media can only go so far.
Among the many weird and wonderful tales of the late Gordon Hunter was the story often told about him taking his own tape recorder to press conferences and media interviews. Most rugby fans know him as a fine rugby coach, but he was a detective, too; a man with one good eye for bullshit and two good nostrils for sniffing it out. You can’t spend a life fighting crime and not have trust issues. He didn’t trust the media to accurately report the things he said. He kept evidence, just in case they got it wrong. A pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.
Mistrust of the media is nothing new in the sporting world. The frustrated coach refusing to answer questions about selections and tactics or the athlete, scarred by defeat and dreading Monday’s team review, silently seething at Sunday’s three column inches of criticism are well-trodden tropes of the professional sports landscape. Sportswriters have been banned from the clubhouse, shut out of the scrum, denied access to the players and punched in the eye. Organisations have long used access as leverage. Implicit in this tactic is the adolescent threat: write anything we don’t like and you’re out of the club. No interview for you, mate.
It was just how the game was played. And like all games, it was a contest. And like all contests, it required people to take sides. Except, it was never that simple. More often than not the sportswriter and the sportsperson were on the same side, until they weren’t. But how could anyone ever be sure? The easiest and most convenient way to pitch the game was to simplify the rules along binary lines because sport (team sport in particular) is essentially a binary pursuit. There’s a winner and there’s a loser, which is why draws are appalling: they mess with the mathematical purity of the system, like good sportswriters do.
The rules were redrawn by the coaches, and the alpha athletes and the administrators and the burgeoning bureaucracies under the bleachers. They were recalibrated to protect investments and brands; to secure control of the message. They were drafted in the simplest way imaginable until at the heart of all rules was the one rule to rule them all: you can’t trust the media. And fair enough, too. Why would you trust someone who spends countless hours building good relationships with athletes, coaches, administrators and the sundry staff who hang about musty locker rooms like discarded socks, all for the purpose of “getting the story”?
Why? Because maybe it’s your story.
This is a tweet from Ardie Savea:
“Maybe it’s that players want to control their own news and bring it out in the way the [sic] want to. Not through a media scrum where you have journos tryna get clickbait. The new wave is coming and players are realising they have control over their story through their own channels.”
Ardie Savea is the country’s best rugby player if that can be proved solely by the fact he’s the current holder of the Kelvin R. Tremain Memorial Trophy. Ardie Savea has his own channels. Ardie Savea makes clothes, makes a podcast, makes running metres, makes the most of his time. Ardie Savea can say anything he wants at a time that’s convenient to him. He could, with all false modesty, shed like the skin from last summer’s sunburn, stand on the beach at Lyall Bay in a howling gale, inflate his giant athletic lungs and boom in climactic order at the foaming sea:
“I am a Lion! I am a Hurricane! I am an All Black! I have Twitter and Instagram!”
But he wouldn’t do that, because Ardie Savea is not a massive wanker. In fact, he’s an incredibly likeable guy. Ask anyone who writes about rugby. They can’t get enough of him. He’s kind, generous, quick with a smile, genuine with a question, interested in people and interesting to them. When all of that’s considered, it’ll come as no surprise to you that lots of words – adjectives mainly – have been written about him. I wonder how many of those words, wet with praise, struggling to stay upright against the overwhelming desire to be italicised, he would consider “clickbait”.
Ardie Savea’s tweet was a response to a recent story written by Paul Cully, an Australian sportswriter who now calls Dunedin home (which for some reason, always makes me picture a pineapple washing up on an iceberg). That aside, the central thrust of the story is that rugby should look at how it markets itself, especially in terms of its dealings with the media. In between a bunch of marketing academic quotes that demonstrate unequivocally why marketing will never be taken seriously in academia, Cully writes that “both players and journalists dislike the short ‘standups’, with players filling them full of clichés as journalists search for a hook, leaving neither party happy”.
It’s an accurate illustration of what coverage has been reduced to in this sanitised, corporate, risk-averse professional sports world. Headlines have become more hyperbolic to mask the eternal Weekend At Bernie’s content that follows. That is, pretty much every training ground story, no matter how hard the writer works, is essentially an act of pretending a corpse is alive. Why did Larry and Richard create the illusion? Because they wanted to spend the weekend in their dead boss’s house. Why do sportswriters go along with the ruse? Because we like spending our weekends covering sport. And, let’s be honest, after almost three decades of professional rugby, the fans have become accustomed to ignoring the stiff in the corner.
The American author Thomas Hauser, who wrote about boxing as so many of the great writers did, once said: “[Rocky] Marciano was an idol in a simpler era, when professional athletes were heroes and sportswriters were complicit in building legends rather than exposing them”. Truth is, sportswriters are still complicit in building legends. Ardie Savea’s rugby career has been catalogued, critiqued, commended, analysed, headlined, underlined, scrutinised, scripted and re-scripted, digested with breakfast and re-fed for dinner since he emerged from Rongotai College with “Future All Black” tattooed on his forehead. Yes, where he is now is a testament to his work ethic and ability to harness his talent. But that’s not the whole story though, is it?
Ardie Savea has risen to the top of his game on the field but his profile off it has been enhanced, waxed, shined and polished by countless columns, features, match reports and commentaries. He’s been helped, not hindered, by a legion of sportswriters in his career, and the vast majority of them are glad he’s found a way to use his voice, even if he’s chosen to amplify his message with his own megaphone on his own channels.
I’m not sure it has to be one or the other, really. Maybe that obsession with the binary is just too hard to shake: your media is dead, watch my media instead! Nope. I know it doesn’t have to be that, and here’s why: in the next few months, a talented kid will play a game of rugby somewhere. A sportswriter will be there, watching. This kid won’t have thousands of fans and followers, she won’t be a household name, she won’t have a podcast or a clothing line or the satisfaction of potential fulfilled. She’ll play the game of her life and that writer will seek out the coach and ask about her. And then that sportswriter will talk to teammates and family and a story will form – one that tells of some extraordinary victory against the odds, or the unknown tragedy from which hope springs anew, or the remarkable set of coincidences that set in motion the chain of events that led that player to that very moment. And over time, perhaps her legend will grow, too. Perhaps her legend will be built from there.
In a funny way, the player-driven media model espoused by Ardie Savea and many others is no different to Gordon Hunter bringing his own tape recorder to press conferences. It all comes down to controlling the message, to making sure your side of the story is all sides of the story. It’s a perfectly reasonable development, an expected outcome of a fractured landscape. All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
Of course, we want the inside word. We want to hear from the athletes. We want to pull back the curtain and have a look backstage. We’ve wanted that all along. As Frank Deford put it: “the one thing that’s largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory – the characters, the tales, the humour, the pain, what Hollywood calls ‘the arc’”.
If only Noah had an arc. He would’ve saved a fortune on timber.