Cultural Comment Sport

Sport Writing and Access – Time for a New Voice

I like watching sport. Shocking, I know. Many people don’t like it, which they will state on Twitter whenever the feeds are filled with weekend sport watching.  The argument many make about sport is that it’s helping to dumb down our society and culture, make it just about watching people kicking a football a long way or making a good dummy and flick pass. When these critics watch the coverage and culture related to sport, it’s easy to agree with their objection – from Brian Taylor’s “wowees” and 1970s style “humour”; to Tom Waterhouse being as welcome a visitor to rugby league coverage as Frank the rabbit is to Donnie Darko; Ray Warren and Phil Gould speaking against poker machine reform on behalf of their employers, Channel 9; those inane ads for VB and merchandise during cricket coverage – and whenever Ian Healy speaks; Footy Shows featuring a range of outrageous activities, from thinly veiled racism, overt sexism, homophobia and picking on pretty much anyone who is an easy target. It’s also easy to find supporting evidence of one of the most accurate charges – that sport reports are little more than recounts of games, repeated gossip, trivia and “insider talk”.

Not all sport reporting is breathless gossip and small stories exploded into massively vital ones. There are notable exceptions in terms of excellent sport writers and broadcasters – people like Brad Walter, Neil Cordy, Richard Hinds, Gideon Haigh, Jarrod Kimber, Francis Leach, Deb Spillane, Caroline Wilson and Malcolm Knox (there are more, fill in the gaps…).  These writers and commentators have a way of fitting sport into a wider context, showing why it should matter to us why things happen in sport.  Most sport writers, however, don’t.  Part of the issue for sport writers is that of “access”- which is often used as a way of justifying an amount of what is written.

Access to all available players and sporting officials is a key claim towards authority for sport writer – we often read “I was at Whitten Oval today, and…” or “Deep inside Panthers, I was talking to Phil Gould about…”. It’s often mentioned in an irrelevant context – such as when a piece on A League starts with something David Gallop texted Phil Rothfield.  This question of access is also often used as a defence of their articles by the sport writers on Twitter – the “I talked to X, I saw Y, you didn’t” approach.  It’s a similar phenomenon to whenever we hear from Canberra Press Gallery journalists about their level of acces to those notorious “anonymous sources” from the ALP. That level of access raises various questions:

1. Does being too close personally to the figures involved affects the level of objectivity and clarity of the author?

2. Does the level of access renders all “outsider” commentary on sport irrelevant and without authority

3. Does access render the articles as being “safe”, due to the fear of the journalist losing that level of access that allows him or her to write their pieces?

4. Does close access reduce sport commentary and writing to the detailed reportage of intimate details of day to day activities in the sport?

The insistence on “access” (often called “unprecedented access”) as well as experience in sport is something we see dominating sport coverage and commentary. This is why the AFL dedicated channel on Foxtel, is filled with former players or newspaper writers who have “access”.  Or Eddie McGuire (there can’t be many Chairmen of any organisations that would be allowed to their own TV show – imagine “Rupert Murdoch Tonight” or the “Alan Joyce Show”). Even the Supercoach Show, a show for people who like playing fantasy football, is now hosted by a former footballer, Brad Johnson, who doesn’t seem to know very much about the Supercoach game.  The result is that we have the same talking heads, with their unparalleled access, treading the line of being uncontroversial and largely uncritical of the game or the wider cultural impact of the game.  An exception to this is the ABC program “Offsiders”, which is often controversial – even if the panellists are Insiders with Access.  It will be a while until we see a Fan Forum show on Fox Sports, where people with no access will be able to discuss issues and comment on the game.

When it comes to be experienced or someone with access, this also shuts out and marginalises a significant sector of sport fans, commentators and writers – female fans, commentators and writers. Fox Footy is like the Marylebone and Melbourne Cricket Clubs of eras past – men only.  Women aren’t anywhere to be seen, even the week where it was Women’s Round in the AFL was advertised as “Christmas in July” on the channel. This means that sideline commentators like Barry Hall, when speaking about the “unprecedented access” the channel had to Port Adelaide’s preparations for their March 31 game, said “the women will be disappointed we haven’t got cameras in the change room”. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink…  This theme of marginalised female sport fans, commentators and writers is a continuing one. They can be poor “victims” of a partner who likes fantasy football, removed from TV commentary in the case of Kelli Underwood, or the idea that women are best employed writing about women’s sport.  Women in commercial football seem to be best employed as readers of sporting odds or as the giggling sidekick – a role Fifi Box played for a while in the NRL Footy Show – or as a target of disgusting activities undertaken by Sam Newman in the AFL Footy Show with a Caroline Wilson mannequin.  The exception to this is the ABC, with Underwood doing commentary for them, the continuing presence of Simone Thurtell and Karen Tighe on Grandstand, as well as Deb Spillane both hosting Northern Grandstand and her “Hens FC” panel show.

A solution to all of this – as it has been for the political news community, is for the blogosphere to pick up where traditional sport media leaves off and create blogs and media hubs that provide honest, varied views about sport and the wider context of sport.  One about various sports, no matter the gender of the sportspeople. Where a range of good writers write about sport in a meaningful way – but without being fussed about “access”, “exclusives” and other old media methods of excluding readers and possible contributors. We don’t have many templates for such a site.

The US has Grantland, which is an ESPN project. One of the best features in that was one that demonstrates the issue of being a journalist with access as against being a sport fan and member of society demanding the truth, explored by the creator of Grantland, Bill Simmons.  None of our sport broadcasters present such a forum.  I’m also not talking about Bound for Glory news, which is a commendable attempt at alternative sport writing featuring a range of writers, but is limited, in that it mainly concerns itself about AFL and that world.  I am speaking about a sport version somewhere between The Drum or Ausvotes 2013, which has a clean, accessible front page as well as writers who are free to contribute their pieces, no matter their “background” in sport. Not sure whether this will ever happen, but it would be nice if it did.

Cultural Comment Sport

It’s All About The Numbers – Fantasy AFL

While Twitter and the blogosphere has been gripped by the rolling maul of Ruddmentum (and to me, the much more amusing Crean – Get On Top movement) these past weeks, I have been gripped by a much more difficult activity. As a generally non sporty person, though as an avid sport watcher, I occasionally try to work out what goes on in the world of sport, get initiated into places that are almost foreign to me. This year, it has been plunging into the (mostly male) world of Fantasy Football – in my case, AFL Dream Team and Supercoach. As with politics, it’s all about the numbers.

Being in a NSW workplace as I have been all my life, I am the only person I know who plays AFL fantasy football. I am fully aware that if I was a teacher in Victoria, I would have had to develop a pretty sophisticated understanding of the workings of the comps, both to keep up with Monday morning staffroom conversations, but also have something to talk about down at the pub on a Friday night. A female teacher friend of mine, in order to have something to talk about, decided to have fun with the concept some time ago and selects a team each year that contains players selected entirely on the basis of their names being a double entendre. Hence, Sidebottom, Suckling, Swallow (x2), Goldsack, Ryder, Plowman, Johncock… (you get the picture). For me, though, it’s a case of having no pressure to be some kind of King of the Staffroom, it’s purely diverting and fun.

In order to help fuel the obsessions, there’s a whole internet community dedicated to the numbers and machinations of the two fantasy football competitions. Amongst the best of these are Dream Team Talk, which features the occasional Youtube show with three friendly blokes talking at a pub; Supercoach Paige, which features one of the few women who talks fantasy football; a page with an amusing title picture, Sargeant Supercoach and probably one of the more interesting projects attempting to emulate 1970s football language, Jock Reynolds. These weeks have been spent trying to work out what all the numbers mean. That’s why my Twitter feed has me following a range of DT and SC experts, all talking in a foreign language. That’s why I’ll have commentary on which sauce bottle Rudd has shaken followed by cries of “Broughton isn’t rebounding the ball in the NAB Cup game”, “Ross Lyon really hates DT coaches”, “This game in Renmark has produced awesome numbers for Port”, “Swan is a definite lock”, “What do you mean Tom Mitchell isn’t playing???”, et cetera. As with any concept foreign to me, it fascinates with its coruscations.

Despite the best efforts of members of this very friendly and helpful Twitter crew (especially fellow Giants member and Dream Team Talk contributor, @RLGriffin85 and that outstanding AFL news source, @janinemcglynn), I still don’t entirely understand how the numbers work. This includes the differences between Dream Team and Supercoach. Both use quite different statistical formulas. All I have worked out really is that some players touch the ball more and get involved in the game, which gives them more numbers. But champion players like Adam Goodes and Nick Malceski aren’t really all that good for the fantasy competitions. Even my favourite player in the AFL, Kieren Jack, is barely mentioned. Apparently it hurts him to be playing with other champion players. What I have learned, however, is that the games are actually outstanding learning activities – especially in terms of providing a workout in terms of statistics, mathematics and speculation based on evidence. This is why parents shouldn’t get too worried if their children like a bit of fantasy football activity.

As an exercise in attempting to understand this world of numbers, statistics and the like, I decided to select two teams in each competition. One is my regular all sides team – the one where I have attempted to listen to all of the advice and tips from the various sources. The other is my Northern States team, consisting of players for the Sydney Swans, GWS Giants, Gold Coast Suns and Brisbane Lions. This is partially because I wanted to track how players from the Swans and Giants go in the competitions, and partially because I am very fond of any team operating in the “league states”. This is why the DT / SC crew like giving me advice on my all sides team, but are sometimes profoundly puzzled by the Northern States team. They possibly don’t understand what it’s like for a Western Sydney boy to have four sides north of the Murray to watch. Plus, they have the torrent of “coaches” asking questions about their legitimate teams. “What about Fyfe?” is more pressing than “why don’t any of these teams have cheap rookies that will get a game?”

Here are my Northern States teams – the Northern States teams are both named in honour of the Flamboyant Icon of Northern States AFL, Warwick Capper.

Dream Team

Dream Team Northern States

Super Coach

Northern States Supercoach

Then there is the All States team, built from all of the rumours, comments, research.

Dream Team

Dream Team Regular Team

Super Coach

Allstates Supercoach

Summarising the gap between my political Twitter friends and the Fantasy Footyheads, almost no-one took up my invitation to join my “Flamboyant League”, also named for Mr. Capper. That is to be expected though, the worlds have almost no intersection.

Today is the big day for Fantasy Football chat and last minute panics as the numbers of changes that can be made becomes restricted. The Crean Bun Fight barely rated a blip yesterday in their world. Brad Crouch’s non selection for Adelaide made more of an impact. I hope they all remember it really is just fun rather than a reflection of their abilities as people. But maybe that’s just the view from an isolated Sydney person. Ultimately, however, I’m glad this type of thing exists. Otherwise, we’d all just be more than a little depressed about the state of play in this country.


Monday Questions – Education Funding

Thought I might try something different with the Institute this week – pose some questions about a topic that is being discussed in the twittoblogosphere and give a bit of a comment after those questions. These are questions, not answers. Sometimes I will state both sides in my discussion of the question. Just like Q & A, really – except I am not providing party political talking points as a substitute for answers.

Question 1. Why is it always high fee paying private schools that are used as examples of the independent schooling sector?

Read the Sydney Morning Herald, and funding of the high fee paying private schools like Kings, Scots, Pymble Ladies’ College and the like is a frequent visitor to its pages. It’s almost as if the Herald aren’t aware of Catholic systemic, community Christian and Islamic schools. For it is these schools, out in the suburbs, that receive the bulk of Federal education funding for independent schools. Yet what we see time and again are pictures of new swimming pools and rugby fields, which works to polarise and sensationalise, rather than discuss the complexity of the education system.

It is also the case that many advocates of public schooling want to target independent schools, so they make the high fee paying ones the symbol of the wastefulness of government spending. It could also be that many of these advocates live in relatively affluent areas, where the main schooling options are public schools and the high fee paying school. The question remains – why not look at the schools that receive most of the money, not the lucky few that benefit from former students and from well paid parents.

Question 2. Why Don’t We Hear About Teacher Recruitment Issues?

When I started out in teaching, I could not get a permanent posting. Three years of living in the western suburbs of Sydney, being available to be placed in a Western Suburbs public school and nothing. So, like many teachers in the western suburbs, I worked in blocks, on temporary contracts. Financial security non existent – especially if I was after day to day casual work. This situation remains to this day. Teachers on temporary contracts – often in the same school – who can’t be upgraded to permanency. Teachers on blocks who can’t get an interview for a position or get pushed up “the list”.

It is a worthwhile conversation to have about teach quality. But imagine the quality one could have if more young teachers could gain permanent placements. Somewhere. If that school is considered to be a “rough” school, then provide support to that teacher and encourage support networks.

Question 3. Why Must People Attack Sides?

Catherine Deveny

The education debate is often torpedoed by comments from people – like Catherine Deveny – who insist on labelling parents who choose to send their students to independent schools. Or label supporters of independent schools as “elitists” who “support Knox getting another rugby field”. On the other side, we have people who support education choice by making uninformed and prejudiced comments about the “type” of student who goes to a “typical” public school. We get a polarised dichotomy that doesn’t help. Schools aren’t easily placed into boxes or stereotypes, so attempting to do so by taking a “side” is probably unproductive – but still people do it.

Question 4. Why Aren’t We Talking About Increasing All School Funding?

The old argument about whether independent schools should get funding from governments was fought and lost quite some time ago. Considering that it seems most politicians from the ALP and Liberal Party either went to an independent school, their children go to one – or, more importantly – are frequently lobbied by voting parents of students who attend these schools – funding of independent schools will be a continuing reality for a while.

This is why, maybe, the conversation could turn to discussing whether all school funding should be increased, at the expense of areas where the need isn’t as great, such as defence or asylum seeker processing. The government that stands up and says “we are actually increasing funding for all schools” would actually receive a lot of support – especially in that Western Sydney area people go on about. As I said in my post on education in Ausvotes 2013 – education is very important – for parents who send their kids to all schools. More important than stopping boats and transport.

Question 5. Why Selective Schools?

This is a NSW specific question. We have academically selective schools that are frequently trumpeted on the league tables produced in the HSC result coverage in the Herald and Telegraph. This is rendered almost meaningless when you regard that these schools take students from other schools and group them together in a place where very good is just mediocre. What we don’t hear is how the academically selective system benefits the whole student. They are just made into their result.

Anyway, these are questions. Come up with some answers. Or not. Your call.


Cultural Comment

Society is the Biggest Loser – The Lowest Point on our TV Schedule –

I catch a train most days to and from work. Every so often the train is pretty crowded. The other day, there was a carriage that was full, except for one seat. The middle aged professional man in front of me baulked at going down the steps to sit in that seat. I looked to see why. The window seat had a larger woman sitting in it. I thought “you bastard”. I had no hesitation taking the seat – even discovered that she is a current student at Sydney University and was delightful and friendly.  The situation, though, reminded me of something that is shameful in our society – discrimination against people who are overweight.

It happens everywhere. Stupid jokes, stupid photos, catty comments in TV shows, offices, wherever.  It’s something that should be stopped, along with refugee demonising and racism.  Problem is, unlike those things, this kind of shaming is given tacit approval in many places and, worse, promotion on what ranks as the worst “reality” show on Australian TV – The Biggest Loser.

It’s difficult to ignore the presence of this show – you could be sitting there, enjoying a decent show like Mr and Mrs Murder and there the ads come on, dripping with slurry music accompanying people saying they feeling “ashamed” of the way they look, saying that basically their lives have no meaning because of their weight.  The show then approves this sentiment by having some shouty personal trainer with Personality Deficiency Syndrome (PDS) shouting at them at some “Fat Camp”, “Loser Central” or some inane name.

There are multiple stories about the ridiculous lengths these people go to at Fat Camp to make massive weight loss their goal – as well as the cheating that went on behind the scenes of the show. That’s not the whole point, though – the show itself is an abomination that should never see the light of the day.  Telling people that they are worthless because they are above a certain weight, plus encouraging weight loss more than 1kg a week (considered by many to be a sensible weight loss goal) is irresponsible.  The kind of spotlight that is put on these people wanting a bit of shame fame (goodness knows why) is just cynical manipulation by TV execs wanting to spin some money from the embarrassment of others. As with Big Brother, I’m not convinced that the contestants on these shows know exactly what kind of post – show life they are in for.  For each person that actually gained some happiness, there would be still others forever known as “Biggest Loser Contestants” in a negative way.

The problem is, though, that people watch this stuff. Week after week, getting emotionally attached, going on “the journey” with them. It’s hard to blame people for getting hooked – TV watchers like intense drama – this show is full of such confected, slow motion tear jerking – and many of the viewers would also have weight “issues”, as the magazines would put it.  But it doesn’t reflect well on our culture when what we are watching on TV is people on treadmills being shouted at by PDS suffering prison warden wannabes in lycra.

There are people, however, who will be blogging about it, tweeting it and it will appear, no matter the muting and list management one can do. On will flash some kind of comment about how “wonderful” someone finds the “journey” to being thin.  Nothing, however, about how their personality or ability to communicate to others will be improved. Nor how stupid it is that their friends and people around them will talk to them differently because they a different size.

This show flushes out, however, those people who do like to discriminate according to size. You’ll hear them talking around the water cooler about this show, admiring the weight loss and talking about those who can’t lose weight in a negative way. These same people are often incapable of talking about things other than their bodies, clothes and how they lost weight with x diet. They are the people who don’t need The Biggest Loser to watch every week, smugly looking down on those who struggle. They need another show altogether.

Frankly, what I want to see on TV is The Biggest Gainer. Find people larger people comfortable with their body image who know things about things other than being weight obsessed. Then get a whole group of personal trainers and teach them to appreciate and engage with culture – art, literature, music, etc. Stop these trainers from wanting to spend all their lives on a treadmill, jogging around in circles and shouting at people – instead have them want to read, listen to Beethoven and talk about things. Gain something worthwhile, instead of turning our TV culture into a wasteland of narcissistic finger pointing.

There are those who are filled with horror with the kind of narcissism, egotism, social segregation and self centred grasping that an Abbott Government would encourage. They should be watching The Biggest Loser and see that it’s already happening, every week. Then stop watching. And never refer to it again.