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.