Many years ago on a television panel discussion, the late Cho Ramaswamy said sportswriters tended to be protective towards sports stars. Take match-fixing, he said, referring to cricket’s period of shame at the turn of the century. It could have been caught early if journalists hadn’t refused to believe a sportsman could be immoral.
He didn’t actually quote the novelist James Michener, but that was the spirit of what he said: “One of the happiest relationships in society is between sports and the media.”
It is not difficult to see how a sportswriter develops a relationship — a version of the Stockholm syndrome, but milder and less destructive — with a sports star he or she has been reporting on. A good example is the way Tiger Woods was protected, not a word leaking out about his sexual peccadilloes; and an image built of an angelic do-gooder, a cross between Mother Teresa and Buddha. Sportswriters knew all along, of course, but it wasn’t until his domestic troubles became public that some of them admitted to it.
Sometimes the argument is sound. What doesn’t affect performance should be of no concern to anybody. What matter if Garry Sobers sometimes didn’t slept in his own bed and nursed a hangover if he could score a century and take wickets and catches others could only dream about?
Sometimes the argument is: Players are protected because they are national heroes and no one likes to be told that his heroes have feet of clay.
There are less honourable reasons, too. Television, which invests millions of dollars in rights, hates to criticise something or someone that might reduce interest in the sport, and players get away with a lot because of this. Silence usually equals complicity, but everybody is asked to look at the “bigger picture.”
This “bigger picture” argument should arouse suspicion, for it usually stands for what is convenient to financial stakeholders. Good behaviour clauses are often built into player contracts to minimise the chances of any disruption.
Columnist Ed Simth once wrote, “The sports media, which once served sport by bringing it to a wider audience, has become the master of that relationship. Sport now addresses the question of how it must serve the media far more often than the media asks how it might serve sport.”
Thus scepticism, which is an important element in the kit bag of the sports journalist is allowed to be replaced by the “bigger picture.”
Television in India hardly does any in-depth stories on sport; there is still room in the print media and websites for this, however.
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” wrote Janet Malcolm. All relationships will end in exposure if the journalist answers to his calling. This is the dilemma of the sportswriter who gets too close to a player. Is it better to shut up and be thought incompetent or speak out and lose friends?
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