Monday, March 16, 2009

How sports coverage parted company with sport

Since reading What Sport Tells Us About Life and talking to its author Ed Smith a few weeks ago I've become increasingly fascinated by the contrast between what happens in sport and what hacks say happens in sport; between the events – which are generally, as Smith described them to me, "chaos upon chaos" – and the narrative imposed on those events by commentators and journalists.

Last week ITV's Andy Townsend hailed Manchester United's four-nil victory at Fulham with the words "well, they're so far ahead of everybody else, they must be wondering who can give them a game." He'd already forgotten the previous Sunday when an under-strength Manchester United were held to a goal-less draw for 120 minutes by an under-strength Spurs team. I was at that game and found it hard to see any resemblance between the events – desultory stalemate with defences on top – and the narrative in the paper, which turned out to be something to do with iPods. This was the first time I'd seen a penalty shoot out live. Without the overheated commentary provided by television it's about as gripping – and as much to do with sport – as drawing straws on the halfway line.

I wonder what Townsend had to say about this Saturday's game when the same Manchester United got beaten four-one at home. You can say that's the wonderful unpredictability of sport. You could also say, that's the irrelevance of people like Andy Townsend. And it's not just him. The same applies to the most sage wordsmith cranking out 2,000 words for the broadsheets. None of them can bear to say what every fan mutters to himself every week. It could go either way.

Something similar happened this weekend with England rugby. In the past week the commentariat were united in the view that England were slow, unadventurous, ill-disciplined, borderline-hopeless. They stopped short of saying that there should be another regime change. They were saving that one for Monday morning. In the event they didn't get to write that story because, in the most one-sided contest in recent Six Nations history, England unexpectedly beat France 34-10. If they'd examined recent events before building their narrative they would have seen that England's defeats in this year's tournaments had been by small margins, they had scored more tries than anyone else and they had not conceded a try when they had fifteen men on the field. So the sensible analysis, and one held by all their opposing managers, was 'misfiring but might come good'. What kind of story is that?

All the firmly-held opinions of two weeks ago look ridiculous today. England have won, Manchester United are having a crisis-ette and Liverpool are daring to dream. But people like Ferguson and Johnson and Benitez know that's it got nothing to do with what anyone writes in the papers or says on the wireless. It's not the tide of history. It's not payback for what somebody said at a press conference. It's not part of the long wave of a continuing story. It's the bounce of a ball, the timing of a pass, the foothold that doesn't give way, Michael Essien's fortuitous mis-kick yesterday, somebody reaching out to nudge the unforgiving moment, that makes the difference between this victory and that defeat. Before the game yesterday the BBC were asking Martin Johnson if he thought his pack could out-muscle the French. He gave the only honest answer which is, "we'll see".

That's not what they wanted to hear. I told Ed Smith what Danny Blanchflower had said when he was asked who was going to win. "I don't know," he said. "That's why they're playing the game." I asked him if that was the most banal thing ever said about sport or the most profound. He thought it was the latter. So do I.


  1. How funny. I've been thinking much the same over recent weeks. Rugby writing in particular seems to be dominated by nonsense created by a narrative which has already been decided in advance. It is almost as if all of the journalists get together beforehand to make sure they are all going to say the same thing which this year is:

    - Martin Johnson isn't up to the job. Nor is Steve Borthwick.
    - Ireland's likely Grand Slam illustrates the weakness of the northern hemisphere when compared to the Southern.
    - Wales are comfortably the best team in the Six Nations, primarily due to their coaching staff.
    - Lievremont doesn't know what he is doing.
    - Hadden has taken Scotland as far as he can.
    - Italy shouldn't be part of the Six Nations.

    Most if not all of these pre-decided narratives have been challenged (as one would expect) during this year's tournament but the writers have barely moved from their pre-tournament assertions.

    It seems remarkable to me that sports journalists know so much about whether a coach is good at what he does when they presumably have so little insight into what it is that a coach actually does.

  2. I think that last point is key. They haven't a clue what managers do and so they pin everything on how a manager behaves at a press conference, which is the only time they see them. During Arsenal's recent run of poor results I heard a commentator say "subdued performance by Arsene Wenger tonight" as if he was on the field rather than in the crowd. The same thinking leads to the belief that Jose Mourinho was a genius and Scolari wasn't. What they really mean is one gives good copy and the other doesn't.

  3. Sports journalism and punditry (both pro and amateur, i.e those crappy phone-ins) are mostly pointless. For something that’s discussed so much and so widely there’s actually very little to say about sport.
    I follow football and cricket but hardly ever read anything in the sports pages and never listen to TV radio “analysis” except that directly surrounding the action which you can’t avoid and which is mostly just telling you what you’ve already seen.
    It was entertaining to hear old Gin Blossom Ferguson pronouncing that United “were the better team” in the Old Trafford Massacre though.

  4. Surely analysis/punditry should be revealing something that we, the viewer, do not know. The people involved in analysis and punditry are supposed to be experts after all.

    At half time yesterday a good pundit should be able to give the viewers insight as to why England are 29-0 up. There is little point in replaying the tries as part of this analysis unless there is something specific to say.

  5. I was at Twickenham on Sunday and two things struck me, both as a result of comments from the crowd.

    First next to me in the crowd were two teenage players (one of them my son). They uniformly saw things going on that I missed and which almost certainly went unremarked in the match commentary. I seem to remember a football coach making the point that anyone who doesnt play the game week in week out has no idea whats going on, Sunday confirmed this.

    Second, in the Orange Tree after the game the English fans were enjoying themselves debating how the press would downgrade Englands result. The general view was that the poor play of the French would be highlighted so as to justify previous comments. Sure enough thats what happened. As has been said many times before, usually by those involved in the game, you can only play the side that turns up. The same was true of the Italy result in the first game.

    Its also relevant that teams can be put off their game by a spiritied opponent - ask Real and Man U!

  6. Exactly. It's all very well saying that France played badly and thus downgrading England's performance. However, the truth of the matter is that a team doesn't JUST play badly.

    I would really love to know what tactics England employed to make France look so ordinary, particularly in the first half. No one in the print or broadcast media appears to be able to tell me. Johnson and his coaching team know but no one in the media asks him.

  7. Getting a bit rugby obsessive but.....

    The French never figured out the short lineout. England do seem to have got the "pod of forwards in the midfield" theory working. Joe Worlsey is a revelation in this very loose role.

  8. I haven't read The Guardian report of the England-France match but I can imagine it was something along the lines of "thuggish Brits lucky to beat cultured, wine-appreciating French"

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  10. I like reading Daniel Finkelstein's statistical investigations (eg. no statistical basis to the belief that mid week matches of any kind affect weekend games) and would love to see him alongside the tv pundits, bursting a few bubbles. Little to do with this post but here are two favourite lines of recent commentary: Alan Green on 5 Live, "Look at the space Evra has to run into." Alan Green to Chris Waddle this weekend: "What can you say about this game?", "Four one." (Waddle went on to add something else but I stopped listening, it was the perfect final word.)

  11. Interesting point from Geoff re: his two teenage pals. It's often my impression that TV commentators see less than the average member of the crowd because their gaze is fixed on a monitor showing shots which have been selected by a director who's trying to construct a narrative.