Sports Chatter

Simon Kuper discusses the drivel in the drip-feed that is mainstream sports journalism – from rumour and innuendo to occasional smut and toilet humour. The consumer, he argues, is now the consumed, in an arena of social media and sports talk radio – where talking about sport has become ‘independent of sport itself’, and men can literally fart around in the skin of their long ago eight-year-old selves, be intellect-free in their banter or arcane in their observation of the human condition. In the online and broadcast bleachers, anything goes and nothing matters.

I was about eight or nine and living in Holland when I began reading Voetbal International. It’s a weekly magazine (for a long time the bestselling weekly football magazine on Earth) that isn’t just for fans, but is really a sort of trade magazine of Dutch football, read by players and coaches and club chairmen too. It’s the place where Dutch football discusses itself – and if you know the Dutch, you’ll know there’s always lots to discuss.

More than 35 years later, VI still drops into my mailbox in Paris every Thursday. The magazine connects me with my childhood: all the silly news about who Heracles Almelo is about to sign, or the FC Groningen full-back’s account of his rise and how he owes it all to his mom. So much in life changes – you move house, you have kids, people die, you’re not the same person you were as a child – but for an hour or so, a sports magazine can turn you back into an eight-year-old boy. A lot of men (and some women) around the world know the feeling. Publishers are always complaining that men don’t read much, but one thing we do read is daily chatter about sports – often even on actual paper. Why?

The sports press probably first became a mass phenomenon here in Paris in the 1890s. The city had several competing sports newspapers, mostly obsessed with cycling (one of which, the forerunner of the daily L’Équipe, created the Tour de France). Gradually the type spread worldwide. Today dozens of countries have sports dailies. In South Korea, these papers double as occasional publishers of smut. The unmistakable pink La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy and Marca in Spain remain among Europe’s most-read newspapers. During Spain’s recent recession, while the serious newspapers declined, the country’s four main sports dailies gained readers.

Africa’s best-read football magazine is probably Kick Off. More than that: the South African historian Ciraj Rassool has called it “this country’s most important literacy project”. One morning in 2007 I had breakfast in Cape Town with Kick Off’s editor, Richard Maguire, and advertising executive (and former Bafana striker) George Dearnaley. Dearnaley had once seen a three-year-old copy of Kick Off in a shebeen, where drinkers could rent it for 50 cents a time. By Dearnaley’s calculations, the shebeen owner must by then have made about R500, off an initial purchase price of R4. (Similarly, in Cameroon and Zimbabwe I’ve seen market stalls selling ancient back issues of French and British football magazines.)

It’s partly through mechanisms like these that Kick Off claims a total readership of 3.567 million (almost all of them black) on a paid circulation of just 53,568. Dearnaley and Maguire told me that each copy of the magazine was supposedly read by 32 people. Well, said Maguire, one copy they tracked through 32 people, and then it crossed the border to Botswana and they lost it.

The UK and USA are rare in lacking dedicated sports newspapers. But that’s mostly because their general newspapers cover so much sport as to leave no room for specialist titles. Many British newspapers now practically are sports dailies larded with a bit of news, celebrities and sex, often with all these categories intermingled, as with the News of the World’s account of David Beckham’s affair with Rebecca Loos, which was voted scoop of the year in the British Press Awards for 2004.

Indeed, in most Western European countries even serious newspapers have come to cover ever more sport. Until about 1990, the papers tended to believe their readers were too clever to want to read about games. In US newspapers, the sports department was traditionally known as “the toy department”. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, moguls like Silvio Berlusconi, Rupert Murdoch, and the almighty ESPN in the US, began flooding the airwaves with live sports games. People watched. That got them more interested in sports news. Where TV led, print had to follow. That’s why France’s haughty Le Monde newspaper, which until 1998 barely mentioned sport at all, now has a daily sports page. In the UK, The Times has frequently run more sports pages than news pages. The toy department is taking over the newspaper. Even mighty readers are not immune. When George W. Bush was US president, his chief of staff Andrew Card said, “He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day.”

Television coverage has spawned one very bizarre bastard child: sports talk radio. In 1987, a New York station made the daring attempt to live by sports talk alone. Within a decade WFAN was billing advertisers more than US$50 million annually, the highest for any US radio station, ever. By 2000 there were 600 US sports talk stations. Shows like the Total Dominance Hour in Oklahoma City made listeners the heroes. Oklahomans loved hearing 90-something Effie Heil call in to tear apart Oklahoma University teams. Another caller, “James the Marvel”, would tell listeners about his latest visit to Mars.

Admittedly the discussions on these stations are often idiotic. A friend of mine, addicted to the British shows to which football fans call in to allege global conspiracies against their teams, always wants to phone in himself and say, “Have you ever realised that it doesn’t really matter?” The American author Garrison Keillor says, “The sports talk station gives you a succession of men whose absorption in a fantasy world is, to me, borderline insane… yet ten minutes of their ranting and wheezing is a tonic that somehow makes this world, the world of trees and children and books and travel, positively tremble with vitality.”

Like all other forms of sports media, sports talk radio has gone global. In the Netherlands the genre is now even televised: on an average night, hundreds of thousands of people actually sprawl on Dutch sofas watching a bunch of middle-aged men sit around a table talking football.

Almost every country has an obsessive need to read about athletes, but every country has a slightly different tradition of journalist-athlete relationships. In the UK, the press has little access to the players, and so it resorts to tapping their phones or inventing scurrilous rumours about them. In Spain, access to players is easy – FC Barcelona’s manager traditionally gives a daily press conference, attended by hundreds of journalists – but you’re not allowed to probe them too deeply. A colleague in Barcelona once explained the codes to me: you can ask the player, “Is your toe getting better?” But you can’t ask, “How did you feel when that goal went in?” because his emotions and more profound thoughts are not considered public property. In Italy, where football journalists obsess over tactics, post-match press conferences can resemble coaching seminars.

The worldwide shift from print to online has inevitably hit the sports press. Magazines in particular have suffered. In Argentina, the legendary sports weekly El Grafico briefly disappeared in 2002, before being reborn as a monthly with a tiny readership. In France, the legendary magazine France Football, which had always appeared twice a week, recently became a weekly. And in the US the legendary weekly Sports Illustrated, which 50-odd years ago could offer Ernest Hemingway US$30,000 for a 2,000-word piece on bullfighting, has seen its newsstand sales nearly halve since just 2007. Admittedly it still sells about three million copies. But American sports geeks are shifting inexorably to irreverent fan’s-eye websites.

It’s not just bloggers who have intruded on the eternal relationship between the sports journalist and his prey. Increasingly, the athletes are cutting out the middleman and speaking directly to their public. In basketball, Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets hired his own beat reporter to attend games and cover him for his website, Deronwilliams.com. At last year’s Dublin Web Summit, the English footballer Rio Ferdinand complained that journalists “paint that picture and you see a caricature of you evolve. And you sit there thinking, ‘Woah, you don’t know me.’” Twitter, Ferdinand said, had been “the biggest thing in my armoury” in changing his image.

Big football clubs have charged headlong into social media. They are hiring teams of video filmmakers, web editors and multilingual journalists to produce their own content.

“A football club like Bayern Munich is a media production company,” says Stefan Mennerich, Bayern’s director of digital media. The club’s social media team travel with the players and stay in the same hotels, so they can give fans a Bayern-approved inside view. It’s similar at Manchester United.

“We are a mobile-first media organisation,” says Richard Arnold, United’s group managing director. “We operate in 18 languages – a huge volume of work for us, in terms of being culturally appropriate.”

One side effect of all this work: clubs now compete with traditional media. Just three years ago, if you wanted news about Arsenal, you might go to a newspaper website, or even, if you were getting on in years, buy an actual newspaper. Today you can go straight to Arsenal’s Facebook page, where the club posts a video of the line-up before each match and an exclusive player interview after it. No outside journalist can get this kind of access. Consequently, many clubs and players have built larger audiences than traditional media. Cristiano Ronaldo has 37.6 million Twitter followers, more than CNN’s main account and the New York Times combined (though there are suspicions that Ronaldo bought some of his followers).

Despite the daily assault of advertising and football clichés, the appetite for sports chatter just grows. Smartphones drip-feed this kind of nonsense into our bloodstreams. Reading about sport is very far removed from watching actual sport. In fact, says the Italian thinker Umberto Eco in his essay “Sports Chatter”, talk about sport has become practically independent of sport itself. Sport today, writes Eco, consists of “discussion of the sports press”, which is “a discourse on a discourse about watching others’ sport as a discourse”. He means that people waste their lives talking about what José Mourinho said about Arsene Wenger, or whom Mario Balotelli is sleeping with. Instead of consuming sports they mostly consume us, the sports media. I remember once telling an attractive young woman about a football journal I was editing. “Does anyone read this?” she asked. “Some people do,” I said. She burst into cackles of laughter, and exclaimed, “Men are so stupid!”

Why do men consume this stuff? Both Eco and the left-wing American thinker Noam Chomsky note that fans devote energy to sports talk rather than to more serious issues. Sports fans analyse sport in much the same way that a select few discuss politics. For instance, writes Eco, “Instead of judging the job done by the minister of finance (for which you have to know about economics, among other things), you discuss the job done by the coach.”

In Understanding Power, Chomsky says analysing sport is the only intellectual sphere left to most people. He explains, “You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folk. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports – so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that.”

Chomsky says that listening to sports talk shows in his car he is often stunned to hear sports fans displaying “the most exotic information and understanding about all kinds of arcane issues”. It’s precisely these qualities that he misses in the wider American debate.

Indeed, sports talk radio – and sports talk more generally – have become a parody of Athenian democracy. As in ancient Athens, the male citizens gather in the public square for debate. The difference is that in sports talk, only meaningless topics get discussed. As Chomsky suggests, this is a flight from the complexity of politics, economics and indeed of life itself. Sports talk is a chance for men to be boys – to create a zone that is largely free of women where they can rediscover their inner eight-year-olds. The point of calling the radio stations “sports talk” is chiefly to put off women. Then the conversation can veer away from actual sport.

In a classic book edited by John Mark Dempsey, Sports-Talk Radio in America: Its Context and Culture, there is a story of the listener in Dallas named Sherman who emailed his local “sports-talk radio” station to describe an experiment he had conducted. Sherman went four days without eating bagels and averaged 12.25 daily farts. On four days with bagels, he averaged 10.5. “In-depth statistical analysis shows a 14.3 per cent decrease in number of toots,” Sherman concluded.

This hasn’t much to do with sport, but then sometimes neither does being a sports fan. Where else but in a sports conversation could Sherman talk about farts to a large audience of soul mates? Life is complicated, it’s adult, and it matters. Sports talk gives men in particular a zone that is, blessedly, none of those things.

 

chronic 7 books resizedThis story features in the Chronic Books (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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