The Cold War between sports personalities and the media

It’s a funny thing given the nature of modern sport, and its oversaturation in our culture by extensive media coverage, that the central protagonists and antagonists in the sporting dramas which we watch unfold can often seem impenetrable or inaccessible as people. Despite these men and women being some of the most gifted people in sport, the lack of personality sometimes in their interactions with the media is quite remarkable. It seems as though getting to know our favourite sportspeople is too much to ask for and that players and managers are now being media-trained to within an inch of their lives. However, this was not always the case, and if you look back not too long ago, you can see that the nature of professional sport and the media has shifted, and the way in which sportspersons interact with the media has changed massively.

To fully understand the contemporary relationship between professional sport and the media, let’s look back to before the creation of the internet. In the pre-internet age, sports journalists had much more access to players and managers than they do now. Print journalism was the dominant source of news and analysis in the 20th century, and the respect which journalists were given in terms of the access they would have is something which the journalists of today could only dream of. In football, for example, interviews with managers at half time, as well as access to players before and after the game were once the norm.

Football has now become a multi-billion dollar industry, meaning the stakes are higher than ever for clubs benefitting from millions in investment from super-rich owners. The relationship between the media and players and their managers has resulted in journalists often being kept at arm’s length, and a certain frostiness developing in press conferences. The archetypal example of this type of manager is, of course, José Mourinho. The self-proclaimed ‘Special One’s’ run-ins with the media in various press conferences over the course of his career have often been quite something to behold.

The confrontational nature of Mourinho’s interviews and press conferences as a manager (quite ironic considering he is currently doing some punditry for beIN Sports) have built to a crescendo in recent years, culminating in a now already infamous post-match press conference from this season. Questioned by Jamie Jackson of The Guardian newspaper as to whether he felt United’s fans were happy with him and the team after a shock 3-0 home defeat to a rival like Spurs, an incensed Mourinho went on a wide-ranging rant before abruptly ending the press conference by holding three fingers up to the assembled press corps, saying: “Just to finish, do you know what was the result? This. 3-0, 3-0. Do you know what this is? 3-0. But it also means three Premierships and I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together. Three for me and two for them. So respect man, respect, respect, respect.” On one hand it is refreshing to have a personality like Mourinho in the game, but journalists asking fair questions should be treated with more respect themselves.

The contrast to this can be seen in the NFL. In a country where President Donald Trump has gone on the record in stating that journalists are “enemies of the people”, this has not resulted in a cold relationship developing between the media and NFL teams, and their head coaches or players. While Trump’s views on certain American football players ‘taking a knee’ did permeate throughout the NFL, where he found common ground with some franchise owners who control their team’s actions with an iron fist, NFL head coaches have continued to conduct their press conferences the same way they have always done.

Perhaps New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the exception to this rule when he strikes fear into the hearts of all journalists who have to suffer his glare and his gruff, laconic responses to any questions in post-game press conferences (although he doesn’t necessarily have a Mourinho-esque relationship with the media). The responses from the rest of the players and managers however, tend to be broadly similar, win, lose or draw. When their team has won, head coaches and their quarterbacks are generally pleased with the performance, and their post-game comments are full of banalities as the assembled hacks throw them softball questions. If their team has lost, there is very rarely any histrionics from players or coaches, they simply take accountability for what has happened out on the field and move on, stating that they need to do better.

This sort of response may be much less entertaining than a Mourinho meltdown, but perhaps the “Special One” and other football managers who have a spiky relationship with the media ought to take a leaf out of the book of their brethren across the Atlantic. While there are a lot of well-documented problems with the NFL, not least its treatment of players using their first amendment rights and its links with concussion and CTE, their treatment of journalists in terms of the access they’re given to players and coaching staff before, during and after games is second to none, and the journalists who ask the questions are generally treated quite well. As in the upper echelons of professional football in leagues like the Premier League, money is no object for franchises in the NFL so there is no excuse for people like Mourinho on that front. Perhaps the answer lies in the culture of journalism in America compared to Britain. Perhaps the growing issue of player power in professional football compared to the salary cap situation in the NFL has some bearing on how these sportspersons portray themselves to the world through the media.

Regardless of the approach, in either sport or culture, to their interactions with the media, many of the highest profile sports personalities still often seem to lack just that quality – personality. Maybe it is foolish to hark back to the past and what things used to be like in the ‘good old days’, but then again is it really too much to ask to see that the sportspeople we look up to and admire are also real people just like us and not merely the pampered multimillionaire robots we have come to expect?