The year so far has been terrible for the reputation of sport. Lance Armstrong confessed (sort of) to Oprah; Europol discovered widespread match-fixing in European football; the Australian Crime Commission dramatically exploded the myth that sport’s problems are all offshore; the AFL fined Melbourne FC for “prejudicial” conduct following allegations of tanking, and the Australian Olympic swimming team described in a report as afflicted by “culturally toxic incidents” involving “getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breaching curfews, deceit, [and] bullying”.
But if sport is currently on the ropes, the section of the media dedicated to informing us about it – sports journalists – are looking more than a little dishevelled. The ABC’s Clarke and Dawe lampooned the discipline last week, with Clarke’s “expert sports journalist”, responding to a “release form” question about silence or incompetence, with the answer: “I just get stuff off the internet and stick it in the paper”.
This comic turn raised an important question – what is sports journalism for? Is it reasonable to describe the sports desk as “the toy department of the news media”? Are its journalists part of the fourth estate or simply a fan club?
Sports journalists, it’s fair to say, do not have elevated reputations among (also much-disparaged) fellow reporters on other rounds. That attitude might stem from professional jealousy of the “nice work if you can get it” kind, and also because sport tends to be patronised as “just” popular culture. Nonetheless, sports journalists have found it hard to shake their unfavourable image as middle-aged men billowing smoke and swilling beer, as star-struck sport wannabes playing at being serious scribes.
This cruel stereotype ought to be outmoded as the demographics of sports journalism change, and better educated younger people move into the game, including more women breaking into the locker room. A university education should raise the bar, replacing tunnel vision and back-slapping with critical and investigative sports journalism.
But David Lowden’s recent piece for The Conversation gave little grounds for optimism of an imminent break with an often-inglorious past. The coordinator of the recently-established Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) at La Trobe University essentially absolved sports journalists of any real blame for their failure to discover cheating in Australian sport. He argued:
Sport journalists might have their suspicions, they might hear whispers from certain quarters that so-and-so is ‘on the gear’ or selling inside information, but it still takes someone to confirm the story and up until now, that someone was more likely to be from law enforcement than sport.
This is a discouraging position for a sports journalism educator to take. Of course, investigative work of this kind is hard, often unrewarding, expensive and even dangerous. News organisations are also increasingly loath, in the context of their well-documented financial woes, to invest in long-running investigations. But the suggestion that sports journalists are at a disadvantage compared to law enforcement authorities and the other journalists interacting with them smacks of a complacency bordering on dereliction of duty.
Are our expectations of sports journalists so lamentably low that we tolerate them waiting around until sports organisations gain newly legislated access to intelligence that they might share?
Not everyone has taken such a passive stance. A quick sweep around the world finds Denmark’s Play the game, Canadian Declan Hill’s The Fix, Ralph Nader’s League of Fans and Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports in the USA, and Andrew Jennings’s Transparency in Sport in the UK. These sites contain many pointers towards a proactive, challenging and investigative brand of sports journalism.
Most of it, though, happens outside the mainstream institutional media, although even the UK’s little-lamented News of the World pulled off an audacious cricket spot-fixing sting using its notorious Fake Sheikh, while its News International stablemate, The Sunday Times’s famous Insight team, uncovered corruption inside FIFA’s World Cup bidding process. Here again, however, sports journalists did not play a leading role – and, once more, it must be demanded, “why not”?
If sporting corruption and malpractice are to be countered, more sports journalists should be sensitised and well equipped to expose it. Australia does have some excellent exponents of the craft, but too many of their number only condemn sport’s failings when others ventilate them, while remaining remarkably oblivious to their own shortcomings and even complicity. Some never go beyond being standing apologists for Australian sport.
A 2011 International Sports Press Survey of 80 newspapers in 22 countries (including Australia, and in which I participated) found that sports journalism remains mainly fixated on results; typically relies on a narrow range of sources, and is still mostly produced by, and is mainly about, men. Coverage of the politics and economics of sport which might illuminate corruption, drug-taking and other problems, such as exploitation and discrimination, is dispiritingly slight.
Australian sports journalism, then, is in good – which is to say, bad – company with its professional peer group around the world. If more sports journalists self-critically cleaned up their own act, they would be doing both sport and society a signal service.