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How cash and culture are shifting the goalposts for sports journalism

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Veteran sports reporter Jim Trotter was doing a live cross for ESPN when the host began describing American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem as “disrespectful to the flag”. Jim had a choice – to let the host’s opinions go unchecked or to report the facts.  

 As sports arenas more frequently become platforms for cultural debate, reporters like Jim have expanded their old beats from player drafts and starting positions to include athlete activism and political commentary. 

From the taking the knee to boycotting the Olympics, it’s become increasingly common for off-field controversies and cultural shifts to make their way onto those hallowed grounds. 

But as the clubs and codes grow richer while many media outlets become poorer, is there now a power imbalance that’s impacting our coverage?

Guests

  • Rebecca Lowe, NBC English Premier League presenter
  • Jim Trotter, reporter at NFL Media
  • Gideon Haigh, cricket writer 

Transcript

Muhammad Ali, boxer
White America right now spending $30 million a day in Asia. Black and white boys are dying unjustly for nothing just to free somebody else. So why should I worry about going into little old jail to free my poor people who’s been catching hell here for 400 years.

Nick Bryant
Sport and politics have long been intertwined.

ABC News report, June 1971
From the moment the Springboks ran from the players race onto the playing arena, the anti-apartheid demonstrators sounded off with charts, firecrackers, abuse, foul language and trill whistles that never let up.

Nick Bryant
But it’s definitely getting harder to tell the difference between the back page and the front.

Donald Trump
When you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “get that son of a bitch off the field right now out! He’s fired! He’s Fired!”

Nick Bryant
Whether it’s the backlash against American football stars taking a knee, or the banning of transgender athletes, culture wars are being contested in the sporting arena.

UK news report
So should transgender women be able to compete against female athletes? Or does it give them an unfair advantage?

Nick Bryant
Pitches have become platforms, athletes have become activists. So is sports journalism still primarily about sport? And as the clubs and codes have become richer, and many media outlets have got poorer, is there now a power imbalance that’s impacting our coverage?

I’m Nick Bryant and this is Journo, a podcast from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalists and Ideas.

Rebecca Lowe
Hi there, I’m Rebecca Lowe, studio host for NBC news coverage of the Premier League. Well look at this we’re delighted to be joined by the hat trick hero of Villa Park Heung-min Son. Sonny thank you so much for giving us your time and talking to us.

Nick Bryant
Rebecca Lowe anchors NBC’s coverage of English Premier League football in America after getting her start as a sports reporter in Britain.

Rebecca Lowe
Let’s turn our attention to something a lot more serious than a managerial sacking and that developments across the world and at Chelsea Football Club. Yesterday afternoon Roman Abramovich, Chelsea owner …

Nick Bryant
She’s never seen such an overlap between football and hard news.

Rebecca Lowe
I’ve been in television, or the media, 20 years this coming October and I can almost put it into halves. I would say the first 10 years, in the UK, for most of it — a little bit when Abramovich arrived at Chelsea things started to change — but on the whole, that first 10 years from around 2002 to to sort of the London Olympics 2012, it was pretty much sport is sport, politics is politics.

I will say the last 10 years, and I’m convinced it’s to do with club ownership, I really think that club ownership of football, namely mainly Premier League clubs, has, for want of a better phrase, turned everybody on around the world. And Abramovich kicked things off, there’s no doubt about that. Then came the City owners. Then came big American owners — less controversial, but something that we wouldn’t have heard of 20 years ago. I mean, when I first started in the industry, it was all on the whole, rich British men who own football clubs. Now it’s hard to find a rich British man to own a football club.

Nick Bryant
I wonder how that sort of changing industry, I mean, it struck me that to become a sports reporter you used to, you know, have a subscription to Roy of the Rovers. Now it seems to be you’ve got to have a subscription to The Economist as well.

Rebecca Lowe
I know I agree. Because if you are a regular football fan to fully understand the club that you’ve chosen to love — take a Newcastle fan here in you know, let’s say Austin, Texas, who’s a huge Newcastle fan for whatever reason — well, they need to understand the ownership situation at Newcastle to have a full grasp of why they love the club they love. Are they okay with still loving this club? You can’t just be blind anymore to these things.

Rebecca Lowe tv report
Last week, the deal finally went through a Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund and two international firms with a presence in England officially completed the takeover for a reported fee of over $400 million.

Rebecca Lowe
The Chelsea ownership situation which then led to what happened with Putin and you’re bringing Russia into your Saturday afternoons at Stamford Bridge, there is no way a Chelsea fan could not know what was going on. There is no excuse. They have to know and it’s coming up on their phone.

Nick Bryant
And it’s not just off the field is it anymore, it’s on the field. I’m thinking of the take the knee protests that that begins every single English Premier League game now that came into effect after the murder of George Floyd in America.

Premier League broadcast
Look at this a powerful image to show football’s social conscience as all of the players take the knee. The referee did as well.

Nick Bryant
We’re seeing the pitch as a kind of platform. And that seems to be more of a trend now as well.

Rebecca Lowe
And I think you know, with that, Nick, it’s a trend. Already, you have some players saying they don’t want to take the knee anymore. So at some point, I mean, everything does move on. But the trend of the platform that you talk about that these athletes have, that’s going nowhere, and that comes to social media. If I know I’m interviewing Raheem Sterling, I pop onto social media and see everything that he stands for everything that he believes it.

Premier League broadcast
It’s Raheem Sterling from point blank range. It’s Liverpool nil, Manchester City one.

Raheem Sterling, footballer
As o
ne person, when I do feel that something’s not quite right, I want to speak about I want to people to see it from my perspective. And I think that’s the best way forward. When more players do speak up, then the better it will be.

Nick Bryant
Rebecca, I wonder how things have changed in terms of how you prep for the match day these days. I mean, it seems to me, you know, with Raheem Sterling, maybe you’ve not only got to see how many goals he’s scored, or how many appearances he’s made, but you know, maybe how many times he’s been the subject of racial abuse, which fans needle him more than others, stuff like that.

Rebecca Lowe
It’s funny, actually, Nick, because in my prep over the last 10 years, I’m a real stickler for prep, I do it the same way in 2022, as I did it in 2013, same sheet of paper. However, what I will tell you the space that I need to keep up with all the different things these players are doing, or things that are happening to them, or things that have happened, is getting longer. And I have noticed I’ve been turning my sheet of paper over. I have to basically spend between two and three hours a day listening to sports radio. If I haven’t listened to Talk Sport for 12 hours, I get slightly panicky. And if I don’t keep that up daily, I’m behind by Friday and Saturday, on not just who’s going where, who’s scored these goals, who’s annoyed that he’s not in the starting lineup. But, like you say, on who’s been abused on social media, who’s come out and said something on social media, whose agent has criticised the club ownership. But you know, there’s so many things that can happen in a week that my prep, I would say, has increased over the years, to the point to which now there’s no beginning and there’s no end to it.

Nick Bryant
Thinking about your 20 years in sports coverage, it seems to me that we have lost control of the narrative. Maybe when you started, you thought you were probably a bit of a gatekeeper when it came to sports news. I guess now there are no gates. Sports people don’t need us to tell their stories. They can appeal directly to their fan base and their audience base themselves.

Rebecca Lowe
There is always going to be a space between the footballer/celebrity and the consumer, which needs context. And it needs questioning, because not everything that these athletes say and do is perfect. And sometimes they’re not always setting a great example and I believe that we still need the journalists and the people like us in the middle to put everything into context. We’re not there yet where the linear network is completely gone and there is just nothing between the YouTubes and the Twitters and the consumer.

Nick Bryant
One noticeable change is how live sports coverage has become as much a part of the news industry as it is a part of the entertainment industry. And that’s led to a much more journalistically rigorous approach from sports anchors.

Rebecca Lowe
Absolutely. I remember when I was at the BBC all those years ago, and I was reading the sports news on BBC News 24, as is it used to be there. And one of the bosses or the boss of News 24 asked me for a meeting and said, “We would like to try you on the news.” Now, as you know, my dad read the news. So I grew up watching my dad as a news reader on the BBC. So half of me was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so lovely. I’m just like my dad”, and the other half of me was like, “absolutely no way! This is 100 per cent not my bag. No chance. Thanks for the offer. Goodbye.”

My dad was devastated. But it’s funny because now look at me now here I am on a Saturday morning. “Welcome. Oh, let’s talk about China. Let’s talk about Putin. Let’s talk about Saudi Arabia. And I’m like, oh, goodness, I should have done those nine News 24 night shifts.”

It’s, yeah, it’s not really what we signed up for. But it’s still so beautiful when it’s away from all that stuff we have to deal with. It’s still such a beautiful product that we have. I’ll take all that tough stuff, to still be able to talk about the thing that I love.

Nick Bryant
And I wonder whether you know, nowadays, whether the kind of sport enthusiast who used to kind of dominate sports coverage is now being displaced to a certain extent by, you know, somebody who’s perhaps not quite so interested and passionate about the sport, but kind of knows all the geopolitics around it and all the cultural stuff around it.

Rebecca Lowe
I think that’s a really good point. I think that there are certain people in the football world that I began with nearly 20 years ago who were encyclopedic about football, but you wouldn’t want them on a talk about ownership situations or allegations of human rights issues. You just wouldn’t. And so I have a actually seen actually that evolve. I have seen those journalists have had to change and therefore the face of the coverage is changing. I’m not sure there is a place anymore for the anorak. You have to be an anorak in everything. Lots of anoraks, you have to wear.

NFL commentators
Here’s the problem with Kaepernick, when you put yourself in a position to criticise and disrespect, which is exactly what he did the national anthem and your flag on 9/11, on that day, then you better have a pretty damn good reason why you’re doing it.

So all these NFL players, coaches, owners, the ones that are kneeling because of apparent social injustice, or to protest the President himself, or to raise awareness for whatever other leftist issues they may be promoting? Well I’d make the argument they’re completely uninformed.

Nick Bryant
The American football star Colin Kaepernick started protesting against police brutality in 2016. First by sitting during the playing of the national anthem, then by taking a knee.

Colin Kaepernick, NFL player
I mean, ultimately is to bring awareness and make people know realise what’s really going on in this country, there are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change.

Nick Bryant
At the beginning of the controversy, African American sports reporter Jim Trotter was live on air with ESPN and heard a white presenter talking of this Black Lives Matter protest in a negative light.

Jim Trotter
So, before the game, I’m doing a hit for Sports Centre, and anchor back in Connecticut comes on and he’s setting the scene. And at that time, he’s framing it in such a way that the connotation is that Colin is being disrespectful to the military, because it’s military appreciation night, or that he’s being disrespectful to the flag. You know, all of these things that these negative connotations, and as I’m listening to him, in my mind, I’m saying this is a flashpoint for me, because I can either try and correct him. Or I can just let him say what he’s saying, and just play along with it. And in my mind, I said, you know what, I’ve got, I’ve got to correct him, I’ve got to reframe it. And you do it in a professional way, you know, because sometimes, if you have not lived that experience, you don’t understand exactly why Colin is doing what he was doing, or what it might mean to black people in terms of the demonstration that he’s making. And so I just tried to reframe the conversation, when I came on air about why Colin was kneeling, what he was hoping to accomplish, and sort of keep people focused on that, as opposed to this noise that was out there. And that, you know, it was all these things that the demonstration actually was not.

Nick Bryant
I wonder what the reaction was of your bosses and what the reaction was of your audience.

Jim Trotter
You know, I really don’t know I never asked and no one said anything to me. And to be quite frank with you, I didn’t care. You know, the one thing you start to understand, the longer you’re in this business is the power of the media. You understand it when you come in, but the longer you do it, and the higher you climb in the profession, you realise that the power of that platform that you’re on. And also it wasn’t just doing what was right. It was doing what was journalistically correct in terms of accurately reflecting what was taking place and why Colin was doing what he was doing, as opposed to reading into it, maybe all of my personal opinions or, you know, like some people had out there, as opposed to really understanding what’s taking place here and reporting on that.

Nick Bryant
And I think that episode would have underscored the importance of of diversity in newsrooms, in sports coverage. You are an African American man, you bring that lifetime to your job, you bring that perspective to your job. And sometimes it’s a perspective that isn’t heard because that voice isn’t present.

Jim Trotter
Yeah, you know, I teach a sports journalism class at San Diego State University. And one of the thing I tell the students is, there is no such thing as objectivity. You know, we always hear about this journalists have to be objective. Nobody’s objective, we all bring our life experiences to the job, and to whatever it is that we do. What we hope to be, as journalists is fair and balanced. So of course, I’m going to bring my life experiences as a black man in America to a situation where we have a player who is demonstrating against black people and people of colour being oppressed by law enforcement. If you have lived through that, and I know enough people who have and I’ve had my own experiences, then that is going to colour what you do and how you approach it. So absolutely I always try and make that point to young people, there is no such thing as objectivity. You know, and if you understand that going in, then you’re better able to deal with it and deal with the stories that you’re covering.

Nick Bryant
Jim, I wonder whether you’re telling your students that they’re not just about to be a sports reporter, but they’re going to be a culture wars reporter, as well? And they’re going to have to be ready for that.

Jim Trotter
You know, what I tell them is that the again, the world has changed, journalism has changed. When I came out, you were either print reporter, a TV reporter, or radio reporter. And there was very little overlap. And now you’ve got to be all three, as well as able to do podcast as, as well as being able to do blogs, all these sorts of things. So versatility is critical. In terms of today’s journalistic world, I tell the story of when I was in college, and 75 per cent of our coursework was outside of the School of Communications. And I remember we were taking we had to take chemistry, and we had to take anatomy and physiology. And we had to take economics, you know, and we had to, you know, do all these things. And I said, “Why do I have to take chemistry, anatomy and physiology economics, I’m writing on sports I’m writing about football, baseball?” And what you find out is, when a player fails a drug test, what does that involve? It involves chemistry. When a player tears a knee ligament, what does that involve? It involves anatomy and physiology, when we talk about the salary cap and contracts and those sorts of things. What does that involve? It involves money, which means it involves economics. So all of those courses that you think didn’t matter, or you’re questioning why you took them will all come into play at some point. In terms of what you cover.

Nick Bryant
Jim, sometimes it seems almost like the sport becomes incidental in modern day America.

Audio from sports press conference with Steve Kerr
We’re going to start the same way tonight. Any basketball questions don’t matter.

Nick Bryant
A classic case of that came after the Uvalde school shooting in Texas, where Steve Kerr, who is the coach of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, appeared before the press and basically said, I’m not going to be talking about basketball today.

Steve Kerr
Since we left you, around 14 children were killed 400 miles from here. And a teacher. And in the last 10 days we’ve had elderly black people killed in a supermarket in Buffalo. We’ve had Asian churchgoers killed in Southern California, and now we have children murdered at school. When are we going to do something?

Nick Bryant
It’s almost as if the sport had been taken out of sports coverage.

Jim Trotter
Well the beauty of what he did for me was he didn’t just lament what had happened, and make an emotional rant. He also provided solutions to this. And he talked about two Bills that were sitting in Congress that would address this issue. I couldn’t have been more proud or happy with what Steve did. And I thought he was spot on. That was not a time to talk about basketball as much as some people might have wanted. We just had a bunch of little kids shot down in their school. And that takes precedence over sport.

Nick Bryant
Jim I’m fascinated about the polarisation of news coverage. In America, as you know, you can sort of cross the battle lines of the United States right now from your sofa with a remote control, just by flicking between Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. I wonder given how everything’s politicised in the States, are we going to see a same thing in sports coverage? Where you are going to have channels that are more sympathetic to the take the knee protests and channels which pander to the audience in America which rejects that?

Jim Trotter
It’s a great question. The answer is I don’t know. It was fascinating and see how networks’ broadcast partners handled, you know, the player demonstrations, there was a lot of conversation between the league, the NFL and his broadcast partners in terms of what was going to be done or how it was going to be covered. So, it gets back to your original point about diversity at the top of newsrooms, and even broadcast networks. You know, I think the more diversified you are, the more open minded you are to change and to seeing the world differently than maybe how it’s been broadcast before. And you know, one of the things that frustrates me right now you’re going where I worked at NFL media and NFL Network, and we are on and operated by the National Football League, and we don’t have one black editor on the news desk. We don’t have one black in senior management in the newsroom. And these are people who are making decisions on how these players and coaches and how the league is covered. I find that to be a problem. Because that tells me we can’t be the best that we can be if we don’t have voices, diverse voices at the table when these decisions are being made.

Audio from press conference
If it means boycotting your Olympic Games, again our mean, if it means boycotting the New York Athletic Club because they discriminate against negros, they’re liars, they do discriminate you can barely get in the front door.

Gideon Haigh
I want to remind people that there never was a period when sport was absent of political dimension. You know, it gained its first flush of popularity by serving Imperial ends. You know, let’s not forget that sport was plenty political in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, you know, during the Cold War During the US Civil Rights Movement. In some respects, sports role in Black Lives Matter is pretty mild by comparison with with earlier campaigns, you know, Ali gave up for peak years of boxing by refusing the draft for Vietnam, and he was the most hated man in America.

Nick Bryant
Gideon Haigh is widely regarded as the finest cricket writer in the world. But his writing and thinking extends way beyond the boundary.

Gideon Haigh
What people fail to realise, I think, sometimes is that sports is often at its most political, when it’s avowedly least, that’s in the tilt of sport towards serving the needs of capital, the idea that nothing must be able to impede the making of a dollar. That’s an ideological position. The injunction to keep politics out of sport is itself political. I think people need constant reminders of that.

Nick Bryant
Gideon, one of the themes that has emerged from this episode so far is that sports reporters really need to be polymaths. Now, you just have to look at your canon of books. You’ve written brilliantly about cricket, I would strongly recommend anybody reads your book on Shane Warne, but you’ve also written corporate history, as you’ve written about some fairly obscure figures in Australian history, certainly, to people outside of Australia. You have always had that hinterland, and in some ways, it seems to me, for sports journalism, this is almost their sort of come to Gideon moment. You’ve been doing this for years.

Gideon Haigh
I don’t know about that. To this day. I’ve never worked in the sports section of a newspaper. When I became a cadet journalist in 1984, I was sent to the business section as my first posting, I never got out, I got involved in writing about cricket when I was working as a business journalist in London in the early 90s. And I just thought, well, I’ll have a go. When I got back to Australia in the early 90s I decided to write a book about carry packers will series cricket because it was an important part of my childhood. But it was also the first place where kind of sport and commerce collided in a big way in Australia. And I could see a lot of the contemporary arguments that we were having in sport kind of leading back to the dilemmas that World Series cricket explored.

Nick Bryant
You’ve spoken about a discrepancy, especially during the 21st century about the financial rise of sport and the financial decline of journalism and how this has created a shift in the power dynamic between the two, to the detriment of sports journalism.

Gideon Haigh
People always talk about the golden age of sports journalism, I never actually saw it. I think I arrived on the scene a bit too late, and I was too much of an outsider to partake of its epic grandeur. Clearly, the collapse of the media funding model in daily journalism has been disadvantageous to us. We’ve become I think, more like voyeurs than observers. We’re kind of looking over the back fence at sport these days. The biggest distinction in sport these days, it’s between rights-holders and non-rights-holders at sports events. You know, the rights-holders are electronic, television, they have greater access, they have greater privileges. They have greater prestige. They’re populated by distinguished ex-players. They have an interesting relationship to controversy, which they welcome as a kind of a fodder for ratings but they have to handle it in such a way as to not to compromise the sporting assets for which so much money has been paid. They are publicists of the sport as well as reporting on it. As a member of the print media. I’m a non-rights holder. We attend matches in the same capacity as say, movie critics or theatre critics or book reviewers. You know, we get a look, gratis, but we get no more. Our access to the participants is highly regulated, if not completely sterilised, and it can be cut off altogether if people are so moved. And for those kinds of journalists these days, there are I think there are other seductions. There are plenty of sycophants out there who are prepared to act as extensions of an athlete’s marketing or management in order to be considered kind of players. You know, the journalist’s brand, harnessing social media and building on various side hustles. It’s not confined to sport, but it’s spreading fast.

Nick Bryant
One of the things that we’ve seen in recent times is the big sporting franchises and the big sporting codes actually becoming media entities in the own right, running sophisticated social media operations running TV stations, Manchester, United TV, Chelsea TV, cricket TV, again, that’s reinforcing this power imbalance between us and them.

Gideon Haigh
Well, it’s more competition for us, that’s for sure. In some respects, you know, they’ve gone head-to-head into competition with us, which creates an uneasy relation between us and those journalists who have been engorged by that that system. I think it’s also created a role for us as a kind of a countervailing influence. I’m not sure, even now that fans are completely credulous of what they see through those official channels. It has created some awareness of the fact that a lot of the communication that you get these days is official, and partisan and extensively managed. And sports consumers are actually pretty well informed. I think they’re much better informed than consumers of political journalism. We don’t read political journalism because we’re fanatical about politics, or maybe a very, very small proportion of people who read about politics are fascinated by it. But in sport, people are very well informed, very critical, very quick to sense disingenuousness very, very, very quick to know when they’re being managed. And I think that goes back a long way.

Nick Bryant
G
ideon, you’re sat in Melbourne, that is the home of Aussie Rules, football and the AFL, the governing body, as I understand it, actually has a newsroom.

Gideon Haigh
I’ve been in there, it’s, it’s fantastic. It’s exactly the way that a newsroom should be. Now it’s busy and bustling and active and engaged. And it’s beholden to the power of a clique. Generating traffic is that is the priority of that of that website. It’s possessed of a belief that people aren’t really interested in the minutiae of sports management, but they’re very, very fascinated by the fortunes of their own team, who might be available this weekend, who’s playing well and who’s playing badly. Sport creates a natural kind of cycle of, of weekly events that that rise and fall to go in and out of the public’s interest. Some ways, it’s very, very pure and simple form of journalism, much more readily accommodated than the kind of institutional forms that you and I are familiar with.

Nick Bryant
So how do the traditional journalists how to the traditional journalists who often bring a certain degree of cynicism, and an appetite for controversy? How do we compete with that?

Gideon Haigh
It’s good question. Actually, I went to the funeral of one of my distinguished colleagues. Last week, Ron Reed, who was a veteran 50 year veteran of sports journalism. It seemed like every single sports journalist in Melbourne was, was there. And that really, that was the that was what the conversation turned to. People were contemplating just how different a career Ron had, compared to the careers that are awaiting young people today. They’ve got to be a great deal more versatile than they used to be. So I think that that creates a pressure for us to do what’s not being done elsewhere, and to take advantage of the fact that we are independent. If anything, I’m drifting ever further away from the mainstream of sports journalism. What other people are doing doesn’t really interest me I’m interested in playing my own furlough.

Nick Bryant
Politics in the 21st century has become more about feelings, passions, tribalism, and nationalism. And sport has always been about feelings, passions, tribalism, and nationalism. And those political and societal trends seem to be accelerating, rather than going into reverse. And the thing about the culture wars, is that its warriors, and conscripts are always looking for new fields of battle. Sport provides them in spades. Just look at the debate right now over transgender athletes. “Hold the front page” has long been a catchphrase of our industry. “Hold the back page” is becoming a modern-day cry.

Jim, what do you say to people who watch your shows? Who read your work and say, I’m just here for the sport? I don’t want politics I have that 24/7. I just want a Saturday afternoon, or a Monday night where I can watch football or watch baseball or watch basketball without the outside world intruding. What do you say to them?

Jim Trotter
I say the same thing. I don’t want it either. So let’s stop killing black people in the street.

Nick Bryant
Journo is produced by Deadset Studios for the Judith Neilson Institute, which supports quality journalism and storytelling around the world. You can find out more about the Institute’s programs and events at jninstitute.org.

Make sure you follow the podcast on your podcasting app so you’re alerted each time we release a new episode.

Our executive producer is Rachel Fountain, our producers are Grace Pashley, and Britta Jorgenson. Sound design is by Krissy Miltiadou. Our managing editor is Kellie Riordan and our commissioning editor is Andrea Ho at the Judith Neilson Institute. And I’m Nick Bryant.